Creating Thinking Spaces: Opportunity to think, opportunity to build, opportunity to grow.

By Dr. Ian Bethell-Bennett

The University of The Bahamas and the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas have created an open space for group discussion that allows students to benefit from the offering of both spaces.  This relationship allows culture to truly be highlighted.  As much as we talk about culture, we often disconnect our experiences from talk. These lectures are designed to promote thought and unshackle minds blinkered by a dysfunctional system designed to create workers without a sense of self, or an identity that can transcend the 9 to 5 and the 21 by seven of the mundane.

The talks blend history, art, culture, sociology, architecture and create a dialogue to facilitate learning beyond the classroom.  The Gallery and the University here work together to expose students to many different thought processes and realities, provoking thinking and thoughtful creativity.  It is significant that the talks take place in the space of art where so much of the discussion is concurrently witnessed by the works on the walls and by the building itself.

Last week students walked through Edrin Symonette’s installation “Residues of a Colonial Past” now housed in the Project Space Room and others left at the end of the talk to wander around the recent re-hanging of the Permanent Exhibition framed by Dr. Krista Thompson’s “An Eye for the Tropics,” which focuses on the ways the islands and their islanders are represented by renderings of visitors, tourists, residents, that typecast and stereotype.  The displays of old, hand-painted/drawn postcards are a salient part of art, history and art history that serve to inform so many discussions of our past, present and future.

‘No Abstract Art Here’ (2006). Part of the ‘Real Bahamian Art Series’ by Dionne Benjamin-Smith. On display at the NAGB as part of the new Permanent Exhibition ‘Revisiting An Eye For The Tropics’. From the Dawn Davies Collection.

The inclusion of distinct experiences and approaches to art and design is important when being asked to design to meet the needs of the next half century.  With that, however, students need to understand the history of architecture and design in the islands; why, for example, houses had swing-out, louvered shutters on windows and doors that provided shade and protection.  In the case of a storm, any inhabitant could simply close the shutters against the storm, and they were reusable, non-damaging to walls, and lasted decades. This is an example of cultural sustainability and learning from the past.  Awareness of the past commixes with the importance of moving beyond the now, mentally, imaginatively and physically, though innovation is obvious when we understand that we are a Small Island Developing State (SIDS) threatened by rising sea levels, extreme weather and changing patterns.

A great deal of focus has been given to Expo 2020 in Dubai and The Bahamas’ role in the event.  Students have been working through and creating designs to be selected as finalists by the committee in Dubai ahead of the Expo.  Students, faculty and other partners such as Ambassador Tony Joudi, Michael Diggis Associates, the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have come together to ensure the success of the project. Students build a chair out of one piece of cardboard and are challenged to work with light and dark, black and white to think beyond the limitations of colour into the potential for the future based on understanding the past.  They create art that is not constricted by ideas of what Bahamian art should look like, as Dionne Benjamin-Smith’s work in the Permanent Exhibition articulates.

The talks address the built environment and work to elucidate the overlaps and synergies that have often been eclipsed by scarce focus being paid to all of these areas of Bahamian culture.  Speakers have been as diverse as Dionne Benjamin-Smith and Patrick Rahming.  The discussions serve as a way to reignite cultural awareness through dialogue with artists, writers and other creative practitioners.  This term’s events have led to an interesting combination of art classes and classes on Bahamian culture, that has allowed the interstitial nature of art, culture and everyday life to reveal itself.

Pat Rahming raised significant awareness of this through his talk on the built environment and Bahamian culture.  A man of many talents, Rahming read his poetry, discussed his work as a designer and the disconnection between what we espouse as a body politic and what we do, our institutions and our lack of support for them, as well as his experiences in life that have created him and served in his cultural development.

‘Real Bahamian Art Series’ (2006), Dionne Benjamin-Smith, digital print on paper, 24 x 36 (4). Installation shot as seen in the NAGB Permanent Exhibition ‘Revisiting An Eye For the Tropics’. Part of the Dawn Davies Collection.

Rahming’s insight on the part of the artist/creative practitioner to speak to the future, to create the vision, encourage a visioning unfettered by international and non-culturally appropriate influences that serve only to change us into a bad copy rather than a stunning original.  For example, building on the ground without elevation, rather than building the foundation up to allow for flooding.  In the past, houses were kept cooler by allowing air to circulate under them.  Today, materials are different, but houses should still be elevated so that they do not flood, as we see whenever the rains conflate to work against the built environment.

Rahming challenged students to think about things differently; to not be bound by artificial lines of demarcation created to empower parties but disempower national development.  His insights were surgically concise and well delivered.  His presentation fits in well with the thrust to rethink the way we develop ourselves and our country.  His insights work with the opportunity to promote change and transformation on the table now with Expo 2020; the World’s Fair offers the nation a year on the world stage and the chance to rethink all the poor design and implementation we have simply not used, such as The National Development Plan of New Providence Island and the city of Nassau, developed by Columbia University Institute of Urban Environment and Division of Planning in 1968, EDAW’s Nassau Harbour and Bay Street Renaissance Programme, (EDAW is now AECOM) to Jackson Burnside’s study and plan for Historic Nassau. Many plans have fallen victim, or better stated been devoured by political ‘pastfulness’.

In the 1990s, Pat Rahming worked along with Jackson Burnside to design waterfront possibilities for Nassau, yet these have never been implemented.  As art and design need to be coupled, we now need to uncouple ourselves from the lack of political will to truly develop a vibrant city centre.

The Nassau Urban Lab Report does a great job of bringing things together and offering excellent recommendations for revitalising Nassau and rebuilding Over-the-Hill.  However, does it go far enough in its cultural consideration?  Will anything come of this plan and can it or will it work with the National Development Plan to truly move us forward? What we in fact need is planning that jettisons us into the next half of the 21st-Century.  The 20th-Century is over and gone, yet our thinking seems to be steadfastly stuck somewhere back there.  The opportunities afforded us at this time are tremendous, let us try not to squander them as we have with so many others.

Installation shot of Edrin Symonette’s “Residues of a Colonial Past”. On view in the Project Space at the NAGB.

Opportunity to think, opportunity to build, opportunity to grow.

By creating opportunities through education and cultural awareness, as the talks at NAGB do, we are not washing away money.  The UB/NAGB talks build our capacity for the future.  They allow the students to engage with history, creative thinking and problem solving, national requirements for success, especially in a small island developing state seemingly unable to recover from one hurricane before another hits. Hurricanes are not a fluke.

We often hear of our bounty compared to Cuba, yet a great success has occurred there.  Cuban culture thrives, not because of limitations but despite them.  We have been spoilt into thinking that we can produce like Cuba, but we have also been taught that to create we must tow the government line.  In Cuba, art and culture often develop despite government controls.  The only way Cuban artists can thrive as they do is because of their incredible creativity, their massive ingenuity and their amazing dexterity and resourcefulness.  Bahamians have been taught that tourism will provide all that we need.

We do not expect tourists to come and see what we have to offer.  Instead, we create artificial places and destinations for tourists to come and stay outside of the nature and culture of The Bahamas, using the country as a backdrop.  We do not build rooms to support our geographical wealth and natural gifts.  We are unique in the Caribbean, and frankly, in the world, yet we choose to criticise our youth for imitating too much American ethos, yet we tell them that this is what tourists want.  We insist that young people not critique or challenge authority; they must learn how to fall in line, and then we criticize them for not being capable of critical thought or for under producing in less than ideal conditions.

Installation shot of Edrin Symonette’s “Residues of a Colonial Past”. On view in the Project Space at the NAGB.

Expo 2020, the work of Creative Nassau, the thinking and implementation of creative practitioners like Pat Rahming, art students from underfunded arts programmes, and the designers and artists who work tirelessly behind the scenes and study to inform their practice understand the importance of decoupling from the government to succeed.  Expo 2020 provides a formidable opportunity to prosper through design, connectivity, mobility, opportunity, and sustainability.

Sustainable Nassau is another feeder opportunity that can create a vibrant Nassau.  However, we must remember that the Bahamas is larger than Nassau city, we have a unique culture and environment that must be protected not because it is to be fossilised, but because the country is fragile and as long as we live here we are constantly threatened by natural and unnatural disasters.

Works of art attest to this, they also attest to the amazing creativity resident in the country.  However, we must delink learning from the government.  The government does not design for the future; if it has its way, it would rather reside in the past because politics lives in the past.

The University of The Bahamas can take the current opportunity to become a place where design happens, not a programme that is loosely managed, a place where government is informed of what the future holds by the thinkers and creative actors, the students.  NAGB/UB talks, Expo 2020, the potential to partner with BAMSI and the confluence of other events and programmes serve to move the country forward into the next millennium.