Environmental Force:
On Abstraction and the Nature of Survival

Letitia Pratt • Mar. 27, 2024

“Environmental Force” (2005), Kendal Hanna, 47″ x 35″. Part of the National Collection.
Between the years of 2004 and 2005, The Bahamas was hit by three devastating hurricanes: the subsequent destructions of the twin storms Frances and Jeanne in late 2004, and then almost a year later, Hurricane Wilma in 2005. These three storms left a trail of water-logged communities in Grand Bahama, forcing the residents to confront the horrors of climate change at their doorstep. Suffice to say, the traumas that Bahamians have collectively endured for decades have developed into a culture of fear of hurricanes and its season; just like any other small nation across the Caribbean, we are acutely aware of our positionality within the fight against climate degradation with each passing storm. We do not have the luxury of pretending it is not real. It affects every season with a looming sense of dread.
 
In 2022, current Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley argued as much at the COP27 Conference, an international climate change summit held that year in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. In a speech lambasting industrial nations for the damage done to the climate, Mottley asserted that developing nations are the ones that bear the brunt of the damage to the climate in the form of extreme weather.1 This sentiment was also repeated by our own Prime Minister, Philip “Brave” Davis, who prompted world leaders to take responsibility for the imperialism that escalated the crisis and to find real ways to solve the issue.2 Both leaders articulated the current ethos of their nations – a state of survival against the climate crisis, and in a very real way, a complete state of fear against the incomprehensible horror of losing our islands completely. For the past few decades, there have been many studies that assert that The Bahamas is one of the most vulnerable nations because of our low elevation and limestone makeup3, putting us at the most danger to lose lands to the rising sea levels and the monstrous winds of a hurricane.
 
 These fears were renewed with the passing of Dorian, the monstrosity of a storm that devastated Grand Bahama once again, forcing residents of that island to endure the trauma of living through a storm. This fear has permeated the Bahamian way of life: every rainy season we are reminded by the flooded roads that we are working against time, and with each crash of thunder some Bahamians still suffer through the intense memories that post-traumatic stress brings to the surface of the mind. The awareness of our new ecological reality not only brings to the forefront the fears that we live through daily but places us in a state of unease within a home we know is one tragedy away from disappearing underwater, forever.
 
This is a much different version of the islands that we see in the picturesque. In many ways, this unease has permeated the ethos of the artistic community, as more artists began to question the constructed comforts that are implied by false paradise. In 2006, the National Exhibition 3 (NE3) tapped into this idea, focusing on the abstract art prevalent within the Bahamian community at the time. Krista Thompson PhD, the show’s curator, argued that Bahamian artists in this NE “visualize[d] the ugly or untoward aspects of Bahamian society in their subject matter and employ[s] methods that radically disrupt earlier ways of visualizing the islands.”4 This counter-narrative lends itself easiest to abstraction, which in its very rendering disrupts a linear and straightforward form. In many ways, the abstract is a way for people to articulate their complicated existence and is a tool that is often used to communicate the fears that reverberate through Caribbean society. These contemplations often require visual language that is ugly, disjointed, or unclear – because the very feeling of survival under imperialism is steeped in this ugliness.
 
 This philosophy disrupts earlier ideas of abstraction that argue that the ‘pure’ version of the form is only concerned with the universality of color and shape and is disinterested in dealing with identity politics. With NE3, Thompson argued the intrinsic connection between abstraction and the articulation of counternarratives of Caribbean identity. On the prevalence of these themes within Black abstraction throughout the diaspora, Kobena Mercer states that “the universal relevance of the themes of loss, separation and survival that feature in [Black diasporic] work can be understood to flow from the specificity of diaspora subjectivities [and] have been historically shaped by collective experiences of trauma and catastrophe’5. So, when the NE3 prompted participating artists to articulate what Bahamianness means to them – as most NE’s do – what emerged were works that used the disjointed nature of abstraction to articulate their complicated feelings of survival.
 
Of the most successful pieces within the show was Kendal Hanna’s “Environmental Force,” (2005) a swirling mass that resembles both an aerial view of a hurricane and the wind-induced chaos that one sees during a storm. In the piece, environments overlap in energetic combustion: the blue of the sea, the white of the clouds, the green of the trees all bounce around and move through each other within the frame. One can argue that the piece materialized as a direct response to Frances, Jeanne, and Wilma; almost certainly Hanna would have seen the destruction that the three hurricanes enacted on Grand Bahama and felt the outcry of fellow Bahamians that experienced the tragedy. “Environmental Force” is an attempt to work through the feelings he was witnessing because of this experience – it is an uprooted maelstrom, an overwhelming conglomeration of emotion. For many Bahamians, these emotions emerged because of their displacement because of the storm, an ungrounding that is quite literally reflected within the composition, as there is no “ground” in the painting per se, only the confusing swirl of wind and sea.
When you put this painting in context of The Nation/The Imaginary, a survey exhibition that outlines the history of nation-building within the Bahamian art community, the argument of “Environmental Force” deepens as it juxtaposes nationalist ideas of paradise and ultimately reflects the uneasiness of a people that is forced to contend with the horrors of their new ecological reality. Upon first glance, the painting itself seems a deconstruction of the Bahamian flag, in which the prevalent blue, gold, and black all fail to sit within rigid outlines, which can be read as a metaphor for the failure of nationalism –  Mercer argues that most “socially-engaged abstraction open[s] up an important alternative to the politics of identity and representation”6; and with this painting, Hanna moves beyond talking about Bahamianness, but reveals the clash of emotions that emerge from experiencing the failure of our government in taking care of our people in the wake of tragedy.
 
It is this failure that abstraction is interested in. In Poetics of Relation, Edouard Glissant argues7 the failure of plain language to articulate the nuance of the Caribbean experience, ultimately arguing that poetry – the abstract – is the only tool that can hold the incomprehensibility of multiple histories of survival. “This is why we stay with poetry,” he writes after outlining the difficulty of holding the history of the slave trade in the mind. In The Nation/The Imaginary, there are about 50 literary works and 20 songs that have been paired with the artworks of the collection; connecting mediums to highlight the Bahamian artist’s quest to give voice to their nuanced experience. Paired with “Environmental Force” are two pieces that give a sound to the emotional chaos of living through a storm; the abstraction of language and sound found within these pieces solidifies Hanna’s incomprehensibility and the impossibility of depicting a Bahamian landscape without the turmoil of a rolling cloud.
 
The first piece to be paired with “Environmental Force” is Storm Song – a jazz song performed by Hashaun, Ronald Campbell, and Gardner Stewart. On first listen, the smooth sound of the piece might trick your ear in believing the emotions behind the piece is calm, but building crescendo and the crashing thrust of the drums reflect feelings of unease – like a quick heartbeat and the swell of panic as you watch the rainwater rise at your door. This sound is much different than the advertised calypso beat that is thought to be the soundtrack of Bahamian daily life; its jazzy tune upturns the often-lighthearted tone of that genre, providing the sound of seriousness and melancholy to the experience of typical resident of an island in danger of losing their land to a storm.
 
Many American abstract expressionists were often also inspired by jazz, reflecting its free form in their own compositions. The ethos of the two movements highly depended on the improvision that emerges upon the reflection of one’s own emotion. Although Kendal Hanna was certainly not inspired by the 2018 jazz number, the emotional thrust behind both pieces mirror each other:  the abstracted chaos prevalent within “Environmental Force” is meant to prompt the viewer to reflect on their own unease within the landscape, much like the quick, jumpy swell of drums within Storm Song.
 
Glissant’s argument that poetic abstraction is one of the primary ways Caribbean people articulate complicated traumas is also seen in Yasmin Glinton’s An Olive Branch.Written in the wake of 2019’s Dorian, the poetry collection is a painful reflection of the horrors endured by Glinton’s family during and after the storm’s passing. Also paired with “Environmental Force” in The Nation/The Imaginary, this poetry gives voice to the painting’s visualized unease. The book opens with the articulation of the Bahamas’ climate vulnerability that we are all acutely aware of:
In 16 years,
after the last glacier
has melted sea levels will
rise to claim the ground
you stand upon
The poem’s voice is assured in its tone; its finality marking a sense of dread to the reader and reflecting the fear the Bahamian people feel during and after a hurricane. What follows is a deconstructed, chaotic narrative that highlights the sadness of the narrator as they recount the loss of their family and home. Like Hanna’s painting, An Olive Branch upturns a straightforward form to reflect the chaos of emotion that is being indicated by its words: “all my baby pictures are casualties now”9, says the narrator in the middle chapter, To Unhome Yourself, with heartbreaking resonance.
Glissant’s argument for poetry and abstraction as one of the primary means to articulate great traumas is brilliantly reflected within An Olive Branch. Like many abstract expressionists, poetry became a guiding force in their creative practice, in which the staccato of the brushstroke reflects the break of the poetic line. Although the origins of movement were specifically inspired by the 1950’s beat poetry – a largely surrealistic subgenre that was also influenced by jazz – Hanna’s “Environmental Force” does reflect the same chaos of the broken line and the morose tone that persists in the narrative of the poetic verse.
A piece like Environmental Force will always be relevant to the Bahamian experience: its ungrounded, chaotic voice resonates to the average Bahamian, even in 2024. The piece is honest with the fear it feels, and its ethos of upturning form to reflect the unease this fear creates reverberates through many other forms of abstraction within Bahamian art. These reverberations not only speak to each other – they reflect the psyche of a people enmeshed in the emotional turmoil of survival.
[1] Greenfield, Patrick et al. (2022)“Barbados PM launches blistering attack on rich nations at Cop27 climate talks.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/nov/07/barbados-pm-mia-mottley-launches-blistering-attack-on-rich-nations-at-cop27-climate-talks  
[2] The Office of the Prime Minister of the Bahamas. (2022) Let’s Get Real! – Prime Minister Philip Davis addresses the World Leaders Summit at #COP27 [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2IwD-98S-M 
[3] Gerhardt, Christina. (2023) “Why rising sea levels pose existential threat to the Bahamas – extract.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/may/22/why-rising-sea-levels-pose-existential-threat-to-the-bahamas-extract-christina-gerhardt#:~:text=According%20to%20a%20report%20on,metres%20%5B1.64%20ft%5D%E2%80%9D
[4] Thompson, Krista. (2006). “Visualizing the Unseen: The Counter-Picturesque in Contemporary Bahamian Art.” Third National Exhibition Catalogue. The National Art Gallery of the Bahamas: Nassau, Bahamas.   
[5] Mercer, Kobena. (2006) “Black Atlantic Abstraction: Aubrey Williams and Frank Bowling.” Discrepant Abstraction.  The MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts. 
[6] ibid. 
[7] Glissant, Edouard. (1997) “The Open Boat.” Poetics of Relation. University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor.  
[8] Glinton, Yasmin. (2020) An Olive Branch. 45 Drafts Press: Nassau, Bahamas.  
[9] ibid.