By Natalie Willis.
Works dealing with the divine, with Christianity, with the spiritual, are very much rooted in what we consider to be part of our representation of Bahamianness. In looking to the work of Dionne Benjamin-Smith, an artist and graphic designer known for her pithy and no-holds-barred practice – and very informative and inclusive newsletter designed and created by herself and her partner – we can see a proudly proclaimed Bahamian woman who identifies with her Christianity taking acute aim at problems with the way we view religion in our country.
Originally shown in an exhibition at Popopstudios in 2003 called ‘24 x 24’ and including a contingent of Bahamian artists who attended the Rhode Island School of Design, “bishops, bishops everywhere and not a drop to drink” (2003) was accessed by the 2003 Collection Fund at the NAGB. Both ‘bishops, bishops …’(2003) and ‘Built on Sand’ (2003), while they can indeed exist on their own, generate a stronger message when paired together. Context is, after all, incredibly important to the way we read and understand artworks, and sometimes the works themselves can be thought of as key, autonomous ideas existing under the overarching conversation umbrella that is the exhibition. Artworks don’t always exist in exhibitions of course, but in this particular context, it is useful to think of them in this way.
“Bishops, bishops everywhere and not a drop to drink”, Dionne Benjamin-Smith, 2003, digital print, 24 x 24. Part of the National Collection, courtesy of the 2003 Collection Fund.
These works are currently displayed as part of the “Revisiting An Eye For the Tropics” rehang of the Permanent Exhibition at the NAGB, and they are part of the National Collection. Being a part of the National Collection denotes a sort of significance and importance not just to the work itself, but how it functions as part of Bahamian art history.
For Benjamin-Smith, “This piece reflected my disenchantment with the modern church and the proclivity amongst some of its members towards tyranny, elitism, judgement, hypocrisy and high-mindedness – thus poisoning the minds of people and further alienating them from God and His message of love. Years of guilt-ridden membership in the Catholic church, witnessing pharisaical behaviour from other church leaders and receiving un-Christlike doctrine full of condemnation proved burdensome to me as I was in search of the joy and love my spirit knew existed out there somewhere. It was only until my conversion was I able to discern what the word Christian should mean and what the Church should represent in our society.”
The work was not intended by the artist to act as a specific judgement or ‘calling out’ of particular religious personalities in the Bahamian Christian community, but rather a way to show that “We are all human and we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. It simply relates experiences and incidents I witnessed and reflects the kinds of dangerous attitudes and actions which are prevalent in the Church worldwide and of which the Church should be careful and quick to change.”
Installation shot of “Bishops, bishops everywhere and not a drop to drink” (2003) and “Built on Sand” (2003) by Dionne Benjamin-Smith as seen in the current Permanent Exhibition, “Revisiting An Eye For the Tropics”. Part of the National Collection.
Exhibiting works that look to Christianity, in an exhibition dealing with the way that colonial tourism shaped our representation as Bahamians, the way that the nation was ‘produced’, shows that we are trying to bring up the difficult, perhaps contentious subject, of how our Christianity fits into our colonial past. Religion was one of the tools used to justify the colonialism of our region (both pre and post-Columbus) and the slavery that was used to displace and oppress the West African people whom many of us are descended from. So why then, do we subscribe to this religion so strongly, and for a lot of us still, without question and doubt?
Benjamin-Smith is very openly Christian in her beliefs, but also very openly critical of the corruption within the church and calls for change. It might appear initially strange to have such opposing beliefs: the upholding of a religion that was instrumental in the suffering of one’s ancestors, but also the criticality of the current corruption you are dealing with in the church in its present, various forms. While we cannot solely associate the faith with the way people in power may have used it, it is also an inescapable association we have with our past as a country. Her depictions of distorted, grotesque Bishops and pastors and priests are concurrent with the idea that is indeed ‘gross’ to see someone intended as a religious leader, someone intended to be a symbol of goodness and an example, be so subject to such unethical, immoral behaviour.
Installation shot of “Bishops, bishops everywhere and not a drop to drink” (2003) by Dionne Benjamin-Smith as seen in the current Permanent Exhibition, “Revisiting An Eye For the Tropics”. Part of the National Collection.
No, this is not all bishops or religious leaders for certain, we must make that clear, but the fact that the position has such power and the abuse of this misuse, violation and the exploitation attached to that power is precisely the problem. Benjamin-Smith calls for us to remember that while so many atrocities, both on a local and global scale, are attributed to the Christian churches throughout history, we must not forget the foundation of what the message is meant to mean. It is a faith, and we must not lose this faith: in our brothers, sisters, cousins, friends, even our enemies. We must be confident in demanding to be treated in accordance with these beliefs, should you be a follower, and we must also not forget the song that is constantly sung, if not followed, in Christianity is one of love, tolerance and the betterment of your fellow human beings regardless of background or past transgressions.
Art exists between the different meanings and relationships it has with people, what it means for people and the conversations it brings up. Benjamin Smith’s work often very openly and explicitly tackles the difficult conversations and her work, having this background of communication from her design training, helps to do just this, to communicate and to give a call for criticality and action.