From the Collection: Lavar Munroe’s “The Migrant”

By Natalie Willis

Lavar Munroe’s “The Migrant” is an illustrative portrayal of a spindle-legged, knock-kneed nomad carrying his home on his back. In many ways, the tale this digital print tells of the ubiquitous image of the immigrant is reminiscent of the Phil Stubbs classic song, ‘Cry of the Potcake.” The xenophobia and self-hate we deal with as a nation is quite easily summated in the lyrics of the catchy tune, “they don’t love me, they only know me when they need me,” and Munroe’s look at the struggle of the emigrant bolsters this when we think of our history as forced immigrants. For instance, can we image our Bahamas without teachers, nurses and doctors from elsewhere in the region working alongside those we consider to be ‘born’ Bahamians?

“The Migrant” (2008), Lavar Munroe, digital print, 32 x 20. Part of the National Collection, acquired from the 4th National Exhibition.

Growing up in Grants Town, Lavar Munroe is no stranger to what this particular side of immigration in The Bahamas looks like and by this work’s exclusion of the expat immigrant, it helps to emphasize the kind of migrant pictured. Since, when it boils down to it, regardless of where you come from, in truth anyone who moves here is an immigrant, but the connotations of the word are what make things sticky. We have very particular images in mind when we think of ‘immigrants’ and when we think of ‘expatriates,’ and we know the power structures and history in which this difference in terminology is rooted.

This digitally rendered print has the makings of an illustration, like many of Munroe’s works from this period. It’s only fitting, then, that Munroe proclaims himself to be ‘the trickster’ and deals with these slippery narratives in his practice. Like another trickster we know, Anansi of African and Caribbean folklore, the figure in the image is a many-legged thing. In some ways this could be seen to imply that migrants are seen as not quite human. The number of people supporting this house make it look to be a heavy burden to bear on one’s back, and the “government pink” speaks to how that burden of finding home here can be difficult on more than one avenue – not just socially in finding “home,” but also logistically. It is not just the journey to reach the islands – it is one that can be fraught with danger and taken on rickety vessels over sea, for some it is a life/death journey.

Particularly when we think of nations elsewhere in the Caribbean, more politically corrupt or fractured than ours, we have people fleeing one set of extreme difficulties to experience the perceived lessened ones here in The Bahamas. It is certainly our geography that makes us so attractive but the high cost of living and immense bureaucratic challenges across sectors of the government makes this dream one that is far too expensive to sell.

Installation shot of Lavar Munroe’s “The Migrant” (2008) as seen in the current Permanent Exhibition, “Revisiting An Eye For the Tropics”.

Still, the figure guiding them, with his head poking out, points forward, onward, reminiscent of the black triangle of our flag as well as our country motto, and there is the implication that one can, and should, press on toward better life despite the gray of the horizon. This gray renders everything vague with regard to time. Is it night? Day? The weight of this heavy sky speaks to the pressing conditions the displaced are under. Moving forward no matter what, taking the stairway to nowhere that Munroe has sketched in the background, or perhaps taking refuge in one of the ramshackle homes that are reminiscent of Haitian shanty villages and Over-the-Hill alike. The former, with houses built out of nothing, compared to the latter, where old, formerly dignified houses are patched with whatever is to hand, are different absolutely, but the urgency and necessity to be able to just ‘keep going’ on a day to day basis is a shared value.

“The Migrant” (2008), created in the midst of the 2007/8 global financial crisis, a period which, if we look closer to home, foreshadowed the six years following where our adult unemployment rate rose to 13.7% from 7.9% previously. It’s no surprise that conditions like this lead to divide people rather than unite them. At the end of the day, if we are all too concerned with how to live from day to day and resources and opportunities seem finite – how can we expect people not to fight in times like this? As a postcolonial nation, we are just starting to crawl out of this bucket, and the crab syndrome of dragging our brothers and sisters down to get ourselves out of this hole becomes more pronounced considering our history.

The imagery that ‘trickster’ Munroe employs plays to ideas of movement and mobility and they are just about everywhere in the work. From the legs of the figures to the wheels at the bottom corners of the image to the stairway going nowhere – the idea of movement we see is more than just something of ‘flee’ here, and speaks to ‘free’ in other ways. We all understand displacement as Caribbean people—itis quite literally what this region was built on—the displaced Africans brought into slavery to build each nation for each respective mother-colony. It is a hard history, and one that we share, but what we often feel to be a lack of roots can be something altogether more freeing if we choose it to be.

Nigerian poet Ijeoma Umebinyuo, another post-colonial subject just like ourselves, speaks of the lack we so often feel here and the struggle of the migrant, the mixed-national, and anyone struggling with a sense of in-betweenness in her book of poetry, “Questions For Ada”

“So, here you are

too foreign for home

too foreign for here.

Never enough for both.”

Caribbean people are nomadic in our origins and by nature in many ways, how many Jamaicans, Trinibagonians, Bajans, Cubans, Haitians, and Bahamians do we know that have moved and live elsewhere? Of the aforementioned Caribbean sister countries, we have pronounced pockets of them living here, and who knows how many Bahamians live in Florida and further afield. The Windrush of the 1950s and 60’s that saw a great number of Jamaicans move to the UK, or the fact that we have Bahamians – even our oft-revered Sir Lynden Pindling or Stephen Dillet – who have Jamaican or Haitian heritage means that we are, as the saying goes, ‘Out of many, one people’ – so why the distancing? Why not see our similarities and differences, our multiplicity of experiences for such a small part of the world, as something marvelous?

Installation shot of Lavar Munroe’s “The Migrant” (2008) as seen in the current Permanent Exhibition, “Revisiting An Eye For the Tropics”.

The pink shell of a house on the figure’s back reminds us not just of the government pink, but also the pink of conch shells. One of the ultimate nomads here, conchs carry their home on their backs. To have one’s sense of home with you wherever you go is something to be seen less as a burden to bear and more as a freedom of mobility. We have that capacity to feel our sense of home within ourselves, not just in the place we inhabit, and that freedom means we needn’t feel threatened by others bringing their homes with them. We then become a great network of homes and hearts together, an ecosystem of to live in symbiosis rather than the struggles of power and hierarchy, like being spokes in the wheels of Munroe’s work.

When we move past our nationalism as a region, and move past feeling the threat of being lumped together as so often happens globally – because many of us have experienced the dread of having every nation in the region be reduced down to Jamaica, Cuba or Haiti because of their global familiarity – and when we begin to embrace the similarities that bond us together simultaneously with the differences that make us unique, we will feel less of this plight of the potcake.