By Natalie Willis
Ours is a region filled with spirituality, mysticism, myth, and the ghosts of these things and our histories still to this day haunt us. As an artist dealing often very explicitly with his faith—in the divine, in this place we call home, in these people who we feel such pride in and who equally send us out of our minds—Jace McKinney tackles questions of identity, being, and masculinity in “Trumped” (2013). Far from a commentary on the current, infamous US President, “Trumped” (2013) deals with the game of life, playing hard-and-fast, and who truly holds the ‘trump’ card in the deck.
The genesis of this work has unexpected origins as a serendipitous image taken after the first lap of New Year’s Day 2011 Junkanoo celebrations. A couple lie together, sleeping, the man encircled in his partner’s arms and the pair of them are spent from performing. McKinney was a Junkanoo photographer at the time and took the image unsure of when he might use it. He paints through visions as inspirations, seeing the painting come together before committing it to canvas. It would be another two years before this image took on a life very different from the moment it was taken – though the exhaustion inherent would become the tying thread.
In exploring ideas of the hero’s journey and ‘decoding salvation’—the hero as the saviour—McKinney began to look at ideas of King Midas. How would we interpret Midas in a Bahamian context: would he be a politician? An affluent businessman? A numbers house owner? These all seemed possible, but to truly capture the tragedy and instantaneous riches of Midas, he decided to look to the life of the drug dealer. After a chance encounter on a family island, where he met a man who was essentially in exile after a hit-gone-bad (all drug-related of course) in Jamaica, McKinney begins to craft the image in his mind of this new Midas. The live-fast-die-young nature, the lavishness, the eventual demise; all of this is encompassed both in the life of the successful drug dealer and the Greek-mythical King Midas.
Having grown up seeing what he claimed to be all the ‘cool guys’ getting girls, wearing chains, and generally being well liked, he realised most of them are now dead or in prison or, in the case of this man, in hiding. The man he met felt to be turning everything he touched to gold in his own way, bringing his affluence to his small island community. It is the fate of a number of young men who come to the capital looking for work, or who move to Nassau in high school, and have their family island ease rooted out of them in favour of performing their identity in what was deemed a more masculine and appropriate way. The hypermasculinity of our Black men is nothing new and its detrimental effects are seen everyday in these hauntings of dealers, harassers, and men who generally seem unable to love and be soft and vulnerable.
“To create loving men, we must love males. Loving maleness is different from praising and rewarding males for living up to sexist-defined notions of male identity. Caring about men because of what they do for us is not the same as loving males for simply being. When we love maleness, we extend our love whether males are performing or not. Performance is different from simply being. In patriarchal culture males are not allowed simply to be who they are and to glory in their unique identity. Their value is always determined by what they do. In an anti-patriarchal culture males do not have to prove their value and worth. They know from birth that simply being gives them value, the right to be cherished and loved,” state the ever-relevant bell hooks in “The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love” (2004)
The Black feminist powerhouse takes a moment to speak on many of the important things that get lost when we speak about feminism – the love we all yearn for. She speaks to the way that McKinney, like so many others, would deify the confident characters ‘getting all the girls’. It is stunning that still today we have so many moments where we quantify our being, ourselves, and men, on what we have.
The Bahamian Midas is crowned as a king, and clearly has the love of his partner who is also decadently dripping in gold and jewels, but the machete in the coconut tree behind her speaks to the violence they have encountered. She seems like the Bonnie to his Clyde, his ‘ride or die’. So many men seek the love of their mothers in their partners and crave intimacy they can no longer access outside of the bedroom when their emotions have been systematically stomped out of them: the only acceptable ones become anger and desire. And this desire spreads not just to knowing someone in a biblical way, but the desire to appear to be through all the things that tell us we have become something. Flashy cars, gold chains, gold teeth, and guns do not a man make. But it is one way of being seen to be something and that craving, much like Midas’ craving for gold, is the one that haunts us time and time again. We see history repeated in these small places over in a way that is just as painful as the last, but we become desensitized to this constant brutality on being.
The fear of being caught is an everyday for the dealer-Midas, one he can accept, but the fear that his partner may leave him is one that he cannot. In this movement of mother’s love, to partner’s love, to fear of abandonment and the ultimate demise of the dealer, images of Michelangelo’s ‘La Pieta’ (1498-99) are echoed in the work. Michelangelo depicts the body of Jesus in the arms of his mother Mary, but she could just as easily have been Mary Magdalene – if not a lover, a female confidant and contemporary. Again, we see this need for love and acceptance. Because what comfort does one have in this kind of life? It is impossible to trust, and love cannot exist without trust.
McKinney takes us through the initial envy of men who ‘have it all’, to the eventual question “this isn’t going to end well, is it?”. There must be some due reward; Midas must eventually meet his end – be it the end of his existence or his reason for it, as in a version of the original myth he loses his daughter because she gets immortalised in gold at the touch of his hand. When you lose your reasons for living and being, even gold doesn’t shine in the dark.
What began as a moment of intimacy between partners became a lesson on intimacy and on the dangers of being through appearing – so dependent on light, when the light goes out and no one can see you, what do you become? How do you become? As Derrida speaks to the idea of Hauntologies (a play on the french pronunciation of the word which becomes a homonym for Ontology), we see time go out of joint – the past in the present, the present in the past. We have all these energies here in our hauntologies: violent colonizers, peaceful Lucayans, tense and despairing Africans. The way that many of our ancestors in the islands were only able to ‘be’ by how much they produced, what they could bring you. The slave of old had to bring in sugar and cotton and sisal, but today we are enslaved to appearing through a lifestyle that is impossible to afford for most – except through one ‘trump card’. Unfortunately though, we do not hold the deck, we are merely another card in this game.