Guanahani—An Unspeakable Land

The Bahamas, from European sensibilities, conjures 007 dreams of exotic beaches and cocktails. It appears to be the epitome of a tropical paradise, however the reality is more complex. The past; pirates, colonial times and slave trade, are elements implicit to contemporary Bahamian culture and they still resonate in the collective psyche. Look deeper and there is another raw and painful history.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus’ notorious and much celebrated discovery of the ‘New World’ seems like a wonderful celebration of human perseverance and ingenuity, but for the indigenous Indians it was a death knell, resulting in genocide. It could be called a successful genocide, as there are no descendants left to call out in outrage at the horror of the past. It is estimated that 40,000 people were wiped out in as little as 25 years. A culture whose customs and history were an oral legacy has been obliterated. It is hard to connect to this tragedy and the compounded losses it represents.
But this is a role of art: to talk about the unspeakable.

On 19th November 2015, established Bahamian artist Chantal Bethel, along with fellow Bahamian Arianne Etuk, will be exhibiting in Maroussia—a new art space in Brussels, Belgium.
Taking The Bahamas to Europe, Bethel and Etuk push beyond the glossy stereotype, and deliberately address the beautiful, the exotic, and the dark and the bloody. They narrate a story of The Bahamas beyond a facile imagery of an ex-colony in the middle of an azure ocean.

Titling the show Guanahani starts the conversation: It is a glamorous word to slip over the tongue, but one with a composite imagery—Guanahani my Love—a book of poetry by Bahamian poet, short storywriter, and essayist Marion Bethel, was the inspiration for artist Chantal Bethel. Guanahani is the indigenous Indian name of Columbus’ first landfall. And the name that Columbus negated by choosing the European-flavoured San Salvador instead.

Through Guanahani Bethel exposes this history of The Bahamas with installation and paintings. She deftly references the Taino Lucayan (the indigenous Indians), with petroglyphs, sacred stones, and suspended driftwood. Within the installation, this simplicity conflicts with images of death and Christopher Columbus—the European hero placed behind bars, accountable for his crimes.

This graphic depiction of history contrasts with Bethel’s subsequent sublime works. A palette of saturated blues and greens dissolve images of enigmatic women and flamboyant flamingos are depicted with her signature crackle effect coruscating the surface.

There is a vast distance between these two experiences of Bethel’s art in this show. It makes her work, viewed in totality, jarring and challenging—a provocative juxtaposition that requires contemplation to understand the connection between the two. For example, it questions preconceptions about The Bahamas and asks: how do past and present fit together? Certainly not facile sunsets and cocktails.

Fitting in the space between the two experiences of Bethel’s art is Etuk’s contribution— stylistic, decorative, and beautiful, yet hinting at the macabre, they guide the emotional journey between the dichotomies of Bethel’s work.

Guanahani, is an elegant articulation, which uses art to discuss the layered meanings of Old world and New. It carefully holds the past, honouring and vilifying, remembering and mourning. A difficult aggregate, it narrates to Europe a more balanced and startling story about one of the complexities of The Bahamas. History is a theme underpinning this show, which, through the language of art, talks of an unspeakable past, but ultimately celebrates a diverse, abundant and joyful present.

Text by Susan Moir-Mackay