Hard Mouth: From the Tongue of the Ocean @ The Current: ECCHO

The Current Gallery and Art Center is much more than a vast collection of contemporary art. We aim to forge relevant and meaningful connections to creative communities both near and far. Curating captivating exhibitions and installations including The Fairwind and The Black Glove Curatorial Services, partnering with local, regional, and international art institutions, overseeing dynamic artist residencies, and driving thoughtful and reflective boutique and framing offerings all help define our scope. In addition to this, we facilitate art lessons and workshops, moderate lectures, and artist talks, and satisfy the cultural responsibilities of the Baha Mar Resort Foundation all to create the larger context of what Art Direction ‘is’ for Baha Mar.

The Current Gallery & Art Center’s new museum space, Eccho, is an acronym for Expressive Collaborations and Creative House of Opportunities. It is a multifunctional and dynamic platform that supports a wide array of cultural programming. Our mission is to position Bahamian art to a higher professional global standard by forging unique and meaningful partnerships with other arts institutions in the local and regional art community. We will feature new artwork by Bahamian artists, Dede Brown and Kachelle Knowles for their duo exhibition, “BEGUILE”, showcase artwork by American Contemporary Artist Shepard Fairey, unveil our exhibition partnership with The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas, featuring “Hard Mouth: From the Tongue of the Ocean,” one of their past permanent exhibitions and debut our first Eccho artist in residence, Lynn Parroti. This new project places The Bahamas on another remarkable cultural position, where our future guests will not only come to enjoy the wonderful beaches, but the creative arts.


Curated by Richardo Barrett and Natalie Willis 

How do we define ourselves? What does a dialect do and, within that vernacular, what does our dissent sound like? Hard Mouth: From the Tongue of the Ocean is a look at the way language–both verbal and visual–has shaped The Bahamas and how we view ourselves. From the way we speak, to the way that we voice our discontent, to the way we envision ourselves as women and as part of the Black Diaspora, “Hard Mouth” is a call to the “biggity” and bold nature of the people of The Bahamas and a foray into how this archipelago, wrapped around the Tongue of the Ocean itself, finds its voice.

Drawing from the National Collection, and private loans from artists, “Hard Mouth: From the Tongue of the Ocean” explores our dialects in language and in the creative practices of intuitive or “outsider” artists, our “biggity” and brazen socio-political commentary, our representations of womanhood, and our transatlantic roots in West Africa with our British colonial history that changed us forever. Our hard mouths have teeth to smile, to bite back, and to remind us of roots buried, but roots that are there all the same.

“Hard Mouth: From the Tongue of the Ocean” explores our dialects in language and in the visual practices of intuitive or “outsider” artists, our “biggity” and brazen socio-political commentary, our representations of womanhood, and our transatlantic roots in West Africa with the British colonial history that changed us forever. Our hard mouths have teeth to smile, to bite back, and to remind us of roots buried, but roots that endure all the same. Curated by Richardo Barrett and Natalie Willis, this is the second iteration of this exhibition, originally created as part of the NAGB’s Permanent Exhibition programming in 2018, and presented specially for The Current ECCHO at Baha Mar. 

The exhibition’s four distinct chapters speak to these expanded ways of knowing and articulating ourselves: Dialeck, BIGGITY, Ain’t I A Woman, and Mother Tongues.

 

I Dialeck

Once you start to speak, people will yell at you. They will interrupt you, put you down and suggest it’s personal. And the world won’t end… 

And the speaking will get easier and easier. And you will find you have fallen in love with your own vision, which you may never have realized you had.

― Audre Lorde, “Sister Outsiders: Essays and Speeches,” published 1984.

(American civil rights activist, feminist, womanist, and writer. Lorde was a first-generation American of Barbados and Grenada parentage, and this heavily influenced her work.)

“Dialeck” is a playful take on the Bahamian dialect (spelt in Bahamian vernacular) that sets us apart, but also how the practice of intuitive artists such as Amos Ferguson not only give us artistic records of our dialect with his titling of works, but in many ways the work of intuitive artists functions as an art dialect in itself – commonly understood as art, and simultaneously widely derided as less-than or improper.  It is art that does not need to “code switch” or formalise itself. 

Though the English language is dominant on paper, in the fabric of our lives, it’s quite a different story. Since language has been described as “a dialect with an army and navy” (attributed to Yiddish sociolinguist, Max Weinreich, 1944), then perhaps we should consider the power of regional dialects—such as Haitian Creole, Bahamian Creole or Jamaican Patois —in their rebellion against established colonial English standards of grammar. To this end, dialects don’t only exist in spoken language but as part of the weave of our visual language as well. Intuitive artists often make use of both – they title their work in plain speech, as their own people would speak it, and they also produce a unique visual language that exists outside of the canon of art history’s “army and navy.” 

Make no mistake, the work of Bahamian intuitives such as Amos Ferguson, Netica “Nettie” Symonette and Joe Monks, do not form a counter-narrative so much as they are the bedrock of the narrative of Bahamian art. It is a readily accessible way of visually “speaking” but by no means does the ease denote a lack of skillfulness. Often these practices form the backdrop for us to understand how art is conceived in the imagination of the public at large, and in this it is a truly invaluable tool for understanding ourselves as a people. 

 

II Biggity 

“Goin down Burma Road, Goin’ down Burma Road, Goin’ down Burma Road, don’t lick’ nobody” 

– Ronnie Butler (MBE, 1937 – 2017; renowned Bahamian Calypso and Rake ’n’ Scrape singer, referred to as “The Godfather of Bahamian Music.”)

“Biggity” draws on work that speaks to the Bahamian colloquialism of being “biggity” or loud-mouthed and assertive. The negative connotations of the term are turned into a positive, as this chapter speaks to the history of revolt and riot and politically charged artwork in the country, with particular focus on the largely sidelined role of women in the nation’s history of speaking up and demanding better. 

There is a tension between the centuries-old colonial era British image of The Bahamas as an idyll full of “smiling natives” or “well-behaved” colonised bodies, and the nation’s history of marches, riots and social commentary, and a large portion of this is best remembered through oral tradition, poetry and artwork outside of history books. We do not remain quiet when injustice is served to us and we have a tendency get “biggity,” to speak up and to make it known that we will not accept it. 

Caribbean people exist at a cultural crossroads, mainly consisting of displaced African heritage with European colonial power structures, with migrations from the rest of the Global South colouring this history. The defining trait for much of the region has been this displacement and lack of long-standing origin within the region, save for the surviving indigenous groups of course. However, those who truly built the Caribbean, have taken this feeling of being marginalized within their own homeland and have used it as fuel for finding freedom and seizing it. Perhaps this is where many of us find our voice to speak out – free agents can often be the most dynamic and most dangerous to the traditional (and often tricky) structures of power to which we have become accustomed. 

 

III Ain’t I A Woman

  “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? … I could work as much and eat as much as a man–when I could get it–and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?” 

-Sojourner Truth, American Abolitionist (1863)

Women are still second-class citizens in The Bahamas. “Ain’t I A Woman” gives space to discuss the depictions and representations of women. This selection is set against the backdrop of severe women’s rights violations in the country: marital rape is still legal, and the failed 2016 Constitutional Referendum to give equal rights to men and women in citizenship and in the language of the constitution. How we see women, speak about women, and write about women is part and parcel to how we excel or hold ourselves back as a nation and as part of the Caribbean region. 

There is a long legacy of Black women fighting for intersectional equality. Just as the Suffragette movement within The Bahamas in the late 1950’s paved the way for Bahamian independence, Black women have always been not just big supporters of social justice, but catalysts and central figures in these stories and movements. Women marched with the Labour Movement of the 1950s and moved with the rioting workers of the Burma Road Riot. When half of your majority – women – are left voiceless, can you really claim to be fighting for Majority Rule? Women’s roles in these stories are largely left out, marginalised, and our society is left instead with ill-fitting stereotypes and tropes that do not speak to the simultaneous strength and softness of Black women and in particular Black Caribbean women. History instead of ‘herstory’ becomes the dominant narrative. 

Women often make up so much of the subject matter of works in galleries and museums, but what happens when women take their image into their own hands to put forward? The colonial images of the Black Mammy, most typically emerging out of the South in the US, with the headwrap, manages to retain her humanity as an individual – she is no longer relegated to merely being a stereotype, she becomes a woman with a story. The romanticised image of the Mammy feeding young white children at her breast gets critiqued, it is no longer romantic but seen as the complicated and difficult history that it is. Black women find, and in turn display, their truth in reclaiming their image. 

 

IV Mother Tongues 

“It is no use painting the foot of the tree white, the strength of the bark cries out from beneath the paint.” 

― Aimé Césaire, “Discourse on Colonialism”, published in 1950

(Césaire was a Martinican poet and politician and founding figure of the Negritude movement)

In many ways, our issues with women, with Blackness, with xenophobia, stem from our colonial history, and so “Mother Tongues” gives us time to consider this complicated double-consciousness. We are a region made of many movements, and find ourselves at once Black African, with white European structures of power. We live in a warped and very particular sense of time and identity, of being simultaneously in past-and-present in post-colonial countries. These experiences are ubiquitous across much of the global South, but when the tourist machine often requires a shiny veneer it becomes hard to speak to these issues of nationhood. 

With the movement towards Independence in 1973, much of The Bahamas saw itself shedding its colonial trappings and embracing other forms of Blackness. Black America and pride in our African roots became central to the conversations around identity that came with Majority Rule and Independence. We still see the British colonial influence in our architecture, in the political and educational structures of our society, in many of the hierarchies we uphold, but we also see them existing with Junkanoo, Asue (a West-African money sharing practice that offered support to Black Bahamians without access to banks), and in the language. Goombay exists alongside Great Britishness, not always in harmony, but together all the same.  

Seeing The Bahamas through a British colonial lens, in particular, is not the only way we know ourselves by any means, but contending with the duality of having both a British and African mother being contained within the public consciousness is always going to be a difficult one. Add to that mix a history of migrations from the United States, from the rest of the Caribbean, from China, from Greece – sometimes there are so many voices crying out to make themselves known that it is difficult to hear anything at all. Even the Caribbean Sea itself makes a sound that can be heard from space that is unlike anything else on the planet, and we still somehow feel at times that we exist on the fringe of it. The state of being liminal is not a sense of lostness for The Bahamas or the Caribbean as a whole; it is simply a different way of being. 

 

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