Lamenting Slavery: Unearthing our history through art.

By Dr. Ian Bethell-Bennett.


The materiality of art and culture is essential to the experience with art and our understanding of the relationship between space, time and humanity.  When we do not see, feel or experience the materiality of space, we tend to ignore its existence.  Art can be used to bridge gaps between the materiality of experience and the historical omissions and erasures that leave the space open to deletion, and de-historicisation.

Music, similar to art, can speak to a similar materialising of experiences that have been wiped out by the passage of time and the shifting sands of spatial economic change.  The disappearance from the mental record of the Nassau Market is a salient example of the vanishing materiality and so the memory of that experience.  What remains is a space that has been razed of the material market and so the only vestiges remain. The artistic renderings and musical recitations of that material experience, where women and men walked over Market Street, often through Gregory’s Arch, to sell produce in the market, is what remains.

Downtown has become nothing more than a sanitised non-Bahamian space, where nothing attracts people to the centre other than tourist culture.  Art, music and writing, though, recapture the physical and the oral traditions of the past.  While not always culturally sensitive to the national landscape and people, texts were written like accurate histories of spaces that do not truly reflect anything but bias and judgment, but the historical accounts are priceless.

Simultaneously, those stories have been so removed from Bahamian history that they almost cease to exist.  This is a national travesty.  However, the way historic and painful public spaces such as Vendue House also known as the Bourne (est. 1769) have been ‘restored’ has removed or sanitised them of their historical baggage.  The material pain of physical stocks and shackles and the possibility of a public art project to recreate this has been eclipsed or intentionally erased through willful overwriting.  Pain is historically and materially present in the Caribbean and transcends and transmits across and outward from it.  The efforts to erase the memory and physical contact of Slavery and African, Indian and Asian (Chinese) Indentureship has ruptured so much of the past that the vast gap between then and now seems insurmountable.

This work explored in the inter-textuality of the “Medium: Practices and Routes of Spirituality and Mysticism,” now on view at the NAGB and the upcoming British Council collaborative exhibition “We Suffer To Remain,” work in two distinct ways to re-materialise the past, though not directly undoing the rupture of historical and public de-materialisation of physical experience.

One key is reading, another is seeing, and yet another is hearing, all of which allow the experience to vaporise into visceral and cellular remembering.

Harold Sonny Laddoo’s novel “No Pain Like This Body” (1972) explores the hardships and suffering of Indian indentureship in Trinidad and Tobago immediately in the wake of the abolition of the African Slave Trade and Slavery in the Anglophone world.  Although freed, the former enslaved Africans suddenly found a new challenge as they were forced into less than ideal work conditions because wages were pushed down by the importation of Indians from India to work on the plantations.  Conditions remained appalling and yet people came to toil in the fields, planting, cutting and harvesting sugarcane and other tropical crops for the enrichment of the colonial centre.

Art and literature pay some homage to this stumbling block in Caribbean history as they both capture the turmoil, but also the survival of the group through this ordeal.  We have accounts of the torture inflicted on slaves such as Poor Black Kate by the Moss’ on Moss Plantation, yet we have many who continue to decry the revisiting of Slavery as unnecessary and the uphold the idea that Slavery was somehow gentler in this beautiful colonial space.

Digging through the Past

As the spring show opening of the British Council’s collaborative exhibition with the NAGB “We Suffer to Remain” approaches, the impact of Slavery through music, poetry/verse, art and image comes into focus yet again.  Imagery and sound are essential to the human experience however we often pay faint heed to them.  As, for example, gunshots ring out through the night skies, far scarier than they are during the day, not because they are not frightening in daylight, but because we can only hear at night and we have lost a key feature, our ability to see and so understand how far away danger might be.  To be sure, we should juxtapose this loss of perception to the enforced impression during Slavery of rebellious slaves being tortured in public and then their decapitated heads often being staked out in public squares to warn others from thinking to venture down the same road.  Notwithstanding the warnings, many others ventured through uprisings and resistance.  What is most intriguing about the encounter is the damage that has remained on the psychosocial fibre of the people who have been ‘freed’ but remained traumatised.

In recreating stories of the past, particular elements are essential as demonstrated in archaeological research conducted in The Bahamas by Farnsworth and Wilkie in the 1990s, Saunders and others through 1980s-2000s.  Howard Johnson writes an exciting study of Bahamian National Identity published in “Yinna” (2000), where he explores the pitfalls of Blackness and little-discussed whiteness in the Bahamian socio-cultural context.  Johnson discusses the contempt for enslaved Africans expressed by planters and some historians, alike.  He also underscores the need for a revalorisation of the way we understand national identity as it reduces it to an essentialism that disallows the complexity of the place/space.

Exuma’s work in “Medium”, as well as Jace McKinney’s, draw together some of the ideas that are often least explored in the discussions around Bahamian identity. Dionne Benjamin-Smith’s work and Allan Wallace’s art are all great starts for how we see ourselves and how we refuse to see the links between our speech and actions.

Further, Rembrandt Taylor’s amazingly detailed depictions of the Rastafarian Pantheon is poignant and sad as it speaks to a little-discussed part of Bahamian visual and historical culture, where Rastafarianism has always been equated with unsavoury Blackness, a kind that found no ‘space’ in this Black country during the 1970s and 1980s.  Benjamin-Smith’s work highlights a severe flaw in a society that claims to be so Christian, yet betrays the very fundamentals of the Christian teachings of love and kindness, for example.  We choose instead to be cruel and judgmental.

No place can this be seen more clearly than in the espousing of a continued and sustained belief in gender-based violence, or the violence against women, particularly as justified and condoned by members of Parliament.  Similar to the punishment metered out on Poor Black Kate, there is an understanding that women, if they do not behave their part as submissive and subservient beings, deserve to be slapped down by males in authority.

Meanwhile, men use their positions of authority, as do women, to re-impose this golden rule with unadulterated glee.  Accordingly, women, under the current disguise of post-colonialism and democracy are open to abuse, and this is permissible given their subject status.  When a member of parliament can argue that women should know their place or be beaten and accept their ‘punishment’ for breach of behaviour and role, it becomes clear that the damage of Slavery and Indentureship are deeply inscribed in the tissue of Bahamian society.

Remembering and recovering

In 18th-century Romantic poet Robert Burns’ poem “The Slave’s Lament” (1792), we get the gentle idea of Slavery from another perspective.

The burden I must bear, while the cruel scourge I fear,

In the lands of Virginia,-ginia,

O; And I think on friends most dear, with the bitter, bitter tear,

And alas! I am weary, weary O:

And I think on friends most dear, with the bitter, bitter tear,

And alas! I am weary, weary O:

The phrase above is reconfigured as the central element to Scottish artist, Graham Fagen’s multimedia project of the same name, which will be on view at The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas from March 22nd through July 1st, 2018 in the British Council collaborative exhibition with the NAGB called  “We Suffer To Remain”. This exhibition brings together an array of voices including John Beadle, Sonia Farmer and Anina Major to compliment and comment on the legacy of Slavery through the lens of Fagen’s opus.

Ladoo’s “No Pain like this Body” is a capturing of the pain of servitude and violence, which is also caught up in Sonia Farmer’s and Anina Major’s work in “We Suffer To Remain.” Farmer’s work draws on a Richard Ligon’s “A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes” (1657).  This all comes together with John Beadle’s work that draws on enslaved Africans’ experiences with chains, shackles and the remnants of our cultural traditions.  The materiality of this show is distinct because of the diverse media involved from the outside and the wide-ranging representations of the experiences of Slavery and Indentureship.

I include the period of Indenture because of its similarities to Slavery and the shared historical disjuncture and suffering they both wrought.  I also think that “Medium: Practices and Routes of Spirituality and Mysticism”  provides so much of a contextualised take on what we overlook intentionally about what came on boats from Africa by way of the East coast of the United States through Gullah into the Carolinas. The undercurrents from Cuba and Haiti that lay silent in the bowels of Christian overlaying and overlappings of (un)intentioned erasures through gospel proclamations and Christian renderings of a Last Supper of White privilege and Dave Smith’s art in a Bahamian Home that captures the inability for us to see ourselves in the divine story of Creation because that story has been colonised as white.  It is a story where a white, blond, blue-eyed Jesus presides over us, though he cannot possibly be that colour, and imposes a distance between us and the possibility of redemption. These two shows, though vastly different draw on each other in extremely important or salient ways that encourage a deeper level of self-awareness and historical cognisance.

Sonia Farmer. Erasure of Richard Ligon's "A True & Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes" (1657), letterpress-printed and collected into a handmade clamshell box, Edition of 25. 2018. Image courtesy of Sonia Farmer.