March’s Artwork of the Month – Maxwell Taylor’s ‘Nassau Boy’ (1973)

‘Nassau Boy’ (1973) by Maxwell Taylor is a patterned, shifting mass of humanoid parts set against a lightly textured background, with a hint of houses and civilisation in the distance. This work is most certainly not what one expects of Taylor’s practice, but it is one of the more rebellious and unexpected pieces in the National Collection, a bit of a misfit, and our March Artwork of the Month.

Initially, the work appears to be an abstract, expressionist, surrealist imagining of a gaunt, winged man – some haunted angel perhaps – and is unmistakably European in influence. This comes as no surprise, as Taylor and all of the Chelsea Pottery apprentices were deeply influenced by art books they could get a hold of, and that of course would be the better known European and Western movements in art history.

The Chelsea Pottery and subsequent Bahamian Pottery served as a safe haven for the burgeoning creativity of Taylor and his contemporaries of the time. Together with Brent Malone and Kendal Hanna, the young men looked to texts and found works they visually resonated with.

As Dr Erica James states in ‘Max Taylor: Paperworks 1960 – 1992’, Taylor “was drawn to the work of many artists, but in these early years he evinced a special affinity for the paintings of Paul Klee. The series of works Taylor produced based on Klee’s (work)… are significant not because he was able to faithfully re-present Klee’s painting (which he does not), but because they reveal the artist’s desire to grasp, capture or recreate qualities of the work that first drew him to it.”

Though ‘Nassau Boy’ (1973) isn’t an obvious reference to Klee, it is apparent that the Klee-influenced experimentations Taylor completed nearly a decade prior, had some lasting resonance in the dark palette and anamorphic form of the figure presented here. Works such as this are testament to the sense of urgency in Taylor and his fellows, having to search for information the good old analog way, before the ease of the ubiquitous Google search button on our phones and computers. They used what they had near to them, what was available to them, and thus begun the process of trying to understand what they each wanted their art practices to be.

The influence of the vast and varied artists of the Western canon as evidenced in the early practices of Taylor, Malone and Hanna is quite plain to see, but to simply write them off as experimentation alone is perhaps unfair to their significance here and to the art world as a whole. As Stuart Hall refers to Caribbean peoples as ‘conscripts of modernity’ (an idea coined by David Scott), we are “not the people who go forward and build the modern, but the people whose fate, whether they like it or not, has been to live the underside of modernity.” We are not major players on the global stage of power, we live on the periphery but this cannot ever discount our experiences.

The work made by Taylor in the first two decades of his practice, during the run-up to independence, gave us the first depictions of Bahamian life and society outside of the false picturesque image we knew ourselves through – an image that has endured since its early British-colonial inception. Taylor was not some international forerunner in expressionism as the movement began, (he simply couldn’t because of the timing!), but he arrived at it and grappled with it nonetheless; and had he not, he mightn’t have given us our first visual representations of Bahamians in our lived reality. ‘Nassau Boy’ in its phantasmagorical display begins to give us just this.

The title alone is a declaration to his Bahamianness. Though the figure looks like something out of a fantasy, the houses in the background – on top of each other, pinched together, in the distance, are entirely reminiscent of houses from Over-the-Hill where he grew up. This dreamlike figure is perhaps an aspiration to overcome the adversity he would have faced growing up during the last years of British colonization in a place where inhabitants were not afforded the care and respect they deserved.

The thing looks to be growing, preparing to take flight, but isn’t quite fully formed and defined yet – though it doesn’t feel like it’s something dysfunction or incapable of action. This being looks like an amorphous mass of untapped potential, waiting to figure just how to shape itself: much like our fight for independence and knowing ourselves as a nation. ‘Nassau Boy’ is a declaration of identity and self. It ties in European and African-Bahamian influences together, much like our history, and what is left between is something unclear but full of possibility.

In this way, even before his deliberate attempts to show the black Bahamian experience, Taylor’s ‘Nassau Boy’ (1973) helped to provide us with representation outside of the rigid tropical ideals of the nation that formed how we were seen and how we saw ourselves since the 1800s. This is why we have chosen to unearth this work that lies outside of the ‘typical’ Max Taylor as part of the new Permanent Exhibition at the NAGB, entitled ‘Revisiting An Eye For The Tropics’.

As Dr Krista Thompson, author of the text that served as inspiration for this show, ‘An Eye For The Tropics’, explains, “(Tropicalization) characterizes how, despite the geological diversity within “the tropics” and even in a single Caribbean island, a very particular concept of what a tropical Caribbean island should look like developed in the visual economies of tourism”. This is rings true not just to the way that the islands are produced as images and dreams to be consumed by the public, but also to the various festival practices throughout the region.

Though our tourist industries throughout the region play to the stereotypes produced in these ‘visual economies of tourism’, and though they often conflate the different carnival and masquerade practices in the region as a single, similar entity, we know our own truth and we know the inherent differences in the ways these different celebrations function from island to island.

Even for islands that celebrate Carnival, the sheer difference in experience is obvious to those of us living in these places. We could never truly compare our Junkanoo to Kadooment/C in Barbados or to Carnival in Trinidad – but the tourist industry would have people believe that they are all the same, just on a different sunny location. ‘Nassau Boy’ (1973) might not appear to be a direct reference to Junkanoo from the muted color palette, but the influence is certainly there in the patterning, and even subtly in the idea of costuming and taking on other forms.

Taylor’s work, despite the visibility and power of this forced touristic image we must constantly grapple with, helps us add to the visual lexicon of images around The Bahamas in an interesting way. Even it’s lack of representational qualities in the way the content is abstracted is a statement against the tourism status quo – of sun sea and relaxation. The more we can display our varied experiences and expressions – even as far as the variation in one man’s practice alone – the more we can add to the weave of our story ourselves.

"Nassau Boy" (1973), Maxwell Taylor, oil on canvas, 50” x 44”. Part of the National Collection at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas.