Margot Bethel’s Portal: Unpacking memories of Womanhood

By Natascha Vazquez. 

“Everyday bucket go to well. One day the bottom fall out.”

-Bahamian proverb

“For she who goes to the well; who carries; who labours; who bleeds; who sweats; who delivers; who bears all; who nurtures; who listens; who waits; who lays down her life in sacrifice; who is broken, silenced, violenced, erased and forgotten.

When she no longer agrees to bondage. When she sees, herself reflected whole. When she removes her mask. When she unties the knot.

When she possesses her body. When she speaks. When she is heard. When she re-members.”

Portrait of Margot Bethel with her installation at the National Art Gallery. The work was created for the National Exhibition 8. Images courtesy of Dante Carrer.

Bahamian artist, Margot Bethel, explores ideas of femininity and the roles of women from both past and present day. In “Portal: There’s a WHole in the Bucket”, Bethel transforms a collection of mundane, everyday objects into a sculptural installation proposing the idea of the hole and the whole, simultaneously describing aspects of gender inequality, female stereotypes, and objectivity.

Having an educational background in finished carpentry, Bethel tends to use materials typical to her trade. She places emphasis on objects used as tools to aid in laborious jobs and brilliantly crosses them over into the realm of fine art.

Margot Bethel. “Portal: There’s a WHole in the Bucket,” 2016. Installation. Images courtesy of Dante Carrer.

A wooden structure comprised of a series of plywood supports and ten separate ropes are tied to rounded, metal buckets which hover above the gallery floor. Bethel purposefully tied a single bucket to the end of each rope with a thick, clumsy knot, leaving the excess hanging, a way to subtly shine a light on the physical interaction between the art and artist.

A layer of curiosity is achieved through the use of buckets, which, by definition, are roughly cylindrical open containers used to hold and carry liquids. The individual metal enclosures create uncertainty for the viewer, promoting a desire to engage physically with the work, walking around and intimately peering into the space to fulfill the interest of what may be inside of each container. Bethel purposefully places the buckets in two parallel rows at the center of the space, allowing sufficient room for viewers to make an entire circle around the work. The buckets are also hung at differing heights provoking a kind of flow and fluidity to the work.

Installation on view at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas. Images courtesy of Dante Carrer.

Through this interaction, we can engage with the work intimately, and to find a series of common objects within each bucket. The objects are comprised of carefully placed arbitrary and at times precious objects like fortune cookies, shells, driftwood, fake hair, glitter, perfume bottles and jewelry. There are other objects that have an unknown identity, as they have been manipulated so much and become unrecognizable to the viewer. One can only speculate their origin and use.

The identifiable items are associated with femininity, alluding to the generalization of what aids in achieving feminine beauty, or the rigorous nature of daily female routines. The ambiguity of each item invites the viewer deeper in, a pull derived from a desire to understand, and we are surprised when subtle fragments of our face are revealed

Details from “Portal: There’s a WHole in the Bucket.” Images courtesy of Dante Carrer.

Circular mirrors line the bottom of each bucket, creating a reflective sensation similar to that of liquid. The composition within the bucket then becomes a separate entity, revealing the reflection of the underside of the object, parts of our face, and the object itself. The surprising element of reflection allows for contemplation and self-reflection, as you curiously gaze at yourself while pieces of you are hidden by materials that are somewhat familiar but bewildering in their manipulation. The mirrors also allow for a reflection of the piece in its entirety. Their placement within each bucket pertains to the idea of the hole – something endless, bottomless -, while their revealing of the work in its totality speaks to the WHole, compatible with the title of the work.

An audio component completes the piece. The sound of heavy rain fills the space, adding to the intimate and personable experience of the art. The viewer is pulled out of the gallery context and into an outdoor/indoor environment, allowing for a different framework for interpretation. The sound of water on a galvanised (tin roof) coincides with the suggestion of a presence of water within the buckets, creating a sense of unity between the visual and auditory components of the piece. The audio adds another layer of informality, highlighting an everyday experience by placing it on a pedestal within the context of the work.

Details from “Portal: There’s a WHole in the Bucket.” Images courtesy of Dante Carrer.

The bucket directly correlates to many layers revolving femininity, womanhood, and fertility. The historical use of the bucket during slavery provides another perspective of understanding the associations revolving this material.

According to an interview in “Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves,” Ms. Rebecca Brown Hill revealed the bucket as a symbol of work ethic, which was a means of protection for slave women. “Mama took a bucket on her arm to keep the stealers from gagging her. She knew if she had a bucket or basket they would not bother, they would know she went out on turn (errand) and would be protected.”

Details from “Portal: There’s a WHole in the Bucket.” Images courtesy of Dante Carrer.

Bethel’s choice of ordinary material shines light upon the lack of appreciation society has for the incredible role of women, given the gender equality referendum which was held in The Bahamas in June 2016 with the hopes of achieving equal rights for women. Bill one would have granted a child born outside of The Bahamas to a Bahamian woman automatic citizenship. Bill two would have enabled a foreign man married to a Bahamian woman to secure the same access to Bahamian citizenship that a foreign woman married to a Bahamian man obtains. Bill three would have allowed an unmarried Bahamian man to pass on his citizenship to his child born to a foreign mother subject to legal proof that he is the father. Bill four would have made it unconstitutional to discriminate based on sex. Bahamians rejected the four questions in the second constitutional referendum, delivering a defeat to the yes camp, and a refusal to accept an opportunity for progress.

The buckets’ glossy and reflective finish that may be representative of a kind of feminine frivolity. Mica is a shiny type of rock that is still used today in certain make-ups, those that have “shimmer” or “shine” to them. The rock was also used in cave paintings from the Upper Paleolithic period from 40,000 to 10,000 BCE. The Mayans used mica on the surfaces of their temples during special occasions. Sheen is a decorative aesthetic that has made its way into the beauty industry today, a tool aiding to achieve an ideal beauty that the media constantly promotes. The sheen surface of the buckets directly correlates with this aesthetic seen profoundly in the female cosmetic industry.

Details from “Portal: There’s a WHole in the Bucket.” Images courtesy of Dante Carrer.

The roundness and shininess of the buckets create a tension in the oscillating between this man-made object and the sexualized objectivity of women. The desire and pressure of today’s society to look a certain way, to have fat stored in specific areas but not others, to be clean cut and shaved, to be dazzled and glittered and shiny and blemish-free, to have smooth skin and long hair, all are exhibited subtly in this piece.

The understanding of this work lies in a physical interaction between the viewer and the art, a contemplative and self-reflective moment that hopefully promotes a deeper appreciation for the incredible beings that are women.