May’s Artwork of the Month: Antonius Roberts “Procession of Females in White Uniforms”

Antonius Roberts is known as one of The Bahamas’ leading artists, exploring themes of nature, humanity and spirituality through a diverse range of genres. Roberts focuses on sculpture, furniture making, and painting, as well as teaching and mentoring. Through his involvement with the arts community, Roberts inspires and supports emerging artists and scholars allowing a platform for defining the meaning of being an artist in this country.

No matter where you go in New Providence, you are likely to be surrounded by one of Roberts’ works, whether it be on a bench by the beach, in an institution, or in someone’s home – Roberts has contributed enormously in outlining the language of Bahamian art. Although most of his works are Bahamian based, Roberts is recognized widely for his vibrant color palette, brilliantly applied to the canvas, thin and thick, allowing a unique complexity to the surface of his works. His woodwork imitates his appreciation for the land, conserving Mother Nature’s organic forms and deep, rich wooden colors. Roberts has exhibited his work in many countries with both solo and group exhibitions.

Roberts was born in 1958 in Nassau, Bahamas and received his BFA in Painting from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Roberts played a crucial role in the conservation of the former Villa Doyle and its transformation into what is now the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas. Amongst many things, he is currently the Curator of the Central Bank Art Gallery.

Roberts created ‘Sacred Space’, a site comprised of twelve women sculpted out of dead casuarina trees overlooking a cliff on the Western end of Nassau. The site was once the landing point of slaves traveling from Africa. The repetition of women seen in Roberts’ ‘Sacred Space’ directly correlates to Procession of Females in White Uniforms, an oil painting depicting a group of women walking in an orderly fashion, as if part of a ceremony or procession. Roberts frequently revisits the female form, drawing light to the overlooked importance of women in our society and around the world.

The painting highlights a moment that seems mundane, eight women marching to their daily task in a way that feels structured and controlled. The identities of the women depicted are not unique – they each carry equivalent quiet expressions, similar body structures, and an identical wardrobe. This aesthetic choice highlights the idea of the workforce, a body of people who participate in labour as if just another part of the machine, working hard without any consideration of the individual’s hopes, dreams or aspirations.

The women are dressed in traditional colonial nursing uniforms, comprised of all white garments from head to toe. The traditional nurse uniform from Great Britain consisted of a white dress, apron and cap. This style was derived from the nun’s habit, as the nuns took care of sick and injured people before the 19th century. The uniforms also consisted of a nursing pin, a type of badge worn by nurses to indicate the nursing school in which they graduated. Most pins had a symbolic meaning, representing the history of the nursing program for that particular school. In the painting, Roberts only provides the blue and yellow colors of the badge. These two colors are indicative of the Bahamian flag – representing a workforce of individuals who have emerged from the Bahamas and are patriotically continuing to benefit the country with their labour.

The background color palette seen in this work is suggestive of the 1801 building located on Duke Street, now known as the Government House. It is comprised of a conch-pink and white trim, a perfect example of the merging of British-Bahamian and American Colonial architecture. Roberts has masterfully imitated this specific pink to directly reference the Bahamas, its Government, and the many years of British colonial influence.

This painting exceptionally captures a mundane march toward labour, erasing any individuality that inevitably comprises these women. It highlights society’s expectations of women in the workforce to be strong and loyal to their trade, to dress properly, to be clean and tidy, and above all, to continue without individuality. The job at task is the Government’s priority, and its execution rises above any woman’s desire for independence. It is my hope that the viewer of this work can understand the danger of this mentality, and strive to inspire young people to question and exercise their uniqueness.

A great deal of contrast is exemplified through the imagery of this group of Bahamian women dressed in traditional British nursing garments. It seems uncomfortable, as if Bahamian cultural aesthetic was not regarded and that the British way was the only way – a colonial ideology that still somewhat exists today. But what is the Bahamian aesthetic? Years of continuous British and American influence has us still wondering – it is through art and community and discussion and education that we can indeed continue to appreciate our neighbours, but strive for individuality that comes from an authentic, deeply Bahamian place.

Antonius Roberts. Procession of Females in White Uniforms, 1984, Oil on canvas, 41 x 43 in. This image is a part of the NAGB National Collection.