Art speaks about where a country
is as well as where it was. It is exciting to see how a country’s art scene
grows, develops and organically changes. The visual arts in the country have
really undergone a transformation over the last 20 years. The field has
developed internationally, but here it has developed in terms of the people who
have become a part of it and the numbers of artists who are expressing
themselves publicly, as well as the textures, vivacity, topics and nuances. We
are who we are, and that will never change. What we do is often hide who we are
because we think it is expedient to do so. However, who we are is revealed
The recent carnival festivities
went off without any apparent hitches, except its being supported almost
exclusively by a local market. What was fabulous was the art show organized by
Antonius Roberts. It showed that carnival could be more than just about gyrating
and twerking bodies on a road. Of course, carnival breeds this show of skin and
sensuality. But that is what the Caribbean is known for, according to Mark
Padilla in Caribbean Pleasure Industry
It is known for this, and this image will always create cultural conflict in a
highly moralistically-policed nation, but so will Junkanoo. However, while the real
money sunk into Carnival has yet to be revealed and the earnings have yet to be
totaled, if they are ever… the artistic scene was incredible. Roberts’ Hillside
House was packed to the rafters with art from all generations and walks of
life. It was simply a feast for the eye. It also showed how much Bahamian art
and art created in The Bahamas has changed. It has mushroomed and encompasses
so many varied vehicles of expression as well as bodies who are talking through
art. John Beadle’s piece at the entrance to the courtyard was simply
brilliantly expressive of Carnival but also uniquely Bahamian and terrifically
beautiful. Art transcends all the bickering about the place of Carnival.
We may not be ready for this cultural change,
but its machinery in other countries has proved so successful in generating
dollars, that it will be hard for us to keep it at bay, given the government’s
sole interest in making money.
As culture shifts and artistic
expression develops, when we try to control and to manufacture a culture, we actually
work against the flow. In a nation at sea level, surrounded by water, we should
know that swimming against the current is foolhardy, however, most people
cannot swim. Thankfully even that is changing, although we still pay scarce
attention to swimming and often choose to represent it as an elitist sport, we
would benefit greatly by embracing it.
As the art scene has grown and
developed, so too have our ways of expressing ourselves outside of that. We
have suddenly embraced the concept of Carnival, and many people are happy and
excited by this, but that does not mean it is authentically Bahamian. We staged
what most would say was a truly terrific event, but that does not mean we must
embrace it the same way we embrace Junkanoo, nor that it will replace Junkanoo.
Junkanoo is also not the only manifestation of Bahamian culture that lives. It
is simply reductive when we argue that Junkanoo is Bahamian culture, and if you
do not support Junkanoo, you are not Bahamian. One can be Bahamian and support
Goombay Summer, which is apparently no longer government sanctioned or backed,
those resources have been transferred to Carnival. Why not decry that? Junkanoo,
however, will remain a transforming Bahamian art form. It does not, however,
delimit our artistic, cultural or personal expression. Our culture is
resilient, as our emergence from slavery and colonialism can attest.
The value of cultural resilience
is beyond dispute, but we must remember that we have chosen to highlight what
we want to see and to downplay all that we do not wish to see. It does not
mean, though, that the downplayed or “invisible” does not exist. Government can
sanction and back whatever it wishes to, but it does not control the
development of culture nor art. In fact, culture develops in spite of
restrictions. Artforms like graffiti often surface in direct contestation to government
and official policy. Graffiti is usually an art of resistance that speaks of
culture, it articulates youth angst and anger and criticizes unjust policies.
It challenges poverty and gives poor people a voice, it also speaks on behalf
of middle class youth who feel misunderstood and ignored. Language does the
same thing and captures a reality that will change from one year to the next.
We cannot contain culture nor can we constrain art. I think the NAGB’s
exhibition, Celebrating 40 Years of the Central Bank, which opened on June 2,
shows this development and attests to the change that we live.
Further, as much as people resist
cultural change, it happens. We now embrace the Fish Fry, but how many people
saw that as a terrible development when it grew out of what was once abandoned
land after Bahamas Customs’ headquarters became too unsafe to occupy? That
space has become a living, breathing expression of Bahamianness, and it is a
space that tourists enjoy, but it is not a tourist space.
Marina Village is a tourist space that locals
enjoy, but it did not develop organically as Fish Fry did. Art and culture
happen; they are not often manufactured. However, the manufactured product does
sometimes threaten and ultimately replace the organic form, and we forget our
organic cultural expression. This is similar to our distrust of burial societies
in the postcolonial Bahamas, which grew out of an anti-African, anti-black
thread present in colonialism. This can be rectified by embracing the black in
us, along with everything else. Why do so many artistic depictions express this
angst about our color and ethnicity if it does not exist?
Our art and culture scene is alive
and vibrant, it is not challenged nor polluted by outsiders, as many people
argue. Yes, Carnival will change our culture. Yes, it will change the way we
live. And yes, it will push Bahamians to transform themselves. But that is the
same as the government selloff of any available piece of land to foreign
corporations. As the geography of home changes, so too does the way we live on
While we tarry in our cultural
defensiveness, art continues to be produced, culture continues to change, and
the world we live in becomes irreparably altered by rescaping and rezoning. This,
however, does not say that we should all run out and buy I Love Carnival T-shirts.
Our culture has already changed; we just need to catch up. Carnival is as
damaging as we allow it to be, but the art show orchestrated by Antonius
Roberts as a companion to Carnival captured a vibrant artistic life that is,
simply put, fabulous.
We are moving onto
new heights, let’s begin to soar and see how much higher we will go, rather
than remain pinned to a reality that has already ceased to exist but which lives
in our fantasies.