By Dr. Ian Bethell-Bennett
There was yet another illustration of ownership in Jodi Minnis’ exhibition, “It’s a Bahamian Thing!” Perhaps the objectification of women by men, the social construct of women being seen as inferior and limited to that 19
century concept of being chattel or property, has become clear. On Thursday, January 14, at the Central Bank of The Bahamas Art Gallery, Jodi Minnis opened her the exhibition and unveiled a compelling, if not disturbing, social commentary on the state of national ‘sweethearting’.
In Minnis’ works, Avvy’s song “Roach On My Bread” is deconstructed and turned around to discuss the other side of patriarchal domination. Avvy’s song decries
cheating on him, and the fatness of her bread that belongs to him; men are allowed and encouraged to cheat on women, but women certainly are not socially allowed to cheat on men. They must, though, submit to be cheated on.
Minnis’ exhibition works to show how women are imprisoned in a room full of roaches as men are encouraged to womanize and commit adultery. The works capture the shift in scale of the discourse, but also seriously challenges the level of social commitment to cheating masculinity. The audience is invited into a space where the woman in question, the man’s ‘bread’, is shrouded in roaches from his inability to keep his masculinity under raps. The works show women in all the usual positions and the numerous roaches that surround them/her. In my reading of the artistic discussion, the often faceless women stands for all women in society and while apparently silent and submitting to the exploitation and demeaning treatment, is also resistant to the faceless sexploitation.
Minnis grapples with many layers of social discourse from allowing sweethearting to ‘provoking’ it through culturally entrenched aphrodisiacs, which is where the conch and its many culinary adaptations seem to come in. The masculinist discourse is apparently not disturbed, but it really is. Once women begin to speak out, can the same status quo continue uninterrupted? Once women are empowered, will they continue to be property of men? Minnis posits all kinds of questions, and cultural scapegoats – common cuisine items – are well placed around the upper floor. Is it really the fault of the aphrodisiac?
Misogyny and double standards
Understanding that adultery will occur in all cultures, and at all levels, it is not condoned or encouraged as a right or need of men. The street speak is that all men, in order to have their man card validated, must have more than one woman. Yet, these men take little to no responsibility for any of their behavior, nor for the women they are meant to ‘like’ or love.
In fact, they are encouraged to simply use these women as if they were chattels and to reduce them to ‘bread’, or to a part of their anatomy, referred to in a very demeaning fashion.
Minnis creates a language that shows all of this, but leaves space for the viewer to see him or herself in the exhibition. The art is not heavy handed nor is it overly controlled. The lines are clean and the colors work well to demonstrate a nuanced but uncomplicated interpretation of cultural norms and social mores.
We must be troubled that, in the 21
century, women are still seen as chattels; this view of women is at times reinforced by some women themselves. Further, the discourse, while showing the cultural language of gender inequality and hypermasculinty, packs a punch because it articulates how pervasive and precarious this problem is.
As the government moves into a new phase of liberalization through national health, its members’ loose behavior also condones high levels of sweethearting and gender-based discrimination. I like Minnis’ uncomplicated demonstration of the lack of culpability for male behavior through the use of cultural icons and idioms to excuse it.
Minnis’s exhibition captures art and culture, and interlocks them in a debate with music that so often espouses serious gender biases and encourages gender-based violence through its lyrics and nuances. Bahamian culture provides a lively discussion on social trends and on public officials and their behavior, but we seem to be venturing further into a far less critical acceptance of misogyny and paternalism, accompanied by the overt sexualization and objectification, especially of women.
Sweethearting and morality
Minnis’ work shows some very serious cracks in our Christian veneer. It has a youthful, cool and fun edginess to it as well as an awareness of inconsistencies. The youth are deflowered all too young. Can we say that her work captures the serious and complex nature of nationally encouraged gender inequality and sexual exploitation through power imbalance? Can we say that young artists are excellent at being ambassadors to counter a great deal of the normative behaviour we accept as the country slips further into chaos? Avvy’s song is terrific in its beat and nuanced speak, and Minnis explodes that with her
‘gentle’ confrontation with the status quo and the gendered message.
As many young men offered, the woman was the one doing the ‘roaching’.
But as many young women pointed out, what young woman would want to sit in a room filled with roaches?
Seriously, how many women choose to be roached?
How many women choose to be seen as nothing more than bread?
Nationally, the debate is quiet, but gender-based violence is flourishing, and in fact, growing. We must not forget that the last few months have witnessed some serious sexual assault cases, many of them kept from the public eye, others tramped out on social media. Of these, few have received the uncritical attention of the officers of the law. This country has chosen to adopt tourism as its culture, according to the minister of tourism. Yet, tourist women are not safe to enjoy the very attraction we claim we are so good at offering? And then, public officials who see no problem in tramping out their sexual proclivities toward violence and domination do not see their role for encouraging serious social dysfunction.
Minnis and the conch are wonderful and necessary social conversations. Through her work, she demonstrates masculine privilege and female disempowerment through social inequalities and a culture that is quickly becoming unapologetically violent, but which excuses men from their violence. We are venturing into extremely interesting ground; I hope that, from this conversation, other chatter will arise and some real positive change will begin to happen. Art influences, as does music. Let’s build on a positive influence.