There is a very specific kind of uneasiness in black Bahamians as we try to translate our blackness when we move into other spaces, and it is most felt and visceral when we emigrate. While the African diaspora is very much real and very much alive, there’s often this unspoken but palpable sense as Bahamians - given our history - that we can’t quite always tap into our blackness when we’re placed elsewhere; that we don’t quite feel a part of the main. We feel that our ties are tenuous, and when you add in the complexity of identifying with black womanhood on a global scale, the waters become more muddied.
For the eighth National Exhibition (NE8), Giovanna Swaby addresses this discomfort directly in “I Learned In Passing” (2016). Through this displaced domestic setting, Swaby builds up a narrative that so many of us can identify with as black Bahamian women travelling abroad. There are framed images including snippets of dialogue outlining incidents of racial microaggressions: those lesser-known, smaller, but more insidious moments of stereotyping practices that can so often be left unaddressed because they are seen to be ‘harmless’ ignorances, rather than a big part of the patriarchal machine.
Ornate wallpaper and frames make an intimate home for the project in the ballroom of the NAGB. It is an unabashedly and unashamedly domestic, feminine space. Swaby outlines the difficulty in her move to Canada for university. “A lot of it had to do with the vast difference in culture in general. Vancouver has a very strong sense of politeness that isn’t as much to do with friendliness all the time and can feel quite passive-aggressive.” The work deals very openly and honestly with her experience and that of other women in the same situation. “I just find it kind of strange to navigate spaces as a black woman here, knowing that a lot of the people I come across won’t have encountered many black people in their lives.
There’s this level of curiosity, and that’s difficult for me to deal with, and that seems difficult to satisfy on their end. I feel like I’m constantly walking a line of trying to figure out in each instance if the curiosity is innocent or harmful - and that’s one of the things I’ve been trying to address in my work. When do people cross the line from being curious into being harmful or offensive?” It’s an utterly uncomfortable experience being seen as Other at best, and unfortunately often violent at its worst. To be Other is to be foreign, unfamiliar, to be exoticised and an object of curiosity as Swaby describes, or to be feared. How can we find strategies to combat this? This is partly how the work functions for her, as a tool to attempt to correct some of these issues. “The work is a little bit of an educational experience. In the first showing of the piece in Vancouver, most of the audience obviously wasn’t going to be black, and in fact, the Vancouver audience is mostly Asian people or Caucasian people who can’t relate to this experience of being a black woman in a mostly non-black space. In some ways, it’s a window for them into this experience that they would never otherwise be privy to. That’s important because it heightens a sense of awareness in their future interactions and how they might manage this, or perhaps it can highlight something that they may not have realised was offensive previously, something that they thought was normal or ‘okay’ that could so easily make someone uncomfortable as a black woman being approached this way.”
Translating your experience and learning to navigate new spaces has much to do with language and with these conversations occurring. How else can we get to know ourselves if not through interactions with those different to us? This kind of work runs in accordance with a strong tradition in black feminist work and the idea of portraiture as a way to reclaim narratives, and at the end of the day, Swaby’s work serves a rather large, involved installation that acts as a self-portrait of her experience and this shared experience we know so well. “As for the aesthetics, I chose to not shy away from the feminine. It’s very much about blackness, but it’s centred on womanhood as well. There’s a lot of fabric and sewing involved in the work; a very matriarchal practice or trade passed down and on from generations of women. I learned to sew from my mother and she from her mother. I don’t see a weakness in femininity, and I find the history of it to be very strong and dominant. I wanted to carry that on through my work instead of dismissing it - which is so often done in hopes of not being labelled as ‘artwork done by a woman’ or overtly feminine. I’m not interested in not identifying with this; I’m all about embracing this to learn more about it and continuing that history.”
This portrait of the life of a black woman moving and becoming a minority elsewhere is an idea we know all too well, through different interpretations. From the vital work of American artist Lorna Simpson - with her portraits of black women and men who could so easily be translated into any of us, into any of our experiences - to the work of artists closer to home, like Jamaican Ebony G. Patterson who bombards us with garish, beautiful, over-embellished installations investigating blackness in the Caribbean.
These works act as part of a bigger conversation, and a conversation needed, in how we are represented and how we are seen to the rest of the world, and most importantly, how this affects the way we are engaged with on a human level as much as the systemic problems we encounter. The more we open up this dialogue, the more we can work to build our narratives – as these women have done – and the more we can build our stories told from our mouths.