"John Beadle’s Row Yah Boat: Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily life is but a dream.’ Wake up!" by Natascha Vazquez
John Beadle was born in 1964 on the island of New Providence in The Bahamas. He received his BFA and MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and the Tyler School of Art of Temple University respectively. Beadle delves into various art genres, including painting, printmaking, sculpture and installation. Often, his highly conceptual work consists of everyday materials such as wood, found objects or metal. According to Beadle, “Material - the found, already weathered stuff carries with it a fragmented narrative that makes for very interesting placement possibilities.”
Beadle demonstrates great dexterity through the use of non-traditional material such as fishing hooks, machetes, and oars which are frequently contained in his works. The process of incorporating these found materials into the pieces presents an intimacy to the works that wouldn’t otherwise be achieved – people can relate to them on a personal level, with materials that may be familiar outside of an art context.
Row Yah Boat is made up of a variety of materials, including wood, metal, plaster and other found objects. The viewer is presented with a trolley on wheels, carrying multiple plastered heads on top of a brownish-red, gravel-like/dirt-like material. Above the heads within the perimeter of the trolley hangs a wooden oar, delicately balancing on seven wires making a V-like shape. The oar extends outward over the gallery floor, where a glimpse of blue string wrapped around and catches the eye, providing a stark sense of contrast against the weathered brown wood of the oar.
Beadle’s statement for the project states: “The piece started with me collecting the oar. The piece answers nothing. ‘Row, row, row yah boat. Row, row, row yah boat. Row, row, row yah boat gently down the stream, gently down the stream, merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily life is but a dream.’ Wake up! This piece started with me collecting the oar! How did I get here? The dream.”
The poetic arrangement of Beadle’s statement raises many questions and leaves interpretation wide open for the viewer in determining the concepts behind this sculpture.
The oar is traditionally used as a means of transportation through a technique known as sculling. Sculling is unique to The Bahamas and consists of the sculler standing at the back of the boat facing forward, with his right foot forward. The sculling notch is located on the port crown of the transom and balances in a notch sculpted into the back of the boat. In the left hand, the sculler grips the oar and pushes and pulls in a rhythmic motion. Through this effort, the boat is propelled through the water with great power and minimum effort.
A theme of physical movement is evident in this work, directly alluding to a form of transportation that feels somewhat primitive, but also authentic to The Bahamas and its people. Many of Beadle’s works deal with the gloom of illegal migrants and the inevitable identity struggle that encompasses the life of an immigrant. He often questions what it means to be a Bahamian person. For that reason, the back and forth motion associated with the oar may be a symbol of the movement of people from one place to another, and the complexities that come with establishing stability in a new environment.
Beadle’s formal choice of stringing the oar amidst the trolley with seven repeated identical wires adds an aura of the sensation of movement, particularly the rhythmic, steady motion that a man executes through his sculling.
On top of the trolley, lie twenty sculpted white plastered heads. Details on the faces are limited, with only the subtle engravings of eyes, a nose, a mouth and ears presented to the viewer. We cannot distinguish the gender of the heads, nor the race or age. Some heads are stuffed with silk cotton balls and others with simply crafted wire structures. The blue rope seen on the top of the oar is repeated on some of the heads, deliberately covering their eyes and mouths. Various heads have been covered with the brown gravel/dirt-like fine powder that they sit on, and one head is lined with spikes from a silk cotton tree. The heads are intentionally placed with materials that are associated with that of a labourer.
Beadle is making a plethora of references with his choice of found material interacting with the sculpted heads. One of the heads dominantly sits on top of a wooden pedestal, and two others are suspended on a wire platform. The variable heights animate the sculptures, providing a dynamic that feels rather active. The juxtaposition between physical movement and the lifeless heads exhibited without bodies adds an interesting layer of context to the piece. The idea of physical labor is presented through the oar and the trolley, but the emotionless heads provide a sense of a lack of expressive freedom.
Disembodiment has a role in society of being a type of unruliness that is visible to some, but invisible to most. According to Coates in ‘Between the World and Me,' “Disembodiment is a kind of terrorism, and the threat of it alters the orbit of all our lives and, like terrorism, this distortion is intentional” (114). To Coates, being black in a white supremacist society is similar to living in constant fear. Black male bodies are thought of being insensitive, superhumanly strong and threatening. Trayvon Martin threw an adult man’s head into concrete with consistent force, and Michael Brown was a demon who charged into a storm of bullets toward an officer’s gun, with no hesitation. Despite these assumptions, Coates describes the black male body as vulnerable and poses the question of how it is to live in a body that is both scared and scary, simultaneously.
Beadle’s choice to exclude facial details that may provide insight into the person’s individuality further speaks to a lack of identity, an issue commonly felt by migrants. The piece shines a light on the worker, perhaps being used for his or her physical power, and commonly seen as an object rather than as an individual. Their bodies are used as a means of aiding in the completion of a task, like a machine perhaps, rather than a being of spiritual significance.
Beadle’s use of a neutral colour palette makes direct reference to the land, further emphasizing the job of a labourer, working conceivably in a field or on a farm. The piece in its entirety draws attention to the relationship between people, cultural identity, post-colonial labour and freedom in The Bahamas.
“Row Yah Boat” is currently on view in the NAGB’s National Exhibition 8 through April 16, 2017.