By Natalie Willis.
Kendra Frorup’s ‘Domestic Chickens’ (2007) installation is one of the lesser-known pieces in the National Collection. The 2017-2018 Permanent Exhibition, ‘Revisiting An Eye For The Tropics’, is a departure point for us to look to the way the past has informed the present aesthetic in Bahamian artwork, and also importantly to showcase the works in the National Collection and remind us of what we have ownership and pride over as Bahamians.
For us here at the NAGB, it was originally installed in the Project Space Room of the Gallery, back when it was still known as the ‘Inner Sanctum’. It is at first glance a quirky work, and though the format is different from what we expect from Frorup, it is very much in keeping with her practice through its use of the symbolism of the chicken. In context, the image of the chicken holds a certain function here given that we see them both domesticated and wild so often throughout the islands. However, we also understand the stereotypes associated with our black American neighbours.
The work originally included row upon row of the strange, box-like, chicken-footed marionette sculptures - but for this current Permanent Exhibition, we have pared it back a little to fit in the cozy niches in the North-Eastern gallery. It has retained its gravitas and presence, for certain, but the drama of how it was previously lit – in darkness, with theatrical spots – has been presented in a slightly more intimate manner. The chickens here ‘behave themselves’ and fit in with the abstract works of the ‘Resisting Representation’ room aptly.
It is only fitting really that the work functions in this way, with the name being indicative of the behavior expected of Frorup’s headless chickens. The idea of domesticity is often laughable in relation to her work because while she does, of course, make prints that have such a delicacy to them, she is more often than not an architect of grand, weighty objects – wood, iron and things lost and found. She constructs hefty things with their sense of self and confidence in their bearing. Still, something of that symbol of the chicken provides an idea of the domesticated and something more wild and untamable. For the average Bahamian, the image of the chicken calls to mind, not just tasty dishes, but also the wild fowl that run free in settlements throughout the archipelago, but particularly in many areas in Nassau – most notably areas that were former slave villages.
This chicken then becomes problematic, as we all know the stereotypes surrounding black folks and chicken. To many, it seems harmless at first, but of course, this is hardly the case. This stereotype comes from a long line of similar images: grape drink, watermelon, we know the types from American media, fried chicken included. However, it is predicated on the notion of black people being easily sated, and more specifically from black slaves being easily placated by food, being ‘simple’ creatures, subhuman and easily rewarded with food. This easily recalls historical racist iconography; those painfully ubiquitous images of black caricatures with oversized lips eating watermelon. Suddenly the image becomes less ‘harmless joke’ (as if it ever could be) and much more sinister when a little light is shed on this truth and this history.
In spite of this, Frorup has taken this image and re-presented it for our consideration in a more nuanced way. The domesticated chickens become us in their own way, and this domestication is something to re-assess in the way we think about the respectability politics here and the way we view the things that make us ‘civilised’ in the eyes of the world, the way our work can define us.
These trousered-chickens are strung up, but who controls the strings? Awkward legs buckle under their weight. This balancing act is so akin to the various roles and images we have to manage as people of colour, as people in a postcolonial society, as people who are still trying to figure our identity out in the setting of this uncomfortable in-between-space.
And who pulls our strings? We are stretched thin, being pulled in the direction of old ideals for what we need to look and act like to make us respectable as black folks while being pulled another way by this need to make a living after the years of subservience under colonialism. Thus only to be left with service industries to sustain ourselves, which is all terribly hard work - let alone dealing with our actual jobs.
The found wood used to top these chickens and connect them to their strings provides a kind of parallel for the way these domestic chickens function. The wood is something natural that has been taken and formed - at once natural and manufactured, and it reflects the balance of the fowl so well. Something about the found nature of it offers a resistance that shows that while the chicken is domesticated, it is not completely under our control and hence cannot be controlled, and cannot be removed from where it came from.