By Natalie Willis.
A fire-breathing hell-beast, a scaly winged thing of fantasy - sometimes good, sometimes dangerous and greedy: Dragons. Not a staple in the established subject matter for Amos Ferguson, but nonetheless a treasure in the National Collection, an entity worthy of having an epic flying reptilian guarding it for sure. Ferguson’s “The Dragon” (1991) is an outlier for a lot of reasons. While his usual practice includes references to biblical scenes, Bahamian folklore, and more often than not, Bahamian scenery - with the iconic titles painted in Bahamian vernacular that act as a mirror for our particular language traditions, this piece doesn’t quite typify his practice.
Amos Ferguson is one of our intuitive artists, hailing from Exuma and, to us, he is almost the stuff of folklore himself. Intuitive artists, more often – and perhaps more insensitively – referred to as naive artists, folk artists, or outsider artists, are creative practitioners whose practice exists outside of the conventional art institution and education system. That is, quite simply, to say that intuitive artists are artists who do not have the formal training we conventionally expect from professional artists.
We are aware of our status generally as a country of people with limited means for our majority, and with tourism influencing our creative practices more than we might want, this is why practices like that of Ferguson are so vitally important. His work is bright, honest, and it is a marvelous foil to the more intentionally socially-engaged work in the National Collection that is formally shaped by the institution and art history. His work reminds us less of ‘where we come from’, though it can certainly do so, it reminds more us of who we are and what we all know by living here.
The Exuma-born painter, who moved to Nassau at 17, only began his art practice at the age of 40 - entirely unconventional by the standard timeline we think of for artists. Ferguson originally worked as a house and furniture painter, upholsterer, and carpenter, trained by his father who was a carpenter and preacher. From the beginning, he painted using materials to-hand: cardboard, board, and enamel house paint. This sort of rough-and-ready method is more associated with many of our contemporary artists, using our environment to reflect ourselves in the work. He painted because, as ‘legend’ tells, one of his family members had a vision from God - and thus, his magic began. Ferguson had always proclaimed that he painted by faith and that God leads him through his works.
This investment in his faith is where the Dragon begins to make perfect sense. Dragons are a fixture in world history, with every region and major civilisation having its interpretation. In traditional western art history, Dragons are much more in keeping with the image of Tolkien’s Smaug in ‘The Hobbit’ - fire-breathing, lizard-like beasts capable of flight. The folk stories of old always portray them as fierce fiendish things, as powerful as they were dangerous. It was not long before the folk stories gave way to Christian symbolism, where dragons became a representation of Satan himself.
The image of a saint or profound religious figure in biblical stories slaying a dragon were popular in the Orthodox Christian faith of the Middle Ages, but also in the Islamic world of that time, with dragon-killer saints being depicted on coins from both Christian and Islamic kingdoms. Saint George - the serpent-slayer associated with Christianity and Britain, with England carrying George as its patron saint - is also recognized in Muslim traditions as Al Khidr, seen as a patron of spring and fertility.
This wrapping up of Dragons in the Christian faith is what makes perfect sense for Ferguson’s portrayal: a biblical beast, representing one of the serpentile forms of Lucifer. Ferguson was an avid student of the Bible, and no doubt would have come across the passage in Revelation that reads: “He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.” This is part of a greater tale of the angel Michael fighting against a dragon, the dragon, of course, representing the devil.
The story in Revelation of The Woman and The Dragon: “A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and his throne.”
Ferguson’s dragon becomes a brooding study of biblical iconography and symbology, with a seven-headed beast surrounded by stars. His super-flat style of painting with enamel - something that takes precision and patience to render as successfully as he does - shows us this dragon as something ominous. Very rarely did Ferguson use black for anything but hair and eyes and details, but this is a dark-coloured beast, black and red to signify the darkness of Satan.
Further, the shape of the support - that is, the material that the image was painted onto - of ‘The Dragon” is also atypical of his practice. However, the octagonal way that the image is framed serves as a perfect way of emphasising what framing does - paintings are bound by their frames, and this emphasis on framing and shape serves as a metaphor for Ferguson binding and containing Satan himself. We can only hope that the work will last the thousand years that he has bound this evil for!
Though Ferguson’s work usually includes fantastical creatures that are more out of Bahamian folklore, such as mermaids surrounding a blue hole, his dragon becomes a mix and melange of folklore and the biblical in a unique way. His dragon isn’t quite the typical green fantasy fairytale dragon - it’s much more surreal and brooding. He was strong in his convictions in his faith, and this is seen in how much attention he had in keeping this serpentile version of Satan bound.It is interesting to Ferguson’s practice for certain, but it is also a good way to add more depth to how we think of Bahamian work that deals with faith, spirituality and mysticism.