By Dr Ian Bethell-Bennett
The dream sold is of young men being told that they are prosperous, only to realise that they are imprisoned in a tangled web of failure or underachievement. Young men from the inner city, once the thriving home of Blacks–forced by segregation and reduced circumstances to live in particular parts of town–is cast as the worst place in the country, a place that only produces criminals.
These young men are taught they are not allowed to demonstrate emotion other than anger and are to be “hard” young men, which means to procreate, while collecting and discarding women. They come from broken families where no one has the time to talk, to share and they are expected to support the family in early adulthood. Such is the stereotype of the young, poor, Black male.
Gender constructs become a social prison in this environment that compound development and produce cultural norms that undermine national progress. Normalising this kind of gendered behaviour reduces a young man to a violent body expected to feel only through deriving sexual pleasure, never providing the same. The Caribbean boasts this kind of set-in-stone male stereotype, where men are seen as soft if they are educated and causing many to join gangs as a form of identification and belonging.
“The Ballad to Deangelo Johnson from Quakoo Street” is much like Diana McCaulay’s 2010 novel “Dog-Heart,” only installation art is different from literature and poetry, is distinct from prose; it is also set in The Bahamas as opposed to Kingston. All the same, it is much like a trap that devours young people through the hard and fast playing out of stereotypes and racialised behavioural patterns that negate any individuality or soul.
In a deeply colonised, fervently Christian, deeply corrupt and class-stratified society, the ability of poor young men to ascend out of the limitations is almost impossible. They can be gangsters or basketball players, and they must work hard to rise out of the swamp of peer-pressure if they choose the latter.
In the exhibition series “Double Dutch” the latest edition of which opened yesterday, Friday, July 21st at the NAGB brings together two artists, one from The Bahamas and another from elsewhere in the region. This iteration of Double Dutch “Of Skin and Sand” focuses on Bahamian Edrin Symonette and Jamaican Leasho Johnson, who use different media to communicate a similar message. Although distinct in their work and their depiction, the overlaps between these two young men are quite interesting. Masculinity and the cultural tragedy that destroys it, similar to Ian Strachan’s play “Gun Boy’s Rhapsody,” break silences through visually disturbing the view, first through nudity and then through masculinity on display.
In 2017, the severely damaged national fabric as shown in these works is not unique to The Bahamas but is regional as can be attested by Trinidad, Jamaica and Barbados. It is no accident, however, that The Bahamas has one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the region, even though underreported especially when men are expected to behave in said fashion towards women. The system in our countries is deeply dehumanizing and although often romanticized as a friendly paradise, it is not paradise for those who inhabit Over-the-Hill with their strict codes of conduct, their limitations and their crushing social constraints that reduce masculinity and femininity to what tourists want and so we are produced for consumption by those who come to revel on our shores.
Earlier this year, Sue Katz Lightbourn showed her work on images of women at Hillside House, which critiqued the sexualisation and objectification of women in popular culture and media. These two young men work with similar images, but this time more focused on males and masculine stereotypes and identity.
At the same time, Johnson depicts images of ‘typical’ Black women in other work displayed in Jamaica. His 2015 “Back-fi-a-bend,” created with yeast paste on a wall in Kingston, Jamaica, presents the image of a Caribbean woman, who Zora Neale Hurston in her anthropological work such as “Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica,” (1938); “Mules and Men,” (1935), "Dance Songs and Tales from the Bahamas," in the Journal of American Folklore (July–September, 1930, issue) would have called a beast of burden, carrying bananas on her head and her back. The first part of the images in Johnson’s work is of women fully be-gowned and crowned with the emblematic fruit of Caribbean servitude, the Banana. The last in the sequence is of a woman bent over, naked with the bunch of bananas on her back. Although all images depict servitude, they also show a degree of resistance to that servitude. However, in this show, Johnson approaches the work from a different angle, examining more the images of human sexuality, perhaps better said is the idea of beastly sexuality and masculinity. To join this Symonette’s installation presents a male body prostrate on the ground covered in sand and sawdust with genitals exposed.
In The Bahamas, although silenced, the fact that no other real or sustainable form of national economic dependence is ever mentioned other than banking a pipe dream sold to a largely minimally functionally literate audience, where people are to be servers in the air-conditioned bliss of resorts while ignoring the exodus of banks. The new focus on Tourism and its plantation-based economic model is fully explored in the play “Smile Orange” by Jamaican playwright Trevor Rhone. Originally performed on stage in Jamaica in 1971, it captures the insidious exploitation with which we are complicit victims, according to Rhone. It is not ironic that some 40 odd years later, the paradise dream or myth is even more entrenched and the population less aware of the social and economic degradation that partners with tourism.
Art is not meant to cajole us into comfortable acceptance, though for some people a pretty view is all that art should be decorative. At the same time, the social praxis is often expunged from the work because it makes people uncomfortable. This show is uncomfortable. It exposes the world’s view of Caribbean masculinity, indeed Black masculinity as nothing but a penis used to sire more bodies of labour or to provide pleasure for those who come for a few days of paradise sunshine.
Patricia Glinton-Meicholas’s “No Vacancy in Paradise” (2001) and Ian Strachan’s “Paradise or Plantation” (2003) form a dangerous alliance with Jamaica Kincaid’s caustic little book “A Small Place” (1988), that exposes the underbelly of Caribbean life, and it is even thrown into sharper focus in her “My Brother” (1998), penned 10 years later. These works, pave the way for what Symonette and Johnson capture in their installation. Though the region has become less pithy and less critical of its unholy alliances, it is still deeply invested in self-exploitation through romantic self-selling. Perhaps the best way of examining an absurdity palpable in Rhone’s play is through the ironic images of Caribbean alterity deconstructed and critiqued in Dr. Krista Thompson‘s “An Eye for the Tropics,” (2007).
It is also ironic that 44 years of independence has produced a far less self-critical group of leaders that were perhaps satirised by the earlier Caribbean artists and thinkers but are far less criticised today. Although problematic, V.S. Naipaul’s “The Mimic Men” (1967) soundly castigates these leaders who become the same colonial masters from whom they saved these small post-colonies. Rhone’s play shows how merciless writers and artists were in the early days of idealism and social reform. Today, we are made uncomfortable by nudity, even while we celebrate the prostitution that tourism embodies. Governments come and go, yet tourism, notwithstanding all discourse of sustainability and nationalism, remains the fatted calf that cannot be criticised.
What is so oxymoronic about the nudity and the use of the Black body, or even more pointedly the mulatto body is its silence. We choose to ignore the selling of souls. We are so closely monitored and tightly wound in our Christianity closet that we dare not discuss sexuality, sex, sensuality and commodification of the body. We cannot contain our delight when it comes to bashing art or the possibility of women achieving some degree of equality. We have become so consumed with an irony of the tongue cocked solidly in the cheek that we cannot even see the glaring irony, painful paradox and (a)cute oxymoron of morality in paradise. Paradise is always deeply sexualized and always ready to be exploited.
The artwork produced for “Of Skin and Sand” is so wonderfully disturbing and yet so quiet, except, of course for the minor problem of a male member being exposed in the set. Do we not get the awful political correctness and lack of awareness being produced by a people who can no longer see nudity without cringing but can walk over, by, past poverty and death without batting an eyelash? It would have perhaps been truly pushing the envelope if the tone and metre of Rhone’s play and Walcott’s work could have even been approached by these two artists.
We can talk about women being beaten, about not challenging men and their need to behave badly, about the patriarchal privilege of leadership and the use of the penis to rule over an entire community, but we cannot discuss the objectification and the commodification of bodies who barely matter to those who lead them. Sexual violence and sexual exploitation thrive in such inequalities and silences. We are the beach on which other people’s dreams, fantasies and even perhaps nightmares are played out, especially when deposits of semen are left behind, though we daren’t mention such. It is not ironic that we are bent under the weight of the paradise myth and the continued sexploitation of “Otherness” and the inherent loss of identity that occurs through national erasure of multiple stories.
Johnson and Symonette show us so many deeply silenced and nuanced stories that we can choose to ignore the penis lying there. It is also not ironic but tragic that all most people care about is buying into the myth of Black masculinity perpetuated by a long-lasting stereotype that all Blacks and especially mulattos are only good for…..
I appreciate and love the work and the discussion it can produce, but also the damage to personal and national psyche it demonstrates. Similar to Katz Lightbourn’s show, this work deconstructs how we see masculinity and femininity and shows us that we are being sold off at an amazingly low price, yet we see nothing wrong with the packaged deal. We are the silenced subalterns in ‘Stella Getting her Groove Back’ who are not even aware of the damage done, but who serve other people’s hang ups and downs.