Being Biggity and Fighting For Our Rights
By Natalie Willis.
Maxwell Taylor is arguably the father of Bahamian art and his social critique of The Bahamas gives us good reason to believe so. Though Brent Malone is often hailed as such, he often referred the title to Taylor and we like to believe this was less to do with Malone’s graciousness (though certainly he was) and more to do with his admiration of the man. Taylor, along with his contemporaries Kendal Hanna and Brent Malone, all served particular functions in helping us to break down what visual culture in The Bahamas, and particularly engagement with it, can and should mean. First and foremost, all were intensely dedicated in perfecting their craft but their approaches to our landscape - physical, social, and spiritual - are as wildly different as the men themselves.
Malone was a master of representation and lifelong student, showing his avid reading of art historical greats at any turn and digging into the spirit of this place through surrealism, mythology, and the heart of Junkanoo. Hanna’s rejection of representation was radical in its own right, in a Bahamas that was still concerned with the tropicalised beauty of this place. But Taylor’s socially conscious practice bravely gave form to the issues that the wider Bahamian public face, issues that were largely sidelined, hushed, and played down in favour of promoting the mythology of “paradise”. A beautiful landscape does not a beautiful society make, and Taylor was as adamant in his pursuit of printmaking perfection as he was in making our societal bruises known.
One particular bruise, though one worn with more pride, is his large woodcut print “Burma Road” (c. 2008). Already having mastered his medium by this point, after decades of work, Taylor’s “Burma Road” is a thoughtful but also puzzling illustration of this turning point in our social history. In the midst of this turmoil, of men marching and rioting in protest of their ill treatment during the end of the colonial era, and indeed during the beginning of our movement to independence, there is an important question to be asked. Why does Taylor have us wave the British flag aloft? A question that was posed to staff by Dr. Eddie Chambers (noted author and thinker on Black visual culture) on his visit to the NAGB and something that has unsettled us since.
“Goin down Burma Road, Goin’ down Burma Road, Goin’ down Burma Road, don’t lick’ nobody”
sang Ronnie Butler (MBE, 1937 – 2017), renowned Bahamian Calypso and Rake ’n’ Scrape singer, often referred to as "The Godfather of Bahamian Music." There is a tension between the centuries-old British image of The Bahamas as an idyll full of “smiling natives” and “behaved” colonised bodies, and the nation’s history of marches, riots and social commentary. A large portion of this is best remembered through oral tradition, poetry and artwork outside of history books. People of The Bahamas do not remain quiet when injustice is served to us, and we have a tendency get “biggity,” to speak up and to make it known that we will not accept it.
The Burma Road Riot of June 1st, 1942, was set in the midst of the mire and atrocity of WWII. Though the riot in Nassau took place mainly on Bay Street, the moniker “Burma Road” was more a reference to the South-East Asian country and the turmoil at the time in the nation now known as Myanmar, following the collapse of that particular colony. But in these parts, in our own colonial trappings, Bahamian workers rose up together to insist on equal pay with their American counterparts for doing the same work on wartime air bases in Nassau. Two rioters were killed by British troops, with almost 50 injured and a hundred more arrested - a fact that much of our youth do not know. Our history has been glazed and glossed over in favour of preserving the very image of tourism that Taylor actively seeks to complicate and add truth to.
Over 2,000 workers outnumbered the British military presence (of over 400 officers) in protest over these vestiges from British-led slavery, with their racist overtones, still held firmly in place to devalue Black workers. Dr Claudius R. Walker, then speaking on behalf of the Bahamas Federation of Labour, met with the Duke of Windsor, that infamous abdicated King of England (formerly Edward VII), who was serving at the time as the Governor of The Bahamas.
Having explicitly been sent to the islands in near-exile (to be far away from the war due to his known position as a Nazi-sympathiser), he had stated just a few years earlier that The Bahamas was a “third-class British colony.” Walker, in conversation with the Duke, said of the riots, “The underlying causes for this social unrest are manifold... We are in the majority, but we have minority problems. We are poorly housed, poorly fed and poorly educated. Truth to tell, we are the wretched of the earth."
Wretched would indeed be a right sentiment at the time for how the majority of Bahamians, being primarily of African descent, felt about the lot that had been handed to them. Frantz Fanon, the Martinican thinker and revolutionary, envisioned Caribbeans in his writings on the “Wretched of the Earth” (1968) as, “individuals without an anchor, without horizon, colourless, stateless, rootless - a race of angels.” Caribbean people exist at a cultural crossroads, mainly consisting of displaced African heritage with European colonial power structures, mixed with migrations from the rest of the Global South colouring this history.
The defining trait for much of the region has been this displacement and lack of long-standing origin within the region. However, this “race of angels,” (Fanon, 1968) who built the Caribbean, have taken this feeling of being untethered as the grounds for finding freedom and taking it. Perhaps this is where many of us find our voice to speak out - free agents can be the most dynamic and most dangerous to the traditional (and often tricky) structures of power to which we have become accustomed.
“Burma Road” (c 2008) by Maxwell Taylor is part of the D’Aguilar Art Foundation Collection, generously loaned for the current Permanent Exhibition “Hard Mouth: From the Tongue of the Ocean”, on view now at the NAGB.