By Dr Ian Bethell-Bennett
University of The Bahamas
My eyes may be dim, but I can see
Though sight be mitigated by supervision,
My view is my experience
I shall not be moved
Art provides an interior image of exteriorised feelings that are usually not openly discussed. The interior/exterior reality of images and experiences is often surreal as it collapses spaces into times that are not always compatible. Art allows whimsical flights of fantasy and fancy, which break down barriers and create potential changes that defy limitations. Photography, at the same time, opens eyes to what is often overlooked, while also capturing an image of something in a unique way that renders it more or less than it is.
In the book Travelling Light (2000) Peter Osborne, professor of modern philosophy in London, explores the ways through which photography creates subjectivity and exoticism in and of a people and space. This was particularly important in the colonial project as the British extended their imperial grasp over India, the Caribbean and other places. They used the recorded image to send messages home that captured and framed difference in particular ways and without ever presenting the other aspects of the experience hidden behind the image or just outside of the frame.
The work explored at the National Exhibition 9 (NE9) “The Fruit and The Seed” grapples with many aspects of silences in Bahamian memory and spatial experiences. Documentary and journalistic photographer Eric Rose records some of these gaps that omit entire stories and appropriate those that are not left out by speaking over or silencing the subaltern to whom the (his)tory belongs. Rose builds on and works through what NAGB Chief Curator, Holly Bynoe, argues as the intent behind the show.
Whether it be through the lens of race, gender, parity and class as a way to clarify cultural, social and aesthetic decisions, the art-making process is used as a tool to bring to the fore ideologies on activism and advocacy, leading to a more empathetic and understanding culture.
Rose images the past capturing ways that history has ultimately been silenced by overwriting. His photography allows him to grapple with the fact that the Bahamian space is not for us, as Disneyfication–a term used by David Harvey in The art ofrent (2002) and Catherine Palmer argues in Tourism and colonialism: The experience of The Bahamas, (1994) grows. Palmer posits, “By relying on the images of a colonial past, the tourism industry merely perpetuates the ideology of colonialism and prevents the local people from defining a national identity of their own” (p. 792). NE9 participating women artists Cydne Coleby and Jalan Harris do in other ways, Rose uses a colonial tool to redeploy the gaze that is often controlled by the old power.
Notwithstanding this period hailed as post-colonial, Rose shows how colonial our space remains and how much this truly impacts our identity. To my eye, Rose allows his photography to show the complexities of race, class and education as well as those gaps of and over historical representation signalled above. It is not a coincidence that a former plantation great house, Collins House, would be used as a space of education and then as the headquarters for education during the first PLP administration. The ironies abound. Now used as the headquarters of the National Museum of The Bahamas by Antiquities Monuments and Museums Corporation, (AMMC) the space in many ways has been emptied of its colonial legacy.
The wall that enclosed the plantation from the Black communities around it has also been emptied of its class divide, according to commentaries in the local daily papers, the wall was never intended to stand for separation, though it certainly did. This part of Bahamian culture has been insufficiently explored, and its impact on Bahamian identity and pathology disregarded. According to many, race (and its concomitant racism) is a thing of the past and must be moved beyond. Perhaps it is because those who can move beyond see the superiority of such as space and its prominence in the Bahamian-scape or Nassuvianscape as usual and unproblematic. That prominence has only been eclipsed by the neocolonial system of resorts such as Baha Mar and now the Pointe, all foreign owned and operated by Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) so bringing in little more than a daily wage to people.
“The recirculation of images of exoticism reduces [it to] an aesthetic rather than a historical entity” (Osborne, 2000, p. 30). This concept has been explored in Dr Krista Thompson’s book An Eye for the Tropics(2007). I see this discussion and the above points as being thoroughly illustrated in Rose’s works and in particular the photograph Inner-City Youth's View of Education.
Rose highlights in his NE9 statement: “This was the era when the Ministry of Education was at Collins House. To many of my friends, it was a place of mystery, segregation and controversy – much of which has since been debunked. However, to us, it appeared unapproachable and above our station in life. … To me, the architecture of New Providence was a mixed-bag of attractive and atrocious and Collins House was a line-balancing hybrid – stately, yet surrounded with a myth that was about exclusion. I found a link with that idea and how most of my neighbours viewed being educated or trying to “forget who you are” and trying to obtain higher education.
This image is a wonderful study of the interior exteriority of photography because of how the camera reveals so much of what is not seen. The setback, approachableness of the building, firstly, secondly or in the forefront, though obfuscated by focus, is the divisive fencing used to separate from the rabble of life,
Rose uses a decolonial approach to manage a colonial tool employed to represent without a story.
Osborne writes as “whatever its qualities, repellent or fascinating--or naive--the exoticised place, object or person, exists as something to be looked on, as eternally strange and impenetrable” (2000, p. 30). The table has been turned as Rose gazes on the former Ministry of Tourism as a space set aside from the local and thereby distanced. The fence and the great house’s distance from it articulate this “exoticism, a way of seeing and mode of knowledge concerned with the maintenance of distance” (Osborne, 2000, p. 30).
Although Rose argues that “the mystery segregation and controversy--much of which has since been debunked” the denial of the segregation and the power elision of the vision from below has meant that it has not been debunked. In part, his work and so much of works in the NE9 challenges the debunking that needed to have happened but was simply bracketed by Black power or post-colonialism that was never really decolonial. Also, as Rose again points out “This was enhanced when we had leaders who were telling us that education in The Bahamas was wonderful, yet sending their children to boarding schools abroad”. I have a great appreciation for the image as constructed through Rose’s eye, and the frame that captures so much of what Nassau stories have been disallowed from saying.
The deep coloniality and colonialism of the Bahamian destination mean that we are never at home in our homes or our bodies, as my critique of Harris and Coleby’s work argued already. This is a profoundly moving and troubling work that says so much in such a subtle way as the light and black and white of the image so utterly capture the regal distance from us.