by Malika Pryor-Martin
Antonius Roberts is both man and seemingly, artistic machine. In the last 35 years, he has either founded, constructed or enhanced virtually every significant art institution in The Bahamas. All this, while serving as Chief Curator at the Central Bank of The Bahamas, teaching full time, mentoring numerous artists, and also creating his works. Roberts isn’t just a national institution builder. He is an institution.
It was 1973, and the resounding rally cry of national unity and pride rang through the air and across the airwaves. The Bahamas was now a nation, the property of a diminished empire, no more. Roberts heard the voice of Sir Lynden Pindling proclaim, “We need all hands-on deck. We need teachers…” The list of other necessary vocations continued, but it was ‘teacher’, arts educator to be specific, that rang truest for Roberts. “All of my art teachers were foreign: one was North American; one was British.” Young and inspired, he decided he wanted to empower young Bahamians in the arts. For his future students, becoming a professional artist would be an easy exercise of the imagination. Stated pointedly, Roberts says, “I studied art to be a teacher.”
Antonius Roberts at the NAGB with his piece The Nine Angels.Carved from the wood supports of his family’s historic home, the angels represent his mother, grandmother and the incredible women who shaped him.
In hindsight, it is no surprise that in 1982, Roberts joined the Central Bank of The Bahamas (CBOB) to develop the then, nascent gallery’s first competition. The programme, which has since launched or served as a springboard for the “who’s who” of next-generation Bahamian artists, was designed by him and then CBOB Governor William Allen to be a platform for young makers. “We wanted to further encourage creative exploration, portfolio development, and fill that gap year between high school and the College of The Bahamas (now the University of The Bahamas).” Out of the competition, which is now comprised of multiple calls, came a fully formed gallery that before the opening of The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB), served as the preeminent visual arts institution in the nation.
However, Roberts didn’t only want to see young artists develop; he wanted them to lead. In the early nineties, having served as the Chief Curator for CBOB for a decade or more, he decided to pass the curatorial ‘torch’ onto Monique Rolle, before returning sometime later. After operating in the capacity again, he brought on Heino Schmid, now one of the heads of the department of visual art at UB. However, providence favoured Roberts, and he eventually made his return for a third tenure with the historic gallery. Set to retire from CBOB at the end of this year, he promises that this farewell will indeed be his final. Roberts shares, “For institutions to grow, you have to have opportunities for growth. The world is changing. Institutions need change in order to remain relevant. Those who lit the flame, at a certain point, have done their best. Language changes. The audience changes. [It’s for another generation] to reach the next major milestone.”
Over the course of four decades, Roberts’ intention and work have positively affected the development of institutions that are shaping the way Bahamians see themselves and will eventually change the way the world sees The Bahamas. The Central Bank of The Bahamas; FINCO Summer Arts Workshops; Charitable Arts Foundation; The Lyford Cay School Scholarship Fund; and Junior Junkanoo, of which he is the principal founder, are just some of houses Antonius Roberts helped build.
When asked where he sees visual arts headed in his beloved country, Roberts pauses. “I’m not sure where it’s going. What I can say is that I see so much talent, some of the most creative people on earth.” Beyond creative capacity, he wants to see artists delve deeper into their respective practices and for institutions to both challenge and support them in the process. “There’s scratching at the surface going on. I don’t see a lot of attention to detail – a commitment to excellence. We need more sustainable funding to encourage creatives to really focus, investigate and explore meaningful projects. Institutions have to be more mindful of our role, and not just bestow the title of artist onto those who have not yet earned it… I never thought I’d walk away and say I was an artist. I worked with someone [Brent Malone] who considered me an artist, but it was something that came from outside.”
Now, preparing to celebrate his 60th year of life, having spent most of them either: becoming; training; or practising as – an artist, Antonius Roberts has decided to focus on his arts practice. “It may sound selfish, but it’s time for me to come to me – discover the deeper and greater mission that artists have.” In retirement, he intends to look inwardly, but he also has plans that will take him across the globe.The most significant stop being West Africa, a region to which he’d planned to move after graduating from the Philadelphia College of Art. “I got stuck here.”, Roberts laments. But when nudged a bit about the idea of being stuck versus deciding to remain in Nassau, he’s clear that he wouldn’t change the outcome even if he had the chance to do it all over again.
Luckily for us, Antonius Roberts stuck with The Bahamas and after nearly 40 years of service, has begun to see the fruits of his labour manifesting in unexpected ways. From dinners honouring the newly installed sacred space at The Cove Atlantis, to interview requests from around the world, Roberts is hitting his next stride. He’s excited to be working in his studio, revisiting ideas of sacredness and the transformation of landscapes. He has brought his unique and dynamic vision of The Bahamas to places that aren’t frequently open to all Bahamians, and Roberts considers it an achievement to know that his work identifies those environments as no longer off limits.
Even with his renewed mission to “just be an artist”, what seems to bring Roberts the most joy is that his work fosters community and learning. With a current project in partnership with the Bahamas National Trust and one launching in January with The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas, he still can’t help but teach.
In Antonius Roberts’ world, all hands are still needed on deck and artists should be leading the way.