The Gates of Transformation: The NAGB prepares for a new welcome

When one encounters artist and master blacksmith Tyrone Ferguson, you know immediately that you are in the company of someone distinct and special. His work, the product and reflection of more than two decades of professional experience as a skilled tradesmen in welding, direct metal fabrication, and machine shop work has, as his website articulates, been “harnessed… into the practice of a blacksmithing craft, which can only be gleaned through long years of apprenticeship.” Developing his skills from that unique perspective – as a creative operating within industry, has produced in and from him, a lens and approach that are completely unlike anyone else’s. Tyrone and his work are truly one of a kind.

Portrait of Tyrone Ferguson in front of privately commissioned gates. Image courtesy the artist.

Ferguson’s signature style is present and readily identifiable in his various projects, commissioned by institutions and individuals, not only in The Bahamas, but also in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Although his work speaks volumes, for years people didn’t know how to qualify or categorize it. “We know a person, we know someone.”, is what people would say, Tyrone recalls.  However, since forging relationships with Dr. Erica James, master artist, Antonius Roberts and the NAGB, he has come into his own as a blacksmith, and today, to many in the country, is the blacksmith. According to Ferguson, “People don’t really know what that blacksmith is, not in the contemporary sense… but tapping into the spirit of the blacksmith in Africa, the blacksmith, who made the tools to do the ceremonial sculpture. The Blacksmith was an integral person in the community. The blacksmith was an intermediary.”

As a vessel for his own creations, Tyrone Ferguson’s gates as well as his other works often read, like those ceremonial sculptures of the past, as somehow, transcendent. This comes as no surprise when you discover that Ferguson is also an ordained minister. His belief system is multi-denominational, drawing from both Eastern and Western traditions. In this inclusive approach to spirituality and growth, Ferguson finds the plurality in universal truths. There is no one right answer or path; only love. His work expresses this central element of his practice, both as man and as artist.

So when the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas decided it was time to present itself from its front entrance, facing West Hill Street, with the same spirit and distinction reflected within: the walls of the Villa Doyle where the museum is housed; the serenity of the adjacent garden; the powerful history and significance of both properties; and the Gallery’s ambitious plans for the future, there was no other artist the Gallery could imagine would facilitate the project than Tyrone Ferguson.

The Gates Commission was approved by the NAGB Board of Directors, under the leadership of Mr. Stan Burnside, himself, a Bahamian master artist. Approached by the Board nearly two years ago, initially, Tyrone indicated that he would consider the project. It was in his “spirit”, but he never gave it, as he calls it, “sitting down time”. “It was just a conversation.”, Ferguson recalls. However, that sentiment permanently shifted after a lunch meeting with NAGB Director, Amanda Coulson.

Nearly one and a half years since the dialogue that affirmed Ferguson’s commitment to the project, the Gates were formally commissioned. The process to launch them was a true labor of love for the Gallery. The board allocated specific funds and NAGB leadership also raised additional monies to glean sufficient support to have the Gates constructed.

For Ferguson, once the process to design them began, the Gates required all of the energy and all of his experience to conceive them. They are a combination and exploration of spirit and technique and Tyrone wanted to bring all of who he is, both internally and externally, to the process. The metal, initially six foot long rods, is being hand stretched by Tyrone, himself. The physicality of that labor is matched only by the state of the art technology he will use to produce stunning details, that without it, would be virtually impossible to fabricate. The process that will bring the Gates into fruition is a technique he is specifically developing for this project. Ferguson has harnessed iron, copper, stainless steel, aluminum, and found objects, forging them into something completely new. The NAGB Gates, however, will be forged from bronze and will speak to the many stories and spaces that comprise the Gallery grounds.

Model of the Gates Commission for the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas, by Tyrone Ferguson, with Villa Doyle in the background. Model courtesy of Tyrone Ferguson.

A natural synergy operates between Mr. Ferguson’s plans for the Gates and the NAGB’s recent improvements and intentions for its adjacent property. Believed to have once been a satellite facility to Nassau’s first African hospital, its development into a garden that will soon house sculptural works as well as an amphitheatre, represent the possibilities that come alive when community comes together to bring healing to a long neglected space.

Though a blacksmith, through the Gates Commission, Ferguson will also be a weaver, delicately and majestically intertwining the vestiges of our colonial past with the legacy of The Bahamas’ African roots, and finally, with the beauty and utility of native and indigenous plants. Featured in the Gates are plants like the sisal, an agave variation and the silver thatch palm, one of the few native palm species to The Bahamas were and still are used to produce straw products. Now ubiquitously affiliated with the tourist economy, less than a century ago, the flesh of the sisal would have been used to produce commercial materials like rope, the palm, to make household items, water jugs, and brooms – uses that would have served Bain and Grants Town, historic free-African settlements, just Over-the–ill on which Villa Doyle, a former colonial residence, sits atop.

Like his spiritual practice, for Tyrone, there is no one right way to produce his art, except that it be done authentically and excellently. Guiding the metal, as he sometimes does with those in need, through his ministry, the process is a give and take. In that symbiotic relationship, where there are two speakers, he forges new and nuanced conversations. What emerges however, will be singular. Once Tyrone and the metal have spoken, the Gates will tell their story.

This incredible exhibit, both art and function, the renderings of which can be seen below, is a perfect reflection of Tyrone’s portfolio and is a testament to the power of how history informs and is renewed by the present. Best said in his own words, “It feels to me like all the work that I have done, all the gates that I have built, they were preparation for these Gates. The Gates symbolise the work that I have done in order to honour the space. The Gates are supposed to have a sense of freedom, openness and airiness to it. It is also a reference to who we aspire to be as a creative community, moving towards light (luminosity). Actually, I believe that certain energies go into this type of work and most people will experience the energy, will feel it, regardless of understanding or acknowledgement of it. The Gates will bring a sense of healing, not only to myself, but freshness to the space. Life is possible. Light is possible. Seeing into the future is possible with these Gates.”