Though we are nine days into the new year, excitement from the recent Boxing Day and New Year’s Day Junkanoo parades is still in the air. It isn’t difficult to see why the tradition resonated so much with Brent Malone.
Malone’s ability to paint a spectrum of subjects is one of the reasons why he stands out as one of the greats in Bahamian art history. Being the first to give life to Junkanoo on a flat surface has made him memorable as an exceptional artist as well as a patriot and advocate for national pride and cultural preservation.
More than visual representation, Malone’s Junkanoo works evoke visceral responses from his audience, whose senses are challenged by the would-be sounds of drums and cowbells and an explosion of color. In the aftermath of Junkanoo, NAGB Registrar and Assistant Education Officer Darchell Henderson selected “Beller” as the January artwork of the month.
The NAGB’s artwork of the month is selected from the National Art Collection, which the NAGB has committed to grow and preserve for the benefit of locals and international visitors. The National Collection includes works by some of the country’s foremost artists, who have become respected for their commitment to documenting Bahamian history, the environment and the political landscape. “Beller” is owned by architect Anthony Jervis and is on long-term loan to the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas; as such it is a valued component of the collection in the care of the NAGB.
What it lacks in color, Malone’s “Beller” makes up with organic emotion. Standing 40” tall and 32” tall, “Beller” shows a shirtless Junkanooer in deep concentration. A whistle hangs from the man’s neck and he grasps two cowbells, his wrists wrapped in their chains. His torso shines from the labor of rushing and he appears to have lost himself in his commitment to the moment. A mixed-media work composed of pastel, charcoal, graphite and watercolor on paper, “Beller” joins 200-plus works that comprise the Reincarnation exhibition.
“Junkanoo season just finished, and you can feel Junkanoo through this piece. You get the essence of the behind-the-scenes rawness involved in the Junkanoo shack,” said Henderson.
Clearly alluding to Junkanoo’s origins, the chain that dangles from wrist to wrist is suggestive of wrist shackles and a history of enslavement. Heavy with African influence, Junkanoo has survived centuries since slaves began the tradition in more simplistic forms. While today the Junkanoo costume typically involves bursts of color and sparkle, and paraders include trained musicians and coordinated dancers, the occasion was once purely a grassroots celebration. On their few days off from work, slaves would decorate themselves in paint, rags, newspapers and palm thatch and dance to the rudimentary sounds of conch shells being blown, cow bells and drums.
“The yearnings of slavery gave birth to Junkanoo,” said Malone of his work on the subject. “It was at the very beginning a shout of freedom, a celebration of life. That institution, known as the Slave Trade, is something of the past, but still there is a spiritual need that cries out for freedom.”
“Beller” maintains notions of celebration; in addition to chains, ribbons hang from the cowbell ringer’s wrists. The man appears spirited and in perfect health.
“Beller” and many more Malone originals can be viewed at the NAGB until April 3. Locals and residents are invited to view the exhibition free of charge until January 16, courtesy of Insurance Management, which is covering the costs of admission.