The Role of the Arts in Addressing Climate Change: Kendal Hanna explores the environment through abstraction

By Blake Fox

Currently on display through June 2, 2019, at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB), the Permanent Exhibition “Hard Mouth: From the Tongue of the Ocean” focuses on how both verbal and visual language have shaped us as a country. One could argue that The Bahamas is a phonocentric culture, meaning speech is given precedence over written or visual work. Because of this emphasis on speech rather than written or visual work, it is no doubt that The Bahamas has a very rich oral culture. While Bahamians rely heavily on oral communication to pass down culture and traditions, visual and written works are just as crucial in communicating cultural beliefs and values in societies. This exhibition highlights Bahamian artwork that serves as a conduit to bridge the gap between our visual and oral culture in The Bahamas. 

As the 2019 hurricane season approaches, Kendal Hanna’s Environmental Force (2005) has a certain resonance for The Bahamas. Hanna uses oil paint to create a turbulent surface by the use of aggressive brushstrokes that evoke a sense of movement and chaos often associated with severe weather. The muddy blues and greens along with the stark flashes of yellow and red are vaguely reminiscent of a hurricane satellite image—with the yellow circle in the centre of the painting perhaps representing the eye of a hurricane. The bright yellows and reds further bring to mind a sense of danger or caution. Undoubtedly, when we think of hurricanes approaching The Bahamas, we can imagine the seemingly endless lines of Bahamians scurrying to gather supplies and the general mania of it all.

“Environmental Force” (2005), Kendal Hanna, oil on masonite, 47 x 35 in. Part of the National Collection acquired from the NE3.

Take a look back at when this painting was created: the 2004 and 2005 Atlantic hurricane seasons were two of the most violent recorded hurricane seasons in history. Specifically, the category four Hurricane Frances hit The Bahamas in September 2004 and was documented as one of the most damaging storms to hit the country. It battered houses, destroyed crops, and took the lives of two people. To add to the devastation, just two weeks later Hurricane Jeanne made her way and the damages were amplified. In all probability, such penetrating forces would impact Kendal Hanna’s work as he is an artist who views his work as an extension of his life experiences. Hanna is visually communicating this fierce force of nature through his ostensibly haphazard painting style. The abstract expressionist nature of Hanna’s work often toys with the idea of the unknown. Hanna expressed in “Happy birthday to me, Kendal Hanna: a retrospective” that he works subconsciously and the results are often unpredictable. Similarly, weather can also be somewhat unknown—while there can be predictions and forecasts, one never really knows until the force has manifested itself. Kendal’s work is not necessarily concerned with creating a picturesque piece of art; instead, his work challenges, surprises, and even disrupts the expected order of things. By extension, environmental forces like hurricanes disrupt, anger, and destroy.

The increased amount of water vapour in the atmosphere coupled with the rising temperatures are warming the oceans, which is, unfortunately, breeding superstorms. These storms are becoming so intense that scientists and forecasters are debating the implementation of a category 6 for hurricanes that exceed winds of 200 mph. According to a study on climate change adaptation for Caribbean countries and Pacific Island countries, over 80 per cent of the populations of The Bahamas and the Marshall Islands live in low-elevation coastal zones (LECZs). Further, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has projected that climate change will cost the Bahamas approximately $500 million annually by 2025. Climate change is not an unprecedented topic for the archipelago as we have long been affected by natural disasters. There is however an urgent need for real mitigation and adaptation efforts to be put into place to ensure resilience in the wake of climate change.

“Environmental Force” (2005), Kendal Hanna, oil on masonite, 47 x 35 in. Part of the National Collection acquired from the NE3.

Fifteen years ago when Environmental Force (2005) was created by Kendal Hanna, hurricanes plagued The Bahamas and they still continue to do so today.

Hanna uses abstract expressionism to present a visual likeness of the force that environmental disasters have on The Bahamas.

This work being a part of the Permanent Exhibition at the NAGB is a cogent reminder that art can prompt us to be cultivators of change in our society, or at the very least it can spark the more difficult, but very real, conversations about our future as a nation.

“Hard Mouth: From the Tongue of the Ocean” curated by Natalie Willis and Richardo Barrett will be on display through June 2, 2019.