We Lost Two Cultures That Day: Hurricane Irma and the loss of cultural material

By Natalie Willis

It’s easy to think of culture as being purely in the hands of the people: it’s in our mother tongues, our food, our dance and architecture. And, in many ways, it is. But it also leaves a residue, it sticks to our spaces and buildings and trees and forests and oceans, so that when our elders pass on, they leave just a tiny bit of themselves around for us to remember what we come from and we build upon that. With this in mind, and with heavy heart, we must look to the implications of Irma and her aftermath. Both Inagua and Ragged Island were deemed uninhabitable this week and it is important to look at the full extent of what that means.

We lost two cultures.

They lost the towns they grew up in and so have we, as Bahamians. It is easy to think that we were blessed, spared the full wrath of Irma because our more populated New Providence and Grand Bahama were spared, along with so many other islands in the central and Northern Bahamas and, my God, aren’t we grateful.

But we lost two cultures this week.

Film-still from Settler’s Cove Productions series of short docs “Those From Shallow Waters”, featuring the Bahamian legend that is “Action”. These films will be on view at the NAGB starting Tuesday, September 19th.

And others so much more. One death is one too many and we, in the Caribbean, experienced over 40, with another couple dozen more in Florida, with the final count still to come. As a country we very rarely take time to process the grief of hurricanes from these more personal losses and we certainly don’t take the time necessary to process the material losses we encounter. It is easy to say that material loss “isn’t so bad” compared to a life, and that we should thank our lucky stars. And that we do, we give thanks on Saturdays and Sundays and in the various beliefs and ways we deem fit. But after the praying is done and our knees and souls are bruised, we never take into account how much it means that this material loss isn’t just a material loss.

Film-still from the “Those From Shallow Waters” series of short docs on Giveton Gelin, a young Bahamian Jazz musician’s journey to being accepted into top music schools despite the difficulties faced with life here. Part of the Settler’s Cove Productions films on view at the NAGB starting Tuesday, September 19th.

We lose the home we grew up in, the home we first moved to with our partner, the place down the street where we first got cussed out for tiefing mango. These things are everyday but they are not insignificant, every little thread of a memory ties into the bigger weaving of our culture and history. It is the way we live our lives, as much as the knowledge of our history, that produce the particularities of this space and our idiosyncrasies as a people. We have characters (both good and bad), and these characters are set against the landscape in this sometimes strange spectacle that is Caribbean life – when we lose our set, we lose part of our story. This is why the act of archiving, curating (which literally comes from the latin ‘curare’ which means ‘to care), and preserving our culture as much as possible is so valuable not just to people working in museums and art galleries and the like, but for those who come after us.

Film-still from the “Those From Shallow Waters” series of short docs on D.C. Pratt, the first and only Bahamian Muay-Thai fighter, and son of the renowned Bahamian artist Chan Pratt. Pratt balances his Thai fighting with preserving his father’s legacy through the Chan Pratt Foundation. Part of the Settler’s Cove Productions films on view at the NAGB starting Tuesday, September 19th.

In all the rubble of our physical space, our lives, and our selves, it is a very small comfort to think of what we do have and what we can preserve. We are used to reading about great people in the region after-the-fact—the ‘fact’ here being the posthumous recognition of our brightest Caribbean beacons of light—only after they have been extinguished. So, with this in mind, we at the NAGB invite those of you who are busy rebuilding, sharing your resources, and generally trying to make sense of things, after thinking about these great losses, to hold space with us in our Project Space Room and view the series of short docs “Those From Shallow Waters”. Far from a shallow plug of ‘what’s on’ at the gallery, this series of truly touching short films highlights Bahamians in our everyday, our ordinary folks doing extraordinary things: whether it’s being called to some greater purpose, being gifted in sports or music, or just simply surviving when your body wants you to do anything but, everyone in this series will touch your heart and remind you of what you come from.

Film-still from the “Those From Shallow Waters” series of short docs on Noelle Nicolls, entitled “The Domestic Tourist”. Nicolls is a writer and women’s rights advocate, who shares her toughest role yet in dealing with end-stage kidney disease. Part of the Settler’s Cove Productions films on view at the NAGB starting Tuesday, September 19th.

It is too easy to say that as a region Caribbean people are strong, that Bahamian people are strong. Of course we are! Look at what we’ve gone through as a people! But we are also soft, kind, determined, disciplined, hopeful, and in some cases, calmly and contentedly accepting of our circumstances and learning how to make the most of it. These people are our people, they are us, they are our cousins, just as everyone affected by this storm is. It does the soul good to find yourself on screen in a way that reminds you of your own brilliance, when you feel there is so little light left in this place right now.

“Those From Shallow Waters” is the growing series of short documentaries from the Settler’s Cove Productions studio and will be showing in the Project Space (The PS) at the NAGB from Tuesday, September 19th, to Sunday, October 8th, during the regular gallery hours from Tuesday to Saturday at 10:00am to 5:00pm, as well as free showings on Sundays for all Bahamians and Residents from 12:00pm to 5:00pm. We would also like to note that any of our brothers and sisters and cousins, who are still displaced from the storm and staying in Nassau, are invited to view the films for free any day of the week. Far from part of our individual relief efforts as people working here, this is merely a way to offer a sense of welcome and refuge, and to show care.