Blog Post

Report #2: Contemporary Art in the Bahamas

In my last posting, I mentioned that in the last several years of coming to the Bahamas for a week each year with friends, I?d spent time doing research on the country?s history, political scene, and its religion. I?d looked for art but kept coming up against conventional tourist landscapes and seascapes (the flora, the sea, and most of all the glorious light are incomparable here so it?s understandable . . . but it?s not what I?d call great art). Then our friend Krista spent a day with us and it was like the difference between looking at the ocean from above versus putting on your diving mask to see the glowing life beneath the surface. It was an entry into a vibrant other world.

Our day started at the National Gallery?s NE4 (National Exhibition 4), curated by Erica James, Curator and Director of the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas. Erica?s doctoral work was with my esteemed colleague, Professor Richard Powell, and she is well known to the Franklin Center at Duke, having been a fellow in one of the year-long Franklin Humanities Institute Seminars and an active participant in Caribbean Studies and many other programs. NE4 was not quite as controversial as NE3 (curated by Krista in 2006) even though many of the artists in the first show appeared in this one as well. Perhaps that means that local Bahamian art criticism is coming along and growing as is the Bahamian art community.

That community is rich indeed. The show was, like all shows, a mixture from okay to great. Had I walked into the show in New York or Chicago, I would have been delighted and found many pieces to spend time with, come to terms with, admire, appreciate, and learn from. Some names you should know: John Beadle (?I?ll Fly Away, Passage Paid? was a lyrical, painful political installation, representational and symbolic), Lillian Blades (?Self-Image? is a collage of found pieces of wood and lots of eyes/I?s), John Cox (?Ecstasy I Against I??from a brilliant multidimensional performance, video, painting, apparatus, sculptural series of himself as an indefatigable fighter with a formidable opponent: also himself), Blue Curry (an evocative, ingenious, meticulous, thought-provoking, witty conceptual artist whose work is also, not incidentally, beautiful), Kendal Hanna (an early abstract expressionist who inspired many younger artists and whose work continues to be fresh and young), photographer of the lost Paulette A. N. Mortimore, Lavar Munroe (whose ?Migrant? uses nineteenth-century giclee techniques for contemporary engagement, one of many art works to address directly the crisis in illegal Haitian migration and exploitation), conceptual artist Holly Parotti, Jackson Petit (whose digital projection ?Liquid Black,? as with numerous pieces, powerfully evoked issues of sexuality, homophobia, and HIV), Heino Schmid (whose oddly separated series of portraits punctuated the exhibit, at first seeming estranged and then gaining power precisely from that estrangement). I?ve left out crucial ones, but that is simply a scan, to suggest the range and force of what was there.

My favorite work was an enormous installation by Kendra Frorup called ?Tickled Pink? that included a very pink was sculpture of a little girl?s head perched in a pink teacup balanced precariously upon a stack of pink plates balanced on a conical contraption (also pink) attached by a sinister-looking long metal bar to a pink frou-frou?d handle, the whole thing mounted on a gigantic worn wooden round base that looked like some kind of winnowing machine or an enormous gramophone or some fantasy ride at a nineteenth-century amusement park. A repetitive child?s laugh, tickling and then too much tickling, haunted the room. Interestingly, there was no ?do not touch? sign, giving museum goers the choice to turn the installation or not, a great provocation??do not touch? amid all that recorded tickling. There was a gender politics, a parental politics, a slavery and labor politics, a museum politics, beautifully executed and unforgettable.

Were that not bounty enough, Krista took us to two galleries featuring the work of Bahamian artists. Popop Studios,Center for the Visual Arts (26 Dunmore Avenue, Chippingham: 242 325-3956; www.popopstudios.com), is run by artist John Cox, one of the leading artists in the Bahamas. He has turned his family?s guest house into a residence for artists, with the studio itself showing not only changing exhibitions of Bahamian art but poetry, film, performance, and other forms of art as well. It is a gathering place, a place of support for artists, and exactly the epicenter a powerful, emergent arts community deserves but rarely is privileged to enjoy.

The Hub Gallery on Bay Street at Colebrook Lange (242 322-4333; www.thehubbahamas.org) is another such community-building arts space, with a gallery, a film series, a poetry and music series). In July and August, they were showing films by Jean Painleve, Harun Farocki, Chris Marker, and Jean-Luc Godard (the 2004 Notre Musique) which means, the minute you enter, you are a long, long way from pretty seascapes at sunset.

The touristic splendor of the Caribbean and its myriad representations by more traditional Bahamian artists was the monolith against which many of these young Bahamian artists worked. One of the really stunning installation/performance pieces by Blue Curry involved bagging up a large patch of Bahamian sand, sending it, in numbered plastic bags, to an art exhibition in Nassau, Germany where artgoers walked around in it for several months, at which time, Curry rebagged it in the little baggies and shipped it back to its original beach in the Bahamas. In its absence, on the Bahamian beach, was a black sign with white lettering: ?This Section of Beach Temporarily on Loan For International Exhibition. Apologies for Any Inconvenience Caused.? [For more about his work, you can visit Blue Curry's website: http://www.bluecurry.com/)

The artists I saw on this trip represent a different Bahamas than the one most tourists come for. This is not an ?undisclosed location? but a located, fully disclosed, intrusively urgent presence that is important, not only for the Bahamas but for an international arts scene in which the Caribbean is more urgently significant every day.

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Images. Top, seascape, by Cat in the Stacks. Bottom photograph, taken from the catalogue for ?Funky Nassau: Recovering an Identity,? curated by Amanda Coulson, in cooperation with the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, Duchy of Nassau, 2006. Artist: Blue Curry, from ?Like Taking Sand to the Beach? (2006).

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