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Redefining Bahamian art

Housed in historic mansion on top of hill

2005 © Etienne Dupuch Jr Publications Ltd

Long identified by quaint island scenes, brilliant poinciana trees, seascapes and Junkanoo, Bahamian art is redefining itself and the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB) is making that possible.

Unlike the art of neighbouring countries, such as Haiti, where artistic style is more identifiable, Bahamian art has had a difficult time identifying itself in the broader context of the global art movement, but all that is changing.

The opening of the NAGB in summer 2003 represented new hope in an art community that previously lacked an arena to showcase and view Bahamian art in an appropriate context. Now, for the first time in the country's history, art can be viewed, examined and critiqued away from the price tags, providing artists with a venue to explore issues and media that the local art market would not, and in many cases still does not, embrace.

Sculptor/painter Antonius Roberts perhaps put it best: "Finally we have a place where standards are set, a place where we can go and be stimulated. It provides us with hope. It now means that the world can truly begin to look at art in this country and put it in its proper context."

The NAGB is filling an important gap by not only providing a much needed space to showcase the best in Bahamian art, but also by developing a discourse that allows the country to tell the story of Bahamian art and provide some insight into its future, and what, if anything, defines it.

It is also changing the way the world looks at Bahamian art, and perhaps more importantly, the way Bahamians look at their own art.

For decades local art enthusiasts were at the mercy of the artist, waiting patiently for exhibitions to open in limited spaces.

Defining Bahamian art

Until recently it was difficult to track the development of the Bahamian art movement, making it even more difficult to identify what made Bahamian art Bahamian. Most galleries had limited space and relatively short life spans. Shows were not documented and once a piece of work was sold, it was lost to the public forever, hidden behind the private walls of wealthy collectors.

Before the 1960s art counted for little in Bahamian society. It was not until after the '60s that artists such as Max Taylor, Brent Malone and Kendal Hanna started to explore painting, ceramics and sculpture. All three went on to establish solid reputations and help create what is now seen as the foundation of modern Bahamian art. Malone, who died in February 2004, also played a major role as a catalyst and gallery operator, helping other artists to achieve recognition.

Today, Bahamian visual art, in all of its forms, can be seen together at the NAGB, making it possible to compare and discuss the works in a way that was impossible before.

And, by many accounts, Bahamian art has a lot of catching up to do.

Until the last 25 years or so, Bahamian art had been predictable, unadventurous and, in some cases, painfully unsophisticated. Its concentration strictly on usually representational images, and the instantly saleable formula of pink houses, aqua seas and blazing poinciana trees, has kept it within a sealed compound of conformity and convention, The Tribune wrote last year.

Compared to its regional and international neighbours, the Bahamian art movement is lagging, admits NAGB chief curator Erica James.

" We are definitely a victim of our history. What we have now is because of who we have been and what we find valuable," says James.

" If you take a close look at the art, what's there, what's not there, you can pinpoint the country's artistic development.

" Look at our propensity for still life and landscape. You can say 'oh it's the beautiful Bahamian landscapes,' but a lot of Bahamian artists have a problem with drawing the anatomy because they never really got the opportunity to take life drawing classes here."

James recalls that back when she attended The College of The Bahamas in the late 1980s there was an uproar about the morality of doing nude or semi-nude anatomy drawings.

" We are historically behind, we're not willing to engage the multiplicity of medias cutting edge avenues to make art," she adds.

What James hopes the gallery will do is give birth to an even larger movement, prompting the development in commercial gallery spaces throughout The Bahamas, public art projects and education programmes for aspiring artists.

First instalment

The first instalment of the NAGB's national collection, now on exhibit in its main galleries, begins to take a look at the history of Bahamian art.

James describes the first series in the national collection as a historical journey, starting with colonial images and examining why the local fine art movement "was a little stunted."

The exhibition moves on to the ex-patriot painters, such as Winslow Homer, who painted The Bahamas' beautiful landscapes, and ends with the period that saw the development of Bahamian artists and the conditions that made that possible.

Also on exhibit is "Bahamian Visions," featuring photographs of The Bahamas between 1870 and 1920, and a collection of watercolours of Nassau as it was in Victorian times by Royal Artillery officer Gaspard Le Marchant Tupper, who was stationed here at that time.

The Bahamas has inspired artists for centuries with its striking natural beauty and charming vistas, but by all indicators art in The Bahamas is moving away from the traditional - the kind of art used to decorate living rooms - and towards paintings, installations and prints that make you think, by artists who know what they want and how to achieve it.

The new movement, led by artists such as John Cox, Michael Edwards, Toby Lunn and John Beadle, to name a few, has a new vision. These artists are looking at colour, canvas and material differently and are refusing to be defined by common Bahamian themes. They are starting to question the establishment in a way that this country has never seen before, using their art to explore social issues and techniques that are usually shunned by local audiences.

" Some of the images used in what is commonly referred to as Bahamian art embrace symbols that inadequately depict and reflect the whole Bahamian condition," says Cox. "That is something that new artists, I believe, are trying to move away from. We want to depict the whole Bahamian condition, not just the pretty part."

Historic venue

The history of Villa Doyle, the building that houses the NAGB, is perhaps just as rich as the images that hang on its walls.

Nestled in a historic downtown neighbourhood, Villa Doyle was built in the 1860s as the private residence of Chief Justice Sir William Doyle.

The building sat in a state of disrepair for decades atop what was once described as "one of the most beautiful streets in the Caribbean." Years of development and restoration have transformed the dilapidated shell of a building, once the haunt of thieves and vagrants, into a modern gallery showcasing Bahamian paintings, sculpture, textiles, ceramics, photography and other works.

To walk through the gallery is to experience a harmonious blending of the past and the present. High-tech lights, glass interior walls and contemporary paintings and sculpture are featured alongside colonial era mouldings and historically accurate accents.

While such artists as Winslow Homer and Albert Bierstadt began to capture the mostly untouched Bahamian landscape on canvas, Villa Doyle was just being built. The mansion has seen many changes since it was first constructed in the late 19th century by Sir William, a first-generation Bahamian of Irish parentage, who secured a prominent place in history as the first Bahamian to be knighted. He also served as secretary of the Department of Education, and eventually, as president of the Legislative Council (now the Senate). He was appointed Chief Justice of the Leeward Islands in 1875. Later, he occupied the same post in Gibraltar.

After his death in 1879, Sir William's widow, Lady Mary, sold the house in 1883 to William Robert Pyfrom for ?1,000. After Pyfrom's death, one of his daughters occupied Villa Doyle until about 1924, when it was sold for ?6,000 to Walter Kingsbury Moore (later Sir Walter Moore), president of the Legislative Council, who added a southern wing. Years after his death, it was sold to Baroness Von Hoyningen-Huene (the former Nancy Oakes).

It was subsequently sold to a Bahamian businessman in 1978 for $150,000, but his plans to convert the building were aborted and the government acquired the building in 1995. The $3.9-million restoration project began in 1998 and the gallery was officially opened on July 7, 2003, three days before The Bahamas' 30th anniversary of independence.

James admits that she has lofty goals for the gallery, but believes they are necessary to push artists and viewers in The Bahamas to a higher level.

If nothing else, James says she wants the gallery to challenge the way Bahamians look at art.

Pointing to a large wall of traditional poinciana tree paintings behind her desk, James says: "We're more than paintings of landscapes of sun, sand and sea, paintings of poincianas. We're more, and we need to celebrate that."


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