NASSAU, The Bahamas — When I first hear the title of the ninth national exhibition of the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas (or NE9) — “The Fruit and the Seed” — a cliché proverb comes to mind: “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” But shortly after landing, I realize that aphorisms will do me no good here. The practices plied on the various islands (there are about 700 that make up the nation called the Bahamas) are diverse. And the politics of the place is influenced by its own particular history — a history of American Loyalists settling the islands along with freed African slaves, achieving Black majority rule in 1967, but six years later becoming a commonwealth realm with Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state.
During my time in Nassau I visit the National Gallery, foundations and art projects (including a lovely artist space called Hillside House, which was started by a remarkably generous artist, Antonius Roberts), studios, and the homes of art patrons. There are so many forms of art making and so many influences and histories to draw on that I find myself asking the same questions several times: Who made this? Where are they from? How did they get here?
Adding to the innate complexity of the Bahamas and the National Gallery’s position in the local arts ecosystem (it functions as a kind of incubator, professional development program, supporting institution for smaller projects, and display space) is the nature of the call for the NE9. The exhibition includes Bahamian citizens, residents, and members of the Bahamas diasporic community. How this panoply of artistic practices plays out with regard to the theme of fruits and seeds is staggeringly varied and complicated. Eventually, I find that one way to navigate the NE9 is to think about how fruits carry the seeds of their own origination inside them and cross boundaries and borders to and from this place (and within it), and that in the act of crossing, identities are formed.
Take for example Saskia D’Aguilar’s wall mobile, “Invasive Species Amulet” (2018), which consists of curtains hung from three pieces of weathered driftwood placed high on a wall. Each long tendril holds poinciana pods and their seeds, painted wooden beads, sea glass, and (according to D’Aguilar) copper mined in Africa. The piece feels reverential in its quiet quest to ward off evil. She divulges what this evil is in her artist’s statement, in which she talks about her private resentment of the labeling of this graceful tree as “invasive” in the context of human laws, regulations, and policies that stand in stark contrast to the fancies of the natural world. Through the mechanics of tides, winds, and water, a tree from the jungles of Madagascar can sail (in the form of a seed) via the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic to arrive at the Bahamas. When I find out that D’Aguilar is originally Dutch and emigrated to the Bahamas through an arduous legal process to be with her native husband, I can’t help but read her sentiments as at least partly informed by the state essentially considering her “invasive.” Since 2008, D’Aguilar has directed her family’s art foundation which supports Bahamian artists — particularly with travel grants — and promotes Bahamian art to outside communities.
Letitia Marie Pratt, who works at the D’Aguilar foundation as a writer (and was born and bred in the Bahamas), also has an installation in the NE9, A Garden, a series of what might be described as portraits in poetry of legendary women: Eve, Mary, Delilah, Bathsheba. Each poem is presented with dried flowers, leaves, bones, seeds, and feathers in a dark wood frame. The language is at turns erotic and martial, but always self-possessed. She writes in the piece “Mary finds herself a new lover” (2018): “we are a chorus / of cicadas / that sing only / in bliss and in supplication. / between palms / we plead as one, disclosed.” The entire series looks to put women’s power, sexuality, intellect, and physical strength on the same scale, rather than treat feminine sexual potency as a kind of iniquity. The fortitude of her characters is communicated best in “Delilah tells of her birthright” (2018): “when I ask for your / pleading, you say / nothing. / you lower your head. / I draw my sword.”
The language of poetry turns into elegy in the work of Shivanee Ramlochan and Sonia Farmer, who co-created the piece “The Red Thread Cycle” (2018), using Ramlochan’s poetry and Bahamian book artist Farmer’s visual design. The seven poems included in this cycle are an integral part of Ramlochan’s very well received first poetry collection, Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting. The poems detail a story of sexual assault and its aftershocks and makes for difficult reading. The installation also includes headphones with Ramlochan’s voice reading out the poems on a loop. Here again the language is wrenching but riveting: “I am in mud and glitter so far steeped that going back is not an option.” The borders of the body are shown to be commensurate with the borders of the imagined autonomous self and in some ways are constitutive of this self. This is precisely why sexual assault can cause some people to become phantoms of themselves — until they find the language that might piece the border back together again.
The NE9 clearly has an underlying theme of recognizing the power of women and of womanhood. April Bey explores this territory in her Power Girl series, which simultaneously considers the ramifications of colonization, particularly economic colonization, as it is occurring now in certain African states which she regards as being exploited by Chinese capitalists. Her two pieces “Power Girl (Incarcerated Queen)” and “Power Girl (Asante Queen)” (both 2018), are, she writes, made up of “Chinese knock-off ‘African’ wax fabric hand-sewn into scrolls with made-in-China needles and thread. The fabric was purchased from women selling the fabric in Ghana, West Africa.” Bey looks seriously at the idea that cultural goods might be regarded as a kind of “invasive species” that replaces traditional, intricate work with ersatz, cheaper versions. The works, which are among the most visually arresting in the show, are rooted in her development of the idea of “a historical battle that took place between various forms of colonialisation from different, yet similar, forces on a futuristic planet occupied by AfroAliens.” The work doesn’t fully intellectually cohere for me, but it is compelling in demonstrating a parity between the symbolic power of the image of Queen Elizabeth II and the fertility figure of the Asante people. Our gods change form, but they persist across time and space.
Tiffany Smith reconsiders the ways in which she and other ethnic women have been historically visually represented, especially through the mechanism of 19th-century ethnographic portraiture. There is an evangelical quality to Smith’s practice: spreading the gospel of self-representation as a way to shape an ethnic identity which is not primarily conditioned by consumerist craving or the gaze of the colonizer. In her photograph “Perpetual Tourist” (2016), Smith herself looks back at the viewer while wearing a Walt Disney sweatshirt and myriad signs of her island heritage, including holding lushly colored flowers and ferns. She becomes a border crosser, an island woman who will not wait for fate to happen to her. She picks up her bags and goes.
There are several other topics elaborated in NE9 that puzzled, surprised, and nourished me while I was there. The theme gives the exhibition all the room it needs to play. And it does, with the ideas of rootedness, containment, hiding, conveyance, incursion, infringement, future promise, and deferred efflorescence. The NE9’s curator, Holly Bynoe (and the National Gallery’s chief curator, who hails originally from St Vincent and the Grenadines) writes in her catalog essay, “Sowing Seeds,” about her vision for the gallery “as a safe space and haven and site for the contesting of rooted and burdened histories/ideologies and speculations about our futures.” That’s the truth of the tree: that it is rooted, which is good, but it can be burdened by its fixedness — that is, until it bears fruit and lets them go upon the waters.
Editor’s Note: transportation and accommodations were provided to the author by the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas.
The ninth National Exhibition, The Fruit and the Seed, continues at the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas (Villa Doyle, West and West Hill Streets, Nassau, New Providence, The Bahamas) through April 7. It was curated by Holly Bynoe.