NASSAU, BAHAMAS — There has been much written about the importance of art during a time of crisis. Art helps to process difficult emotions. It brings us joy and provides hope. Art presents an opportunity to voice our ideas and share them with others. It has the potential to bring us together.
In a new exhibition at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB), titled “Evolution of the Arc”, art is being used to explore the impact and vulnerabilities laid bare by the twin crises faced by this country over the past two years — Hurricane Dorian and the ongoing pandemic.
“Evolution of the Arc” features work by 10 artists. The work emphasizes the challenges and possible solutions related to issues such as sustainability, climate change, the need for economic diversity and food security in a post-Hurricane Dorian and post-pandemic environment.
The show’s curator, Deime Ubani, explained: “We see artists in this show contemplating how we come together as a nation after [Hurricane] Dorian and now in the midst of a pandemic, and how we can move forward as a nation.”
The show was originally conceptualized with a particular focus on the impact of Hurricane Dorian and the problems it exposed. It was planned for 2020, and then the pandemic hit. Ubani said it seemed only natural that the ongoing impact of the pandemic be incorporated. After all, many of the vulnerabilities exposed in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian have been exacerbated by COVID-19.
Another important element of the exhibition for Ubani was to create an opportunity to bring together the wider artistic and creative community.
Ubani knows something about creating opportunities for artists to come together. She is known for her work with “The Salus Project”, which brings together local artists “focused on the combined values of art and wellness to raise awareness and bring about positive changes in the community”.
It was in the spirt of partnership between “The Salus Project” and the NAGB that “Evolution of the Arc” was created, according to NAGB curator Natalie Willis. The shared goal was to welcome the wider artistic community into the museum for “conversation and exchange”.
As an open-call exhibition, “Evolution of the Arc” succeeds in bringing together the wider artistic community. Of the 10 artists selected to be in the show, six are from the Family Islands and one is from the Caribbean region. Featured artists include Arielle Rahming; Caroline Anderson; Dorlan Curtis and Allan Jones; Elkino Dames; Errol Brewster; Dr Ian Bethell-Bennett; Leanne Russell; Shaquille Coleby; and Sofia Whitehead.
The selected works range from the traditional to the conceptual. They include mixed media on canvas and paper, digital and text projections, large-scale installations, paper on ink, photography and digital prints.
In some cases, the selected works are exhibited alongside pieces from the gallery’s National Collection. For example, the photographs of Whitehead are paired with works from renowned photographer the late Roland Rose. Coleby’s digital collages appear with photographs from American photographer JF Coonley, who worked in The Bahamas in the late 1800s.
While all of the works selected for the exhibition “seek to inspire, critique, uplift and offer space for contemplation and representation”, we talked to four creators from “Evolution of the Arc” whose works focus on solutions, awareness and hope for the future.
“Disposable Income” by Dorlan Curtis Jr and Allan Jones (Eleuthera)
Offering one possible solution to the perennial challenge of solid waste is “Disposable Income” by Eleuthera-based artists Allan Jones and Dorlan Curtis Jr.
The installation focuses on solid waste and economic stagnation. It asks the viewer to contemplate how raw packaging could be given another life and how that has the potential to benefit the local economy.
Curtis and Jones upcycle cardboard to create perfectly functionable — and attractive — dinner plates. The piece also includes architectural paneling that serves a practical purpose as a divider in the gallery’s exhibition space, and a digital projection of burning piles of garbage.
The effect of the process used to repurpose the cardboard transforms the material from something that is merely functional to something almost ornate. From a distance, the plates look a lot like traditional straw work. The artists wanted to highlight how something as common — and abundant — as a cardboard box could be repurposed in both practical and creative ways.
“‘Disposable Income’ combines material-driven design as the guiding principle to raise awareness of upcycling and carboard waste, not only as an input for our highest cultural expression, Junkanoo, but as a valuable and untapped resource to create sustainable food ware,” the artists explained.
Curtis and Jones strongly believe that The Bahamas’ significant dependence on imported goods — and the large amounts of waste it generates — can be a catalyst for the local green economy and a move toward economic resilience.
Curtis said: “Here you have waste as a problem and a resource.”
“Abaco Abacus: A Recounting of Our Sins” by Leanne Russell (Abaco)
For Abaco artist Leanne Russell, “Evolution of the Arc” presented an opportunity to expose the “sociological traumas” laid bare by Hurricane Dorian.
Russell and her entire family lost their homes on Green Turtle Cay when the Category 5 Hurricane Dorian touched down in the Abacos on September 1, 2019, destroying virtually everything in its path.
While she acknowledged that Green Turtle Cay is among the first Abaco communities on its way to a full recovery, many residents on the mainland are finding it difficult to bounce back.
Russell uses an abacus, a calculating tool, to highlight what she described as the discrepancy in aid and assistance distributed to storm-ravaged communities following Hurricane Dorian. She argued that while “tourist playgrounds” received the majority of aid immediately following the storm, many locals are still “struggling to rebuild and afford the elevated cost of living”.
The installation unfolds in two locations — a small passage in the Abacos and on the second floor of NAGB on New Providence.
A large-scale abacus is installed on “Don’t Rock Passage”, and is constructed from reclaimed Abaco pine beams salvaged from historic homes that had to be demolished following Hurricane Dorian.
The Passage is a nautical landmark for boats traveling between the ultra-luxurious Bakers Bay community and the communities of northern Abaco that are still rebuilding from 2019’s Hurricane Dorian.
“Multimillion-dollar boats pass Treasure Cay and ‘The Farm’ on this route daily, oblivious to the living conditions,” said Russell.
A time-lapse video records the movements of passersby, and for anyone who is curious, a QR code strategically placed on a mock “for sale” sign provides an explanation of the life-sized abacus, which stands over seven feet tall and has fully functional counting beads.
For the second component of the installation, the time-lapse video is projected in the second-floor stairway of the NAGB, where smaller replicas of the abacus are displayed in nearby alcoves. The video also incorporates spoken word performances by artists with ties to Abaco.
Russell said that the overall objective of the piece is to bring a level of awareness to the realities for many residents on Abaco.
“In Abaco, we are living a different reality than what’s going on in Nassau,” she said.
“Common-well-th” & “Junkanoo Aesthetic” by Shaquille Coleby (New Providence)
If Russell is seeking to give viewers a reality check, artist Shaquille Coleby is inviting them to escape from reality to a surreal world that represents his high hopes and dreams for The Bahamas.
Coleby’s hyper-realistic digital collages reveal a fantasy world filled with mermaids, coral reefs, Chickcharneys, lush plants, succulent fruit and high ideals.
“It’s my version of The Bahamas, where we have unlimited possibilities of what a small island nation can be,” Coleby explained.
“It has all of the wishes that we hope for [in] our country.”
“Junkanoo Aesthetic” is inspired by a Junkanoo headpiece and is used to express Coleby’s cultural aspirations for The Bahamas. He uses the images of indigenous shells, fruit and leaves to emphasize that we already have what we need to “stand out on the world stage”.
In his piece “Common-well-th”, rich images of indigenous flora and fauna, pollinating honeybees and towering trees heavy with ripe fruit surround what Coleby refers to as a “conch well”.
The literal well represents the people of The Bahamas, all of whom are invited to “approach and partake” in this magical world, said Coleby.
Ultimately, Ubani hopes that viewers will walk away from the exhibition inspired to take action to tackle the myriad challenges faced by the country in their own way.
“I want the audience to realize that there is a need to change the way we approach these challenges,” said Ubani.
“I want them to be moved to think about the different avenues we can take to come up with the solutions we require.”
“Evolution of the Arc” runs from November 2, 2021, through January 23, 2022, at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas, West Hill Street. For more information, visit nagb.org.bs.