The Story of a Glorious Entry to Bahamian Art:
Neko Meicholas’ Grand Triptych Graces old St Francis Xavier Cathedral
By Patricia Glinton-Meicholas
Bahamian artist Neko Meicholas has created a grand triptych which adorns the older structure of the Roman Catholic St Francis Xavier Cathedral. The West Street church stands high on Nassau’s central ridge overlooking the capital’s harbour. Since the rededication, The Catholic faithful have had the opportunity to savour the work’s obvious merits.
The Meicholas canvases have joined an artistic phenomenon. The Bahamas has been volcanic in its production of art since the 1990s, a pyroclastic eruption, which has continued to flow and gain recognition and acclaim beyond our archipelago in the years 2000. Since 1992 I believe I have contributed in some small way to putting Bahamian art on the world map. I have written extensively on art for a quarter century—exhibition catalogue pieces, newspaper features and entries on Bahamian art for such major international publications as the Grove Dictionary of Art (formerly Macmillan). I have extolled the works of many who are accorded the honorific “Master Artist”, and have written to encourage newcomers.
In contrast, I have written little about the art of my husband Neko Meicholas. I will deal with the reasons right up front. Neko has been occupied primarily with his Guanima Press, his labour of love, which is dedicated to growing a praiseworthy Bahamian literature. He designs all the books, he publishes and has done photography and wonderful covers for this output. A great example is the book on the Years of Favour: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Creation of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Nassau. It is true he has not publicly shown his paintings much, but has made private sales over the years.
I have done little to change that picture, feeling certain that there would be those pundits of art standing ready to cast doubt on the validity of my commentary with a “That’s her husband—What do you expect her to say?” Besides, don’t we know that the shoemaker’s family are always the last to get shoes? No matter. I will now try to correct an unfortunate omission, leaning on the history of my integrity in speaking and writing.
There is now a compelling reason to write about the art of Neko Meicholas. As evidence of a talent that deserves acknowledgement, three large, intimately related canvases now hang high on the wall at the back of the altar space in the exquisite setting of the chapel of the old St Francis Xavier. It is a fitting setting, as this structure is part of a phoenix-rising-from-ashes tale given physical reality.
The story began on 25 September 2009. Owing to an electrical fault, fire engulfed the rafters of the then 124-year-old church causing extensive damage. In what many have called a miracle (including this writer), the tabernacle was spared and the Eucharist inside was untouched. It was, perhaps, symbolic of what was to come. Archbishop Patrick Pinder, CMG, STD vowed immediately to restore that sacred space. Known to be meticulous in his dealings, Archbishop Pinder took his time assembling the builders, artisans and artists, who would contribute to the restoration and embellishment of the historic structure. Worthy of mention here is carpenter/cabinetmaker Dolph Sands of Eleuthera, whose beautiful woodwork can be seen gracing the facility.
Neko Meicholas, a “cradle” Catholic, was chosen for two very special tasks: 1) create a Christ Pantocrator painting that would serve as the altarpiece, and 2) painstaking restore the 14 Stations of the Cross, which had been extensively impacted by corrosive smoke. Meicholas had wet his feet extensively with the design and production of 50-plus pieces of ceramic art, which beautify the new Holy Family Catholic Church in the Marathon area of New Providence. He knew, however, that this new commission would represent a deep submersion into Christian iconography. The Archbishop specified that the painting was to feature the traditional elements of all Christ Pantocrator imaging.
The central constituent parts of the image are specified by the Pantocrator’s long and deeply imbedded history in the Church’s iconography. Christ, his head encircled by a halo is pictured half-length from the waist up, holding the Gospels in his left hand with his right hand making a gesture of teaching or of blessing. The book, held close to his body, is prominently marked by the Cross. Often, the name of Christ is written as IC XC, divided into two blocks by the figure.
His Grace could have chosen the easy route of factory-manufactured, decorative art, which lacks the personal engagement and spirit of the artist, but to an art lover’s gratitude, he didn’t.
With great trepidation, Neko Meicholas accepted the charge. Could he deliver work that was worthy of being permanently displayed behind the altar of St Francis Xavier? Without alerting his patron, Meicholas decided that he would need to create three paintings, if the emplacement was to have a dynamic visual impact. The two additional paintings would be Neko’s gift to the Church.
The emergent paintings are each 36”x 48” acrylic on linen covering the entire wall on which they are mounted. Beyond fulfilling the mandates of tradition as regards figuration, it can be seen immediately that the artist was very much spiritually engaged, in the manner of a Jacob wrestling with the angel, recognizing the supernatural, but determined to do so on his own terms. Those who leave behind their prejudices, and truly engage the triptych will see a personal iconography emerging from a surfeit of metaphor.
The Christ who is the central figure of the Meicholas rendition is not the polished, boardroom CEO, blue-eyed with golden hair flowing and coiffed who, for so long, dominated Christian art. Here are the rough locks of a Middle-Eastern village carpenter. Here is a brown man, browner to reflect the Bahamian majority. Christ’s face is not one that will attract Hollywood contracts, but appropriately reflects the suffering appropriate to a “man of sorrows”, acquainted with grief and existential pain.
Bordering the side canvases are faces of believers turned towards Christ in adoration. Their expressions are reflective of the suffering endured by those who would keep faith in a world that tries to rebury a revolutionary whose Gospels are subversive of joys that rest stubbornly in the secular, egocentric and immediate. And, as truthful a depiction are the male and female figures in cameo, who turn away in rejection.
Nevertheless, though deeply immersed in Catholic doctrine, the triptych is not a long-faced revival meeting, but possessing all the fullness and sensuousness of colour, line and movement required by those who would rather not spend too much time in dark reflection. Meicholas has created canvases of incredible beauty, offering a Byzantine palette of golds, ochres, umber, a mixture redolent of a rich, aged red wine, but permitting Bahamian blues to break through.
Neko’s paintings took inspiration from the likes of the Austrian Gustav Klimt, and Bahamians Brent Malone and John Beadle, of whom Meicholas is an avowed admirer. We see the arabesques of lines and the richness of geometrics. The artist’s departures begin with Christ Pantocrator. Without contravening the basics of the traditional iconography, Meicholas imposes his own stamp, especially in the left turn from Christ manicured to one whose not-quite-white robe hints of an under-wash of the blood of his ultimate sacrifice.
Klimt, the symbolist, expressed his artistic credo when he said, "Whoever wants to know something about me - as an artist which alone is significant - they should look attentively at my pictures and there seek to recognize what I am and what I want." For Neko Meicholas, the same holds true. It is on the two bracket paintings that he plays hide and seek. Here is a cornucopia of metaphor, taking the serious viewer on an intense journey of exploration to winkle them out. His angels hover in robes that reflect the ethereality to be expected of heavenly messengers, and take on living dynamism. It is through the endless superimposed swirls and the opaque white, porcelain birds that dive across the spaces that Meicholas renders the Holy Spirit, as if he himself wishes to imbibe its hallucinogenic, addictive vigour. What more I see, I will keep to myself. I know intimately the profound depths from which this triptych springs. Just know that it is a gift of great beauty, and I praise the giver for risking self-revelation, the acclaim or disparagement of those who will see the works, in order to endow us with this spiritual experience in a world that feels safer with superficiality.