Do You See What I See?

Carrie Richardson, Woman With Basket on Head

By Neko Meicholas

(Images kindly provided by the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas/NAGB)

In all honesty I wish I could temporarily turn off the processing activity of my brain. Instead of seeing the ugly truth, I wish I could simply ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ like every other spectator, member and patron. 

I’ve recently viewed the exhibition “Traversing the Picturesque: For Sentimental Value” at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas and, quite frankly, I had absolutely no desire to ‘ooh’, much less ‘ahh’. Honestly, as I moved through the exhibition I grew more and more offended.  

I wonder, when everyone else looks at those more than a half-century old works of art do, you see what I see?

Diane Pullinger, Umbrellas

Do you see Diane Pullinger’s offensive portrayals of locals as big lipped, big assed, smoking, slackers? In some instances, her figures seem so floppy and spineless as to be incapable of self support— figuratively and literally. Looking at her work, I am reminded of a group of fractious children? Was that her intention?

Diane Pullinger, Market Scene

In Rupert Conrad’s work, black Bahamians are featureless. They are nothing more than a part of the local colour, never mind the fact that they are depicted in seductive body postures, as in the painting “To The Beach.” In his piece “Straw Market”, locals seem to blend in with the fruit and vegetables they are selling, all becoming an indistinguishable mass. The faces are all featureless. Am I wrong for seeing it as an erasure of their humanity? Am I wrong for thinking that the artist did not hold them in high regard? Am I reading far too much into this artist’s work? Maybe he simply was a crappy artist and was looking for slipshod ways to produce his art.

Rupert Conrad, Too The Beach

Further, in Conrad’s “Market Scene”, he goes so far as to cover the woman’s eyes with her hat almost completely erasing her identity. Was this artistic license? Did he have difficulty rendering eyes or the other facial features? Was the artist simply taking short cuts, making his job easier or was she simply not important enough for him to make the effort to depict her as a woman with dreams, cares, worries, ambitions? I’m just asking. 

Why is it that in Steven Etnier’s 1960 “Nude” in oil, he sexualizes the subject but again shows her from the back, erasing her humanness. Was this some intentional act on his part? Was he just a lazy artist? Or, should I credit him with protecting his subject’s identity, respecting her wish not to be identified with the nudity?

I have seen some of these pieces before, why did I never notice what I am seeing now? Is it because they are now hung as a group? Why do I feel that the general view of “locals” was nothing more than a decorative element in a tropical landscape? Why has this all of sudden become so obvious? Why am I having such a visceral reaction?

Am I being overly harsh? Am I being too judgmental? I realize it was another time and the views were very, very different.  And, perhaps, it was a convention of the genre. 

Jean Mcnab, Market Scene

E J Read, Young Boys

I can start to relax a little with E J Read’s work. His figures have facial features. Some effort was made to give the subjects an identity and to even portray them with some humor and laughter as in the water colour in paper “Young Boys” and “Woman with Basket”. But E J Read is also guilty of having initially portrayed his subjects as nothing more than ornaments in the warm landscape.

In Jean Macnab’s “Nassau Market” the artist makes some effort to include facial features but still depicts the women as nothing but a collection of big nosed, big lipped, big breasted mammies. And what’s with the bearded white man standing off to the side observing them so sternly?

Carrie Richardson, while depicting only slight facial  features, at least gives the subject of the oil on canvas a posture of dignity. In “Woman With Basket on Head” the subject at least stands proudly, hands on hip in front of a simple high wall. I could be very wrong but there is an effort on the part of the artist to depict the subject humanely. Then again, was the wall too plain and did the artist simply decide to add the woman in order to add a “punctum”?

Estelle M. Kerr (“Portrait) and Nellie Wright (“Market Woman and Native Boy”) are the only two artists, who  seemed to have made any effort to put details in the facial features and accord their subjects more of the humanity, which was theirs by right.

I will forgive Frederic “King” Soldwell for the lack of any sort of identity in his painting “Divers” (1940) simply because it’s obviously meant to be no more than an expressionistic non judgmental piece. But that’s the thing about what looks really deceptively simple... it never really is, is it?

Frank Otis Small, probably my favourite, was another to give his subjects identifiable facial features in his acrylic painting “Young Boys”. They are given expression, gesture and humanity and depicted as the subject of the painting. But... the main character is depicted begging, with his hands extended towards the viewer. Need I comment on this?

As I said before, I have seen many of these paintings in other places and at other times, so it bewilders me why this time I am having such an instinctive reaction to them. There comes a time when you can’t avoid calling a spade a spade. In an age where bigotry has taken a new and more vicious turn, I can no longer view the “pretty” watercolors with rose-tinted glasses and ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ like everybody else.

Kareem J Mortimers' Cargo: A Review

By Patricia Glinton-Meicholas © December 2017

I had longed for some time to see the Kareem Mortimer film Cargo. Just recently an opportunity presented and I seized it eagerly. A single opening credit would have justified the price of the ticket and the nearly two hours spent in viewing—the words “A film by Kareem J Mortimer”. What held me in the cinema, however, was the great sensitivity with which writer/director Kareem addresses a tragic and often controversial subject. He has invested the whole with a deep empathy, which should leave no conscious soul untouched by this quiet screening of humans’ age-old, and continuing inhumanity to other humans.

I am acquainted with Kareem. I met him some years ago, a shy, introspective, smiling, but seemingly nervous young Bahamian, who tended to avoid looking directly at you. When this evasion was itself circumvented, and our eyes met, what I saw was an internal fire and a determination that would push him up the steep, slippery, crevasse-pitted slopes of the Everest he had set as his professional goal—filmmaking. What I saw for myself of Cargo, not the hype surrounding it, told me that the obsession I caught sight of years ago was not illusory, but very real, and was powering a sure and steady climb to the apex of the target mountain.

If this seems overly enthusiastic, let me attempt to say why Cargo impressed a person who has read thousands of books, and seen many, many films, both genres in three languages running the gamut from the execrable to the ethereal. Cargo is successfully an omnibus of a film. It has faint lines of a docudrama, giving rise in my thoughts of the not-sufficiently-acknowledged aftermath of the predation of slavery and colonialism in the Caribbean and Latin America, which has left the inheritors of the region, a legacy of economic instability, political unrest and poverty. This tainted heritage drives many to flee northward to some envisioned Eldorado that often proves to be fool’s gold for many who arrive in The Bahamas, the United States, Canada or the United Kingdom.

Kareem’s work also has traces of a sociological treatise on culture clash, and on wounds opened by bigotry and egoism. It can be viewed as a restrained eschatology; that is, a religious piece, replete with the symbol of a rosary-like necklace, examining the soul of human beings—especially one. It is a story of things falling apart. What has been counted upon as a centre or anchor, i.e. the dreams of Kevin the central character, cannot hold.

Cargo is equally a story of sin, its painful wages, judgement and eventual death in various ways—death of hope, death of virtue, physical death. I’ll say at the outset that, despite some content slippages, this is a powerful exposé every adult Bahamian, as well as counterparts in other countries dealing with illegal migration of refugees seeking safe harbour from some form of persecution or want. Moreover, there is plenty here to stimulate people who enjoy looking beyond the surface, when seeking entertainment.

The first tranche of this multi-layered presentation opens on Kevin, a white Bahamian, who is attempting to make a living as a fisherman. Here to is where the art, which began with the rosary in the opening, continues. There is everything to suggest that Kevin’s venture rests on a shaky foundation. We are shown the decrepit nature of his boat. It is laughable to a Bahamian that he hauls up a lobster condo, especially as its catch is just a few, pitiful snappers. We discover that Kevin harbours an outsize dream that dwarfs his means. His pockets are near empty, he is lacking in skills, but ominously saddled with a vice—gambling.

Kevin has our sympathy in the beginning. It seems he can’t catch a break. We are shown that several nemeses, the inescapable agents of Kevin’s downfall, are hot on his trail. His son is in danger of losing his place at a $30,000 a year boarding school because his fees are deeply in arrears. Kevin is behind in his payments to the Development Bank, and he is as indebted to his bookie. Kevin’s wife, Berneice, is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, no less spectacular then that of the women of Almodóvar’s film of similar name. And, she has every right to be on the edge. He husband has let her down in many ways—even to causing her imprisonment for a crime he committed. When we meet her, she is suffering other forms of imprisonment. She is agoraphobic, won’t leave her house, and has the sole care of Kevin’s mother, who is lives deep in fetid waters of dementia, with habits that call for bleach, scrubbing and fortitude on the part of the caregiver, whose own hold on sanity is tenuous.

Along comes a proposal to Kevin that seems to be just the excavator to dig him out of the landfill of waste in which his bad decisions have buried him. Like a drowning man, he grabs for it. He becomes a human trafficker ferrying Haitians from New Providence to the Berry Islands, where his new employer says they will be picked up by a speedboat and taken to Florida, the paradise sought by these eternal refugees. Kevin quickly finds that the “solution” does not bring light but adds to the Stygian darkness of Kevin’s home front and life in general. I will say no more on the plot, so as not to spoil it for those who have not yet seen the Mortimer film.

The one of strongest points of the film is the Kevin character study, and Warren Brown, in the role, is to be congratulated. He manages to make his character’s dissolution credible and gripping. Kevin descends into hell in a poor man’s version of Dante’s Divine Comedy, with his friend Eddie (Omar J Dorsey) as his Virgil. In contrast to Dante’s hero, our man Kevin dives headlong into the greed, lust and fraud he sees about him. While Eddie remains faithful to the friendship and tries to steer him right, Kevin decides to descend to the lowest circle of hell—engaging in human smuggling, but, unlike journey’s end for Dante’s pilgrim, there will be no emergence into Easter Sunday for him.

Three of the female characters provide strong anchor points for the film. Gessica Geneus makes us believe in ‘Celianne’, flirting with genius in a portrayal that escapes artifice. She becomes Celianne. Geneus evokes effortlessly, with a mixture of pathos and dignity, her character’s tenuous hold on safety in a land that, at best, tolerates her compatriots, many fearing, not unreasonably, the transference of Haiti’s implosion. At worst, the Bahamian milieu rejects any commonalities between its people and Haitians, either in brainless bigotry, as does Celianne’s employer, or in sanctimonious repudiation of any proposal for the creation of a humane immigration policy that would benefit both sides; i.e. provide well-monitored, term contracts to give hope to Haitians seeking better, and a ready labour force for industries, such as agriculture, generally rejected by Bahamians engaged in what they consider upward mobility.

Persia White, as Berneice, though having fewer on-screen performances than Geneus, absolutely nails her character’s meltdown, a magisterial outpouring of invective against a husband who has taken her and the rest of the family to a dark place, literally shit-filled where none wished to go. Sky Nicole Grey’s role, as Jamaican Mona, the new caretaker of Kevin’s mother is little more than a cameo, but Grey makes capital of it. In her response to Kevin’s criminal treatment, her terror and complete unravelling is palpable.

Jamie Donnelly is believable as the demented mother; however, one of the principal slippages of the film emerges with the attempt to put the white Bahamian story of origins in that character’s mouth. It rings false, much the same as Kevin’s contorted utterance about keeping his family together by tearing them apart. While dementia patients do slip in an out of the dark web, the old woman’s moment of clarity is itself poorly conceived. It is much like the 6th grade essay of a conscientious student—stiff and rote. Overall, overt attempts at Bahamianizing are generally the weakest elements of Cargo, especially in larding the dialogue with Bahamian Creole and proverbs to be delivered by tongues patently unused to negotiating such language forms. Brown struggles with “Hungry dog eat raw corn”, and the character Sam Major becomes cartoonish. Here, the dialogue is simply cacophony, falling far below Berneice’s passionate toxicity. Kevin and Eddie sharing a bed in philosophical exchange doesn’t compute either. For dialogue success, the words, they must be consonant with the mouths into which they are put, and with the situation in which they are uttered. My humble recommendation for Kareem is an alliance with a professional truly expert in culture and expression, with a critical ear for rhythms.

Cargo also offers food for those who care little for soul-wrenching story and cinematic art. Mortimer has included some of Hollywood’s usual, coldly calculating tricks for attracting the mindless for whom introspection is no less chilling than a water bath to a cat. I speak of Brown’s flash of a contribution to the film world’s ever-increasing romance with full-frontal nudity. No less extraneous are Geneus’ floating globes.

Now, to the delight of talking about the art of the film. As someone immersed in the arts, literary and otherwise, this is my jam. Here lies the strength of my optimism for Kareem’s eventual summiting of his mountain. The choice of the name “Cargo”, I love. Although this commodification of people is not novel, but it fits well here—monosyllabic, impersonal, but ominously weighty.

Kareem’s tour de force lies in the acute parallel he draws between Kevin and Celianne, although, ostensibly there are poles apart in gender, race, ethnicity and social mobility. Yet their creator uses these character to show us that, at the most visceral level, human beings are much the same. The writer/director very cleverly makes the woman Kevin’s alter ego. Like him, she seeks a better life for an only son.  She too has enrolled her boy in a private school, the tuition for which her $150 a week wage cannot maintain. As in Kevin’s case, the school soon shuts the door to this road to emergence from the displaced Haitian’s subaltern status in The Bahamas.  Both are confronted by a catalytic experience that drives them to panicked action with tragic consequences. For Kevin it is his son’s imminent eviction from boarding school; for Celianne, it is the immigration officers raid of the shanty town where she lives and subsequent arrest of the inhabitants. She and her son narrowly escape capture, but if she remains, there will always be the chance that their time might come with the next rounding up and deportation.

More of this directorial sensitivity is evident in the atmospherics of Cargo. The entire film is wreathed in funereal shadows and foreshadowing, which appealed to me immediately. The process begins effectively at the opening—the inert bodies scattered, helter-skelter on the beach with the rosary necklace washing up towards them. There is the immediate and pithy suggestion that God has abandoned them. The overhead shots of Kevin’s boat are in the same vein. Its smallness is dominated by the vastness of a grey, cold ocean—a great foreshadowing of its inadequacy for the exploit which its owner will demand of it. In fact, nowhere is the famed, vacation-quality translucent blue waters and carefree sunlight of The Bahamas, nor is there the junkanoo scene that less-talented filmmakers consider de rigueur for evoking anything Bahamian. Thank you, Kareem.

The symbolism is subtle, but unmistakable throughout the film. Kevin’s efforts to scrub clean the walls his mother has smeared is such an element. It communicates his rude awakening to the to the oppressive reality, which he has steadfastly avoided but forced upon his wife. The messaging is reinforced when, in removing his gloves, Kevin’s hand gets dirtied—denial of the cesspool of his life is no longer an option.

The talismanic messaging of the wooden necklace is highly effective as a symbol of desertion and salvation. It is telling in the sex scene between Kevin and Celianne. He, who will become a devil to her and her people, is drawn to it, and touches it, assessing. She, enthralled by him, takes it off and tosses it aside to please him. For her, it is like a casting aside of her protective amulet and, by extension, side-lining one god to put her faith in another. Here is a strong hint to the viewer of the danger coming to Celianne, but she and her necklace will be reunited. At some point, her son also touches and questions its validity, all of which also points to the denouement of the film. Anything more about this film would be a spoiler. Overall, good job. Bravo, Kareem! Keep climbing; I’m rooting for you.