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?
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?
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.
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.
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.