UPDATE: I would like to apologize to Dr Bethel for my failure to address her by her correct title in my original post. Dr Bethel earned her doctorate from the University of Cambridge and as a former Director of Culture for The Bahamas Government, she is one of the most respected experts on Bahamian culture.
According to organizer Nicolette Bethel, a ‘Day of Absence’, staged last February by Bahamian cultural activists, was to make the point that Bahamian creatives aren’t getting the respect they deserve from the community at large. Is that really true and if so, why?
Ms Bethel, former cultural affairs director and now a lecturer at the College of The Bahamas, was among those who felt that Bahamian artists, musicians, writers, actors, dancers, directors, designers, craftworkers and related others are taken for granted and not given enough respect.
The name ‘Day of Absence’ comes from the 1965 play of the same name by Douglas Turner Ward. In his play the white people of a small town in Southern America discover that all the black people have suddenly disappeared for a day. After having to do for themselves all the chores that blacks would have ordinarily done, the white folk realize, at least a bit, how important black people are to their lives.
Ms Bethel intended to apply this concept to Bahamian creatives, hoping to show Bahamian society how terrible a day without Bahamian artists would be. You can read her original blog post here.
Fast forward several months and we find Ward Minnis (son of songwriter/artist Eddie Minnis) losing the warm and fuzzy feelings he had after originally hearing Ms Bethel’s call to action. After more carefully contemplating what was written about Day of Absence, he congratulates Bethel on a job well done, “while taking her to task for ideas that are at best half-baked”.
Minnis recently earned a Master’s degree in history from Ottawa’s Carleton University. A visual artist and a writer, he will participate in a debate on the merits of the Day of Absence with Ms Bethel and the Bahamian art community on January 12 at the National Art Gallery.
While the complete essay is definitely worth reading, Mr Minnis hits the nail on the head, early on, when he suggests that there are perhaps two reasons why Bahamians have not received much in the way of international (or local) acclaim for their art.
“The first is that average Bahamians, and the rest of the world, don’t understand us. The other, and more interesting, reason is that we are not that good.”
The first reason may be something that many artists experience, which I will discuss further in a minute.
His second reason is not only more interesting, it is also more important.
Some Bahamian artists think that because they are Bahamian, their art should be respected and command high prices. This, despite the fact that their work is often uninspiring, lacks originality and shows poor craftsmanship..
Is the respect they seek based on commercial success, or artistic acclaim?
Making art to make money isn’t the same as making art to make art. Art that comes from within isn’t always commercially successful. People may not want to display your inner demons on their living room wall. Meanwhile, producing commercially successful art might make an artist rich but not necessarily earn them respect from the art community.
Bahamian artist Toby Lunn elaborates on this in an interview with Bahamas B2B. He says that he and fellow artist John Cox made a pact many years ago to “be true to oneself” in creating their art. Rather than submit to what would be commercially acceptable, they would stay true to their personal visions, making art from their hearts, not just from their minds. At times, that has proven to be commercially successful, other times it has not. Both these artists have maintained their pact. I don’t know if they are rich but I do know they are respected by their peers.
Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
Getting back to Mr Minnis’ first point, it is true that average Bahamians, and the rest of the world, don’t understand artists. Maybe they never have. Some of the best artists in history, artists whose work now sells for millions of dollars per painting, never achieved commercial success, or even critical acclaim, in their own lifetimes. Not because they weren’t “good” artists but because their work may not have been understood by the people of their day. Maybe they were “ahead of their time”.
In his ‘Artist Talk’ interview with BahamasB2B, Bahamian art legend Max Taylor, one of the very people who some artists accuse of stealing attention from their work (which they think more deserving), admits that he doesn’t feel he has received his full compliment of respect either. He says he is not bitter but given his enormous talent he is certainly correct.
In a legendary example of not being understood in his own time, Rembrandt died penniless, yet there is a rare art collector in the world today who wouldn’t pay millions for one of his paintings.
Like our own Bahamian artist Amos Ferguson, who died last year without ever garnering the respect he deserved from the Bahamian public. Ironically, his fame on the global level warranted an obituary in the New York Times.
Kendal Hanna, one of The Bahamas’ finest living painters, lives, almost forgotten, in his small unadorned studio at Popop Center for The Visual Arts in Nassau. Not being understood isn’t a phenomenon new to Bahamian artists, it is the nature of being an artist. While that challenge has frustrated artists for centuries, it should not leave them bitter.
If certain young Bahamian artists are bitter thinking they deserve more respect, they might be wise to show established Bahamian artists more respect, instead of dismissing them as “old school”, while demanding their place above them.
As Ward Minnis appropriately asks, “are all Bahamian artists worthy of respect?
“The simple answer is no. Why should anyone respect bad poetry, bad writing, bad painting or poorly organized festivals?”
Echoing the wisdom of the pact made between Cox and Lunn, Minnis, criticizing the motive and concept behind ‘Day of Absence’, advises fellow Bahamian creatives that they, “should not be engaged in a project to make society respect us, we should be trying to be real artists.
“Whatever follows that process of becoming will be a natural consequence and will be well earned. Whether that consequence is disgust, indifference or the Nobel Prize should make no difference. Seeking respect before it is due and other such nonsense is putting the cart too far in front of the horse.”