NAGB prepares for ‘Kingdom Come’
With endings, come new beginnings. In the theme for the next National Exhibition, “Kingdom Come”, the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas helps us see that the end of an era certainly creates pain, but in shifting our perspectives we reach new heights of enlightenment.
The theme appears ominous at first, conjuring up images of apocalypse, destruction and death, and effectively tapping into the palpable global anxiety at present. But as Director of the NAGB Amanda Coulson points out, endings can also clear a path for rebuilding.
“It’s a time of great change,” she said. “These times of crisis are actually times of rebirth as well because people rethink of what’s valuable and how to live their lives and hopefully come up with solutions to envisage the way forward. We can all sit around and talk about how bad the crime is, but what is a solution?”
Indeed the theme will allow artists to identify such issues on local and global scales in a first step towards solving them – if not directly offering solutions themselves.
Not only that, but the theme offers artists a chance to examine “Kingdom Come” in philosophical and existential ways, preferring the nuanced individual experience to the universal. In this way, says Curator of the NAGB John Cox, we begin to look past the “end of the world” and examine such an idea for what it really is: “the end of the world as we know it”.
“Joseph Campbell says an apocalypse is not a fiery end – it is the end of our own ignorance and how comforting that is,” Cox said. “He also mentions it’s about a collision of ideologies that had previously existed in isolation.”
“Apocalypses are really about realignment,” he continued. “People have many apocalypses in their lifetime – it could be the end of a relationships, losing a loved one, changing homes – it’s all about reconfiguring.”
The theme fittingly comes on the tail end of a shift at the NAGB itself. After undergoing a major overhaul of staff, programming and space, the NAGB prepares to face its next decade of existence with a decidedly fresh approach to Bahamian arts and culture, one that its new team hopes to deepen with their first approach to the National Exhibition.
NE6 is not the first themed national exhibition – following in NE5’s environmentally-conscious wake – but it is the first to be invitation-only. Just this past month, the gallery invited approximately 50 Bahamian artists reflecting a range of practices and media to contribute to the show. Such a move invited both criticism and praise from the local art community, some saying the change smacked of favoritism and nepotism.
Yet the decision, says Coulson, raises the National Exhibition to the high bar of other revered art exhibitions worldwide – after all, the Whitney Biennial and Venice Biennial are invitation only. Choosing a theme with which to gather relevant artists into a much-needed creative dialogue serves a more important purpose – and makes a more interesting show – than hoping to find relevant subject matter among a juried open call.
“If you have a concept and you invite people to respond to that, you get a tighter show and a deeper dialogue that will hopefully then resound in the community,” said Coulson. “That’s what art can do – it can help make people think about different issues that sometimes may be uncomfortable and sometimes won’t, but we need to have those conversations.”
The reality too is that the role of national exhibition is shifting within the NAGB with recent programming changes. After freeing up the ballroom space upstairs for gallery use once more and with the opening of the PS space, the staff prepares to run several smaller exhibitions at once. In the downstairs main building, for example, rotating permanent exhibitions provide visual and cultural contexts for their main exhibitions, while the PS space opens up an area for micro-installations, collaborations and student spotlights.
“What we’re trying to do is create programming to reflect the very wide diversity of Bahamian creativity in their element so as not to shoehorn all the voices into a National Exhibition,” said Coulson.
“It will open up the National Exhibition to being much more focused, which is normally what a biennial is: the state of art today, the discourse we’re having that relevant art – not necessarily good art, but relevant art – engages with,” she added. “It’s not a narrowing of focus, it’s a broadening.”
Gone are the days of months-long solo shows that took up the entire gallery space and created a stagnant atmosphere. Now, say the staff, the conversation will be opened up and deepened, with smaller rotating exhibitions ensuring artists from all parts of Bahamian cultural life have a chance to display their work. Within that, the national exhibition will just become another exciting exhibition.
“I’d like to set up a bit of a challenge here – instead of thinking it’s the national exhibition, can we think of it more like a national conversation?” asked Cox.
“I think that the theme is well-constructed to create a context for the work that people do,” he added. “It creates a context to clarify the mission of the exhibition. We are not arbitrarily looking at work by 50 artists – we’re looking at work within this conversation that we’re presenting.”
Cox insists that the exhibition, scheduled to open in November of this year, reflects a wide range of artists – balanced across practices, experience, gender and media – whose work will add something important to the conversation about “Kingdom Come”. Now is the time for the NAGB to help shift the gallery into the global spotlight, beginning with what is sure to be a powerful dialogue.
“I think we owe it to ourselves to be a part of a bigger conversation,” said Cox. “People are looking at what we’re doing. We can’t still keep only having shows about birds on the beach – we have to be part of a bigger conversation.”