Chantal Bethel: Holey Space
Part inner sanctum, part history lesson, ‘Holey Space’ exists as an honest but healing look at the first wave of our sombre colonial past with Columbus and the Tainos. This play on words sets the tone for Chantal Bethel’s intimate new show in the Project Space (PS) of the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB) opening Sunday, October 30th. It generates reverence to these ancestors we never knew, addressing the gap left in our lineage from these original Bahamian inhabitants.
With its beginnings resting in inspiration from her sister in law Marion Bethel’s poetry anthology ‘Guanahani,’ Bethel exhibited work under the same title for an exhibition in Brussels. The word itself strikes feelings of a sort of misplaced nostalgia for this eloquent native name for San Salvador before the Spanish set out to lay a more ‘civilized,’ Christian name for this place of Columbus’ first landfall in the New World. So much came to be from that first touch of leather to white sand, and the erasure of the name served as foreshadowing to the erasure of an entire people.
For ‘Holey Space’ however, Bethel took a much less grave tone and opted instead for one of honor and remembrance, making the space one to uplift – but to never forget. She has designed the space to serve as a place of deference to the past, but with a hope to feel more optimistic for the future.
She has played the part of a storyteller, sharing this history and speaking on behalf of these people we know so well through books but often feel so disconnected from. The ‘Holey Space’ acts as a bridge in this way, a way to connect. “While I want, to tell the truth, I am very spiritual, and I believe we need peace in this world. There is so much violence here and the rest of the planet, and terrorism on the horizon for so many – there is even a sort of terrorism of nature like we have just experienced with Matthew! So that is why I wanted to create a sanctuary. It is a place where you face the facts but in a setting where you feel peace and love.”
Moreover, a sanctuary it is. Calling upon ideas of ancient tombs and temples with the petroglyphic style to her paintings, carving into the paint like the walls of caves. The space itself becomes reminiscent of a cave, with the circle at the entrance serving as a portal into a space of peace and worship. The work is filled with symbolism of openness and shelter, to further bolster this idea of a safe and neutral sacred space.
The stones used throughout many of the works are all very peculiar with their holes at the center — hence the wordplay in the title. She began collecting them two years ago at the beach at High Rock in Grand Bahama and began to look further into the strange objects, soon finding that they were often used as amulets for protection by many native peoples. “The pile of holey stones I have collected that rest in the centerpiece of the installation serve as a representation of those that died, like their bones put forward for contemplation. It is called ‘Rising Souls’ and the work is almost like a burial mound in remembrance for the Tainos. The circle at the top of the piece works as a further form of protection, as circles are also symbols of protection, something that keeps the ‘bad’ out. That is also why there’s a circle at the door; the circle allows you to come into the sacredness of the space in safety and wellness.”
As Bethel strives toward a space of contemplation and reflection, as well as hope, she engenders a setting of peace and a way to help us find peace with this past. “You have to tell the truth, tell the story as it is because you cannot rewrite history. It is history, it is the past, it is gone, it is finished. However, you need to know about it to move forward. You need to go back and know your past to know where you are going in your future. I just want people to look at what happened and consider it for themselves in a space that is less negative and more cathartic.”
The exhibition opens Sunday to poetry readings and dance, from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the NAGB. With the poignant and almost magical poetry of Marion Bethel and dance interpretations from Chivvaun Smith and Deresa McPhee, ‘Holey Spaces’ promises to uplift with beauty despite the darkness of the past. The show runs through December.