The stretching of our culture
Goat skins stretched across wood;
Flour mixed with water to make paste;
Newspaper, sponges, cardboard pasted to make costumes;
Faces obscured by masks, coverings. Cloth to hide the identity of the performer;
Jump in, jump up subversion masquerade, African, uncivilized sorcery, and disturbance.
Junkanoo erupts on Bay Street, the seat of oligarchic, colonial power.
Notice to break the noise ordinances, people that disturb the peace laws;
Black voices, bodies, hair, anger, emotions gyrating, even in the face of Churchified prohibition;
Occupying the space that is closed off to them on 363 days of the year;
Resistance and creation,
This is culture.
A culture of silencing voices through speaking
Governance of the majority by the majority that ignores the majority.
Burma Road meets Meeting Street and Market Street; only these are now cleansed of their unsightliness, except for garbage that flies alight on and that occupies every corner of these dilapidated native quarters.
Bay Street is the globalized Mecca still the seat of power, jealously guarded by Dobermans savaging the ‘savages’ who seek to speak out.
Oh such colonial language to diminish a decolonized people!
Voice, a tool to empower.
Silence, a tool to empower.
Goatskins stretched, heated, beaten empower through silencing the din around.
Black, calloused hands work goatskin into harmony that frightens, much like black bodies that frighten when out en masse on streets under cover of dark
Laws and ordinances suspended through resistance
Today, we speak of silencing through law, yet we choose not to see the role of art in breaking the silence. Junkanoo as art, in breaking the restraint.
We bridle culture into Made-in-China decorations and Made-in-Taiwan Bahamian t-shirts.
A culture is no longer a local culture when it comes from China.
Junkanoo is Bahamian culture.
We have chosen to simplify Junkanoo to a parade, though many of the players do not see it as such. We reduce it to a bunch of people in the streets half-naked and dancing. It is a culture. It is its culture of noise, harmony, rhythm and the clash between rivals in the middle of a space that is reserved for others who have power.
Back then, the power was wrested from them; it was not peaceful. Violent, especially when wresting power from the powerful is not always visible. Power is never given it is always taken. No one wants to part with power, even when it does not belong to them. They have empowered themselves of it, to it and with the voice of others. Junkanoo of old understood that. They lived that ethos. Today, some perform that, but many perform a masquerade that belies the ‘incivility’ of the past. This is a part of the representation of a colonized people who must take over a space in the dead of night and cause chaos that breathes new life into a dying system.
Lest we forget.
Representation of culture is also dangerous. Much like the occupation of Bay Street that was such a subversion of power in the colonial days, there are spaces today that are perceived of as being closed off, but there are spaces that are perceived as being open but are not really; they do not allow the people’s active participation.
The royal will rule things for us; they say “you need not worry, we know best.” So a culture of resistance is once again turned into a culture of submission. Junkanoo has been tamed to the point where on its face, it is nothing more than a competition between Saxons, One Family, Valley, Genesis and all the others. It is far more than that. As Édouard Glissant says of culture, it is opaque. The surface does not allow us to see the deeper workings of a culture of resistance, even though the patriarchal established power has seemingly co-opted the art form. Junkanoo is art and culture, resistance and refusal to be subjected and objectified.
It is important to put Junkanoo – this sanitized culture of representation – in conversation with other art forms, as John Beadle and other artists like him do. It is a part of the Bahamian aesthetic to have a multiply toned and nuanced culture, but to choose to silence those tones and nuances, with our insistence on respectability, order, gratefulness and knowing one’s place, is cultural death. All of these assume that the order will not be shirked, that chaos will not reign and that the status quo will not be challenged. It is important that Junkanoo dialogues with art forms as produced by other artists in other spaces. It is, after all, resistance to repressive governance.
Here, Junkanoo speaks with National Exhibition Eight (NE8) and specifically works that show the resilience and the endangerment of Bahamian culture and the resistance to this erasure through multiple and intentional expressions. Lynn Parotti’s ‘Slave House’ series and ‘Discarded Pearls’ by Jordanna Kelly spark instant conversations with Junkanoo. Though obviously discordant, these works create the hidden text in some of Bahamian culture, history, and discourse. We choose to destroy our past to commodify our future. The ‘Pleasure Paradise’ is all that matters and it must all serve the tourist palate.
Ken Heslop’s ‘Duty Bound’ also speaks to our inability, unwillingness, unpreparedness as a people to speak. Parotti’s piece provides some historical context for the loss we constantly inhabit. As Derek Walcott observes: “The sigh of History rises over ruins, not over landscapes, and in the Antilles, there are few ruins to sigh over, apart from the ruins of sugar estates and abandoned forts” (The Antilles). Sadly, we are prepared to let history fall away under the rot of time, and memory collapsing under the weight of illiteracy. Perhaps one of the more dangerous risks we must also grapple with is the museumification of our culture. If we put it in a museum, it becomes a ‘thing’ to be observed, not a living part of people.
“Due to our lack of appreciation and development of our natural resources, pollution in general, countless scandals and increased warnings of crime, The Bahamas will soon become Discarded Pearls to the world because of the reputation we’ve developed. Are Bahamian attitudes a type of pollution, are we killing our Bahamas from a political, social and environmental platform?”
History and land are natural resources that are squandered to foreign investment that locks out Bahamian participation. We must protect them and create local ownership and stewardship and foster understanding of the past that has brought here, today.
Meanwhile, Parotti points out that:
“My choice of “Slave House” and “Waddesdon Manor” is reminiscent of the grotesque imbalance that existed then and the shocking inequality which is still prevalent now; only, the form is different. I have merged my photographs from these two dwellings, blending the boundaries, contrasting the grandeur with the decrepitude, the luxuriant with the scant, the boundless with the chained to highlight these differences.”
Why have we chained our culture, our history, our voice to a moment in time that ended in a light that undermines unity? ‘Roots’ spoke volumes in the 70s and 80s, but it did not speak of the disempowerment of the masses through those who had appropriate their voice. Yes, The Bahamas suffers from forgetting, it also suffers from erasure this forgetting allows. The animosity created from slavery, emancipation, and the apprenticeship programme – where former enslaved Africans and New-World-born blacks were required to ‘learn’ from their former masters, by working for free, but their masters were awarded thousands by the Crown as a type of indemnity for any losses they would have suffered from ‘losing their chattels – can still be felt. With apprenticeship lasted four years, shortly after which the Truck and Credit system followed which deepened inequalities already established.
Columbus’ project to extend the Spanish Crown’s domain that soon became the English Crown’s project to rule through law and religion has endured. The law controlled and religion subdued. The inequalities were maintained through design, not through flaw or mistake. Our ability, action, intention through Junkanoo, photography, writing, cataloguing and voice (the arts) to capture our past and speak it is all that we have.
Walcott states it thus, ‘Antillean art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent’ (The Antilles). But the breaking off is more important than to have remained. We have created something all new and unique. We, as is so often stated, are not a copy of something else, as seems to be the want of many forces, but an original ill-fitting gift of fragments created by disharmonious harmony in concert.
Parotti, much like Kelly, fights with a history of dispossession and dis-ownership, but it is not through the active agency but rather through tomfoolery and blinding obfuscation that the majority has continued to use the laws of suppression, oppression, repression to manage the majority they speak over. Parotti’s excellent historical research reveals facts, but as we seek to overturn a tradition of disempowered empowerment by arguing for the normalization and commodification of generation land that sprung from the land tenure Bahamian case of 1961-62 under the 1959 Quieting of Titles Act.
From Parotti’s project, we can see that we are commodifying an irreplaceable and finite part of ourselves. Sadly, our new materialism allows land to go to a Canadian bank and disappear into the global pocket of high-street-shysters. The old laws that were meant to assist in the empowerment of the disempowered have come back to bite the same group in the proverbial bottom, as these have been and are being used to dispossess hundreds of Bahamians of African descent. The old ways and legacies die hard.
In the old days, Junkanoo costumes were created/crafted from what we had, what we had already used, and what could be recycled to make. There was no money to squander. We did not buy Junkanoo. To many, Junkanoo is a costume and not a culture, a competition, not a way of life; a performance, not an expression of resistance and subversion.
Majority-determined respectability sanitized Junkanoo, they commodified it and to sold it back to us as something other than what it was. We have turned it into tit for tat and butter for fat where we buy and then throw away, just as we have become a disposable culture or place that is junked by those who rule in our stead, those who speak for us instead of on our behalf; who empower themselves through gang violence and nepotism rather than through collective movements and community catharsis.
Culture is alive and what these artists, Junkanooers and visual crafts people have created belies the value put on it by governments and rabble rousers or miracle workers who profess the cure to the common cold by using the same syrup they sell for an aching foot. We have arrived at a place where we are being bound by duty and silenced by representation, losing ourselves to the almighty dollar.
We may think that the second coming is not yet nigh, but rest assured the continued divestment of us will result in museum piece with no survivors. Culturally, we are brazen and bold, yet why do we choose to remain sequestered by circumstance?