Murals transform, beautify, invigorate, stimulate, inspire — the adjectives to describe this kind of public art can probably fill an entire page. However, limiting the impact public art has on the communities, cities and towns where they are located to paltry words becomes an exercise in futility because, as with several major artworks created in the last millennia, what these artworks bring to spaces and the people who inhabit them is truly beyond words. The use of public art to support political agendas, stimulate the economy through tourism, communicate the thoughts and ideas of artists outside of the walls of galleries and museums is not peculiar to contemporary society, but more and more public art is being used as a way to empower and unify inhabitants of stricken communities so that they can be arbiters of positive change. Ongoing research has also identified the therapeutic effects of murals in particular on the mentally ill and the homeless.
However, just going into a community and putting a mural in a space with the expectation that it will be accepted by residents or even make a difference outside of providing brief respite from the ugliness of a concrete wall, is unrealistic to say the least. Creative professionals and institutions are in the unique position to effect change through the arts in a culturally democratic manner by cultivating partnerships with community organisations, schools and individuals, facilitating discourse around common interests and actively engaging them in the design and creation of objects/gathering spaces that will be long-term additions to their neighbourhoods.
In his publication, The Creative Community Builder’s Handbook, American planner, educator and non-profit arts leader Tom Borrup speaks to social scientist Robert Putnam’s research on the impact of culture and cultural activities on the economic and social growth and development of communities:
“He (Putnam) says that an active cultural environment, including activities that help people better share their cultures and stories, is one of the best ways people develop their capacity to cooperate and build social and civic connections.”
Indeed, the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB) has used this approach as the foundation on which its mural programme, which started in 2016 in Nassau, has been built. Through this programme, the NAGB has engaged with and facilitated interactions between individuals, schools and community groups, building a rapport that has continued even after the completion of the projects. Beginning in fall 2017, we have taken the mural programme to four Out Islands — Exuma, Eleuthera, Andros and Grand Bahama — under the theme “Back to da island”. Teachers, students and local artists were engaged to design a mural that spoke to the history and cultural practices of their respective islands and, over a one week period, worked with NAGB staff to paint the mural in a public space that allowed the residents to see and interact with it on a regular basis.
Our most recent stop was Grand Bahama, where the mural programme was taken alongside the Inter-Island Travelling Exhibition in early April. Students, led by their art teacher Sean Sears, from Bishop Michael Eldon School, created the winning design and worked with art teachers from Jack Hayward High School (Benjamin Ferguson and Alisa Streather-Robinson), NAGB staff and several local artists to paint murals on the back of the Welcome Centre and bus stop in downtown Freeport. This was generously donated by the Grand Bahama Port Authority who incorporated the project into their larger initiative to rejuvenate the area. Over a period of seven days, while we worked vigorously to complete the artwork, Freeport residents shouted encouragement from their vehicles as they passed and stopped to chat or pick up a paint brush to help. Several steps from our site, another group worked simultaneously to paint a mural on a much larger wall, completing theirs a few days before.
The snowball effect continued at the YMCA on Settler’s Way in Freeport — just five minutes away from the NAGB’s mural where, one week later, Nassau-based artist Angelika Wallace-Whitfield arrived to paint a mural that reflected the offerings of the organization in its imagery. This project was conceived when Wallace-Whitfield was approached by personal trainer Alex Pelane, who works at “the Y”, about possibly doing a small indoor mural with children during a 2020 summer camp. It was decided that the placement of a mural on the road-facing wall of the building would be a great way to build interest and excitement around the camp. It certainly fulfilled its purpose as both the artist and the Y received incredible feedback on the initiative and Wallace-Whitfield, as an added bonus, was able to interact with the children at the Y and learn about its function in their lives and in the community.
Each of these projects encouraged the participation of the community through the involvement of children, local artists, educators and important community spaces, and the reception of these public artworks speaks to the support and buy-in of the residents. They are, however, just a beginning, and it is hoped that more community-conceived and supported public art projects continue to be placed through downtown Freeport, bringing vitality to the area and changing the way residents interact with the space.