Can we take a minute to reflect, to return to moments in childhood of being unjustly vilified by adults all in the name of superiority because adults “can never be wrong?” Compare that feeling you felt to those of whom may work in service-based industries where customers are supposedly never wrong… even when, sometimes, they may be. Imagine the disgrace one must endure for the sake of client satisfaction or a five-star rating. Imagine the same ignominy women must feel when they are thrown labels they must endure and wear proudly for the fulfilment of the male gaze. It is even more distasteful when these supposed compliments are coming from a touristic perspective. Words like “Bahama Mama” become double-fold and suddenly intolerable when they are taken out of the mouths of the people who have claimed it to be this powerful thing.
Research-based, multidisciplinary artist Jodi Minnis sought to investigate the layered meanings behind this time-worn Bahamian idiom in her new series of works, entitled “NOT YOUR BAHAMA MAMA”. She presented her findings at The Current’s latest gesture, “Conceptual Currency”, conceptualized by curatorial manager Angelika Wallace-Whitfield, last month.
“The ‘NOT YOUR BAHAMA MAMA’ series started as a response to the multidimensional meanings and connotations behind the phrase. Whether it was used as a term of exoticism, endearment or on racist iconography, I thought it important to highlight each facet and expose the audience to all of these layers,” Minnis said during her presentation.
She considers the weight of these words and also the likeness of people she holds dear to her, and compares and contrasts the two. “My grandmother was featured on the cover of a photo book by Sophia Whitehead titled ‘Bahama Mama’ and I found salt shakers fashioned like mammy archetypes with the words ‘Bahama Mama’ engraved on it, and that inspired a few things.
“From my experiences as a Black Bahamian woman, I’ve had foreign men call me Bahama Mama as a form of exoticism whenever they did find out my nationality, and I think when it comes to language, we have to be mindful of the connotations of the words we use. From creating this work, I feel like I’ve reclaimed my sense of self and identity holistically, because it’s one thing to be proud of ‘Black girl magic’ and the thriving images of Black women, but I also think it is important we are not made ashamed of how we once were and still are depicted without a care for our humanity. The responsibility of that shame should fall on the artist or renderer not us (me).”
On a different note, muralist and visual artist Angelika Wallace-Whitfield has come to find that reclamation of self and identity through her artwork has become all subjective.
Also presenting her “HOPE IS A WEAPON” series first introduced through the Ninth National Exhibition (NE9) as a public project, alongside Minnis, Wallace-Whitfield shares an experience of her tagging her work along a wall and being stopped and asked about the intent of such “evil” words. She explained to the asker just as she does in her artist statement for this series that she believes we are all hoping for something, but since the word “hope” has become powerless, she opted to pair it with a word as heavy as “weapon” to restore its power, to prove that the action of “hoping” is something as forceful as a weapon.
However, since then, she says she’s learned, “Reclamation has a lot to do with viewer’s interpretation and artist’s intent, so its relevance/ importance is relative. With the ‘HOPE IS A WEAPON’ series, a large part of its intent has become the varied interpretations by viewers and various reasons why the phrase resonates with them.”
This series has become much larger than she had ever anticipated, with its merchandise taking on an artistic meaning for itself, though she stresses it will always hold a certain level of integrity and not grow too big for her not to design the apparel herself. With this, Wallace-Whitfield says she will probably always use typography and fonts in her work, but doubts she’ll push another phrase the same way she has with “HOPE IS A WEAPON”.
When asked if admirers of her work can expect a continuation of the “NOT YOUR BAHAMA MAMA” series in upcoming works, Minnis said, “I will have to take a break for a short while to really be purposeful about my next steps, but I will definitely be continuing with this series of work sometime in the future.”
When asked if supporters of her work can expect to see collaborations in the future with literary artists, Wallace-Whitfield responded, “I’m open to anything. I think I envisioned its translation to one in a gallery setting, in my own art, in others’ artwork, but definitely open to any collaborations. I’d love to see what a literary artist does with it; how they’d choose to dissect the words. I’d love to hear others take on the phrase – different interpretations is intrinsic to this project.”
The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas is grateful to have supported both women artists in their creative endeavours thus far, especially most recently with NE9, and looks forward to more great works in the future.