Monday, Oct 21, 2019

On her own Terms

Bahamian Art & Culture Newsletter is pleased to share an intimate interview with the very busy Holly Bynoe, chief curator of the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB), who – after more than four years at her post – is leaving the NAGB and The Bahamas at the end of this year. She will work on-site at the NAGB through the end of October and then remotely through the end of December 2019. We wanted to hear in her own words about her experience while at the NAGB, her thoughts on the Bahamian art community, what were her triumphs and what were her regrets. It’s an inside look at the sensitive and progressive tenure of one of the NAGB’s most interesting chief curators. (This is an excerpt of a longer article, accessible online).

BAHAMIAN ART AND CULTURE (BAC): You are leaving the NAGB at the end of the year to embark on new adventures. What are your curatorial/career plans for the near future?

Holly Bynoe (HB): A big part of my decision in leaving the NAGB is the urge for me to slow down my curatorial practice and focus more on the research, composing and writing arm of the methodology. This is something that obviously becomes stunted when you have to focus on administration, lead and grow a department, strategically work with and in leadership to future-build an institution, while delivering 16-18 exhibitions a year.

I am going to take some time recovering from the past four years and return my focus to projects that have taken the second seat over the years. Notably, Tilting Axis and Caribbean Linked. Before I came to the NAGB in 2015, my collaborator Annalee Davis, founder and director of The Fresh Milk Art Platform Inc., and I conceptualized a consultancy company to birth and grow creative projects. We will be continuing this work with several international institutions in the coming years and fortifying our mission to create nurturing spaces that allow for sustainability, criticism and communities to foster and thrive.

Mostly, however, my time will be spent developing healing and earth-based projects. My plan is to move back to the land and to grow my knowledge around plant medicine. Herbalism, wild plants and apothecaries, in particular. There is a powerful call that started some 10 years ago in alchemy, animism and rootwork that is calling those who are invested in healing and ancestor communing, back to our roots, back to Mother Earth; divine Pachamama. As the crisis of our contemporary moment continues to unfold moving into a sure climate collapse, I am feeling the pull strongly and I am now more than ever open to committing to doing this as my life’s work. I know that all sounds like a lot, but the foundation of the creative and eARThwork is to me, all connected.

BAC: What is that one thing you learned during your time at the NAGB that will stay with you?

HB: To be a cultural leader you have to have strong and unshakable values. Through my tenure, many facets of my life and faith were tested, but I drew on uprightness, my family (blood and chosen) and self-care practices to stabilize and nourish my work and team. This has been the most important element, to lead by example and to be a mentor for younger professionals who want to commit their lives to this industry and work. It is not easy working in a system that devalues cultural and artistic work or to be in environments that do not give adequate support and are unable to because of postcolonial traumas – cultural amnesia, unknowing, internalised self-hatred, etc. Postcolonial societies in particular.

BAC: Do you believe Bahamian artists are sufficiently supported by the NAGB?

HB: I think we can always do more. Any institution, however large or small, has a duty to commit to the healthy ecology of their environment and be as nurturing as possible. During my tenure curating and producing over 50 shows, I have opened up the NAGB roster to younger contemporary artists and for that effort and success, I am proud. Yet, we can do more.

I know that some people feel uncomfortable with this focus, but the institution we are building is for the future. There is a considerable amount of work to do to build up critical thinking and action in artistic practices and discourses along with fortifying professional capacities and networks, but we are getting there. We have introduced several new, exciting programming initiatives and it seems as though we are busier than ever getting the word out about all of these projects.  Yet, we can do more.

And the reason that I keep circling back, is because we are the ONLY institution doing the work that we do for a nation of 400K individuals with a total of 17 full-time staff with approximately 5,500 sq.ft of gallery space. It is sobering to take in these statistics! Rather than having these concerns be studied and or taken up and processed, evaluated or listened to by another space, we are the only institution and thus there is always enormous pressure present to ensure that we are doing everything we can. I think the push to have satellite locations across the Family Islands is something of great import because of the centralization of resources to New Providence. It can feel that we are only focusing on what is here because it is easy and convenient.

It is a constant criticism we hear and one that is deeply understood as the NAGB has several staff members who come from these Family Islands and they are concerned and want to advocate for the sustainability and viability of art on their islands.

BAC: What do you believe is your greatest achievement during your time at the NAGB?

HB: Grounding the National Exhibitions in a political context. Giving artists the opportunity to be socially responsible is a powerful arm of civic movements and a part of my curatorial methodology and philosophy. Art has been pushing boundaries and giving people other ways of understanding their culture. It is a fine dissection and deep inquiry into the ticking heartbeat of this space. The National Exhibitions’ prompts or themes forces artists and the wider public to look at behaviours, postcolonial conditioning, ideologies of entrapment, generational baggage and the identity crisis. This window/mirror is critical for developing countries.

In addition to that, I am proud to have conceptualized and produced seven “Double Dutch” projects uniting and tying the NAGB to the rest of the Caribbean. Lastly, the partnership with the British Council to execute “We Suffer to Remain” and all its programming was for me deeply rewarding and fascinating. It remains my favourite project period to date at the institution as it addressed the inequalities and underhandedness that most institutions in the developing world feel when they have to stand up and truly represent and protect artists. “We Suffer to Remain” showed that the NAGB, although small, can pack a heavy punch battling rampant populism and suppression worldwide.

BAC: What is your greatest regret?

HB: I regret letting all of the personal and collective phobias and -isms make me lose sleep. I regret not working from home more often on research and writing endeavours. I don’t like having regrets so I have learnt and now I work from home more often on writing and research and I have learnt that surrendering is key.

BAC: What is your parting advice for the NAGB and for Bahamian artists?

HB: Growing pains are the murkiest and most challenging parts of the journey. Through this transition moment, I hope for the NAGB to truly embody its core values to be able to cultivate a more dynamic relationship with its communities and stakeholders. Being a small team, it is very hard to tick all of the boxes and still carry on with the everyday. I would suggest to always keep that bigger picture in mind. To not collapse into insularity, nepotism and insecurities, things that come easy for young institutions and nations. I would advise NAGB’s leadership to always try to operate from the high ground with the knowledge that this moment of being a teenager will pass. I have faith that the institution will be less awkward running into adulthood with fervour, grace and an indelible spirit.

To Bahamian artists, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, take risks and grow up. I have seen such careful and calculated manoeuvres over the years which has led me to psychoanalyse the community and while we/they are powerful and talented, we aren’t a trusting, sharing or generous community.

Many things, too many things, are held in check and the oppressive and dominant industries will eclipse and compromise the potential of the creative space if we aren’t careful and mindful. This comment reflects my non-allegiance to any entity and points to the breeding of fear and cynicism around the growth and sprawl of the tourism industry. The mind, spirit and soul of the artist should not be a colonized territory.

The NAGB extends gratitude to the Bahamian Art & Culture and Dionne Benjamin-Smith for permissions granted to republish this excerpt. Sign up and follow Bahamian Art & Culture on Facebook.

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