Saturday, Mar 28, 2020
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Art and the environment: celebrating Majority Rule

More than 50 years after the popular vote established a change in the way business has been done in The Bahamas, we continue to see a small voice speaking loudly against the national interest. The natural environment has become a casualty in the race to development. The company and plural vote may have been eradicated, but the field has not been leveled. Art truly captures this in stunning colour; we see our trajectory into the new decade and after hurricane Dorian’s decimation of our way of life in this tropical paradise. Lemero Wright’s “Mystery in the Mangrove” (2019, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 60 in.), one of the works in the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas’ newest exhibition “Refuge”, which opened on December 19, 2019 and closes March 29, 2020, is a spectacularly magical exploration of much of the emotion we must be feeling in the wake of Dorian. His work sets the stage of the decimation of the natural environment through the loss of mangroves that assist in protecting the coast and even in-land communities from the sea’s incursion into the land, as well as providing a nursery for the valuable sea life so many come to The Bahamas to witness for themselves. Tropical paradises need living oceans for their survival. And we live on and by the ocean, as much as we may turn our backs to it.  (We literally have built with our backs to the water; our fronts face the road, as if we wish to ignore the pain the water holds, or the memory of that pain.) So many Bahamians have landed here through watery passages from Africa, by way of the Carolinas, or from the Carolinas, Europe or the global south.  Some have maintained a life on the water. Many Conchy Joes in the islands continue to make their living from the ocean’s spoils. This essay is a celebration of that tradition as much as it is a focus on the natural environment.

The natural environment is front and centre in the Bahamian image, yet so little is truly seen, and little has been done by the state to change this. As sea-level rise threatens our homes and lives, we still do what Roshanne Minnis highlights in “Holiday Splash” (2016, soft pastels, 18 x 24 in.), where two young boys frolic in the sea on a holiday, probably not Majority Rule Day because it is out of season for most Bahamians to swim or frolic during January, but that could be most any other “summer” holiday. Dorian took this joyful part of the cultural ethos of Bahamianness and changed it so that Lavarrick King’s “The Fear of Being Swept Away” (2019, acrylic on canvas, 18 x 24 in.) speaks to a new(er)-re-found fear of the water. Perhaps we need to call it a respect for the ocean. The ocean gives and takes. It is the bringer of life to these islands and rocks, the bringer of commerce, through rum running and wrecking, and the taker of life through hurricanes and storm surges of tsunamis. Our natural beauty is also a threat to our existence.   

The Eleutheran Adventurers and Loyalists arrived by water.  The pirates, Blackbeard and his crew, “cruised” the waters illegally pirating wealth from others, then legally privateering for the British Crown over all others, then ultimately becoming the figure heads of civilized government and rule in the colony as Woodes Rogers became governor. The Bahamas is a country of paradoxes, yet, as oxymoronic as they appear, they all make sense.

In our celebration of a day that was supposed to have changed everything, not a whole lot truly changed. The art we see speaks to this contradictory omen. Minnis’ work shows subtle and joyful beauty, innocence and the survival of the same. As she and her husband attest, the only part of their Marsh Harbour workspace that did not collapse in or after Dorian was the corner where their work was stored. How do we grapple with such salvage and such devastation?  The ability to surface from the boiling seas, scarred but whole, is perhaps the best testament to survival. There will certainly be a day when young people frolic in pastel beauty again, not very far from now.

Wright’s work does not contrast or contradict the innocence and beauty confluent with nature and man who usually tries to harness the seas for his own ends as we see with so many works by naturalist and romantic artists and writers, but fails because he turns his back on the real beauty and worth of it: the nature of nature. Wright captures the intricate workings of nature, mangroves under the surface and how they root us in place, generate life and protect our delicate environments, built and natural. The head above the water is fragmented, and somewhat threatening, though equally beautiful and haunting with the cracks, roots and ruddiness of life. Can we survive without mangroves? The answer is no, yet they are daily plucked out and strewn to the far ends of time and space in favour of “progress”.

This progress trends toward reduced fish stocks, shrimp and even birds, yet this is our wish in an environment where people come to fish, big game or bone fish on the flats that are a direct statement to mangrove beauty and functionality. Climate change, sea level rise and the natural threat of natural beauty are tropical realities and present a similar oxymoronic ethos as does lawbreakers becoming lawmakers. The exact opposite has become more common of late as people feel and express their disbelief at the way humanity has descended into taking from those they have been tasked to legally represent, defend and protect: there are countless testimonials of theft under guardian acts.

Majority Rule has to now grapple, even as we say it’s the people’s time, with the disparate voices and visions cohabiting in paradise. Minnis, Wright and King paint different visions of the sea, and then there is Laurie Tuchel’s work of capturing those leaving. We are in a constant state of flux, just as the tides rise and ebb, so does life on the islands. The so close, yet not quite, is a heartbreaking and life-changing look at the sea, and the work above does some of this ironic situation. This work so poignantly captures how many currently feel as we enter this 53rd year of Majority Rule, still without majority needs being served, but continuing what was supposed to have been shifted when the groundswell turned from one paternalist facilitator of short-term benefits to another provider of temporary material goods. Lawmakers continue to make green room deals with masters of business that take the land away from the shrimp and lobster fishermen as they put their boats into the sea at first light, not realizing that the dock will be off limits to them as they haul in their catch, as the sun sinks in the west and the mosquitoes and sand flies begin their evening vigils. The environment we inhabit needs all people to come together and celebrate and learn how to build and adapt to the new Dorians that are heading our way. Beauty is complex and contradictory, nature is a complicated, complex capturing of the nuanced ways we live on this planet. The tropics are created to serve and to erase much of underside of that story, the roots that hide below the surface.       

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