Sunday, Mar 29, 2020

A fine balance

Edrin Symonette’s cement cast in progress for “Balance”.

“So, here you are

too foreign for home,

too foreign for here.

Never enough for both.”

– Ijeoma Umebinyuo,
“Questions for Ada”

 

After a few years sitting out of the Transforming Spaces (TS) bus tour, the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB) is back, participating with several offerings. Upon the purchase of a TS2020 bus ticket, the holder may enter the NAGB at any time, prior to or during the TS weekend, to see the last few days of the “Refuge” exhibition, which closes on March 29. There will also be a kickoff event, on Thursday evening, March 26, open to the public, with a walking tour – “The NAGB: transforming spaces on its campus and beyond” – starting at NAGB at 5:30 p.m. from the Mixed Media museum store for a glass of wine or water. The walk will take visitors through the sculpture garden and surrounding neighborhood, revealing how the NAGB has transformed its own campus and the surrounding neighborhood with sculptures, public works and murals; and end at Hillside House on Cumberland Street for the Transforming Spaces opening night party from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Parking is free and available at the NAGB until 9:00 p.m.

The offerings do not end there, however. As part of the bus tour, there will be a special exhibit in the NAGB’s Project Space (PS) Room. Originally conceived as a response to the “Refuge” open call for works, Edrin Symonette’s “Balance” (2020) will offer a space for opening up our conceptions of what (and who) citizenship can look like in The Bahamas.

Taking his trademark life-casts of people in his everyday life, Symonette casts the heads of two Haitian-Bahamian twins enrolled at his school in Eleuthera — balancing them on a see-saw of sorts atop a casuarina stump. Symonette’s sculpture finds its own balance between the importance of process, and a locally embedded understanding of material. Casting people’s skin is an intimate act — one must get up close and personal, in every crevice and wrinkle, in a way that we rarely look at even at ourselves. Do we know our own skin as intimately as someone else could through this process? How often do we have a chance to get this close to another? It isn’t just the physical process that Symonette uses to engender closeness and to break down socially enforced barriers, he also uses conversation. 

“Balance” also features a short interview, in which the twins are asked three times throughout, what nationality they are. Sounds excessive? This is a part of the reality of Haitian-Bahamian life in The Bahamas where we live a double-conscious, schizophrenic desire for foreign direct investment but complete xenophobia to our Caribbean brothers and sisters is rife. National identity does not have a finite limit. To be Bahamian is to be Afro-descended, to be of European descent, of Jamaican, Bajan, Haitian, Greek, Chinese, Trinidadian, Nigerian and a host of other migrated peoples – because that is what it means to be Caribbean, to be a mélange of immigrants through time.

As the late, great, American writer James Baldwin writes in “Giovanni’s Room”: “Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” Our national identities are irrevocably tied to our sense of home and heritage and ancestry but for many, they are constantly under question. The two heads precariously perched on either side of the plank are a visual metaphor for the weight of our xenophobia as a nation, and the balancing act that those of us with a dual sense of nationality must constantly navigate in our daily lives. 

Symonette’s full title, “Balance: a situation in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions”, is further indicative of this duality. The reality is that when it comes to nationality and citizenship in The Bahamas, the balance between national identities is more comparable to a tightrope to be walked with utmost care, a feat of juggling parts of yourself. To have multiple ties does not to make you half-anything, it means you are twice as much, your sense of self is expanded, despite being made to feel less-than Bahamian. This sense of identity displacement and difficulty is even more poignant now as we deal with our storm-displaced nation, with people of all colours and creeds from the northern Bahamas trying to find themselves new roots on islands they never called home. 

The Transforming Spaces art bus tours for 2020, will take place March 28 and 29, with tickets on sale at the NAGB, Doongalik and the Place For Art. The “Refuge” exhibition also closes March 29, so this is your last chance to catch the show, which can be accessed any time with the purchase of TS tickets.

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