Lorenzo Roker was a sign painter and self-taught artist whose content most often depicted landscapes and seascapes such as this small but deceptive little work in the National Collection. Roker was born in 1903, to a Bahamas that was very much still steeped in its coloniality (though some would argue we are still dealing with much of that today). He died in 1995, living through 90 years of Bahamian history and seeing the Burma Road Riot (or Revolution), Majority Rule, the Suffragette Movement, the West Indies Federation in the region and Bahamian Independence. Roker, outside of having an impressively long life, was also an avid sailor who owned a boat, and though much of his work consisted of seascapes, he also had an interest in landscape paintings as we can see from this example in his practice.
This work, though produced shortly after independence, looks as though it could happily be in the company of 18th century landscape paintings of a similar style. Roker clearly studied the works of European master artists (contentious though the terminology may be) and found his footing comfortably within the genre. If it weren’t for the lone pine, distinguishable as the skinny, spindly Caribbean pine, it might be hard to geographically place the scene. On a personal note, the scene is reminiscent of the pine forests of the Northern Bahamas, particularly my native Grand Bahama, and the wide expanses of land that some might call “undeveloped” while others still might choose “unspoiled”, depending on your philosophies.
The sea-loving Roker had a clear love for the land and sea he grew up in, perhaps to a point of national pride if his son is any indication – his son, Angelo Roker, would go on to play a major part in the design of the Bahamian flag. It’s no news that Bahamians love their coastline, as Roker’s post-independence pine speaks to the building of a new nation, of pioneering our own space. But where the conversation around independence in the 70s lay around nation-building, ours in 2019 consists of how to preserve what we have before our beloved coastline swallows us. Scenes such as this, expanses of land unthreatened, are not going to be a Bahamian reality for much longer. As the most at-risk Small Island Developing State (SIDS) in the Atlantic, Roker’s lone pine may no longer be the sentinel ushering in a new era of independence so much as it will be an indication that there was once land beneath the water being ushered in by human greed and hubris. That will take a few years in the making however, let us consider the now.
It is hurricane season. Our first big storm threat has found its way to us under the name Dorian, and the reality that our low-lying landscape will soon be covered over with water is also one that we deal with every single hurricane season. The flooding we have experienced over storm seasons gives us just a taste of the climate change and sea level rise that the past couple hundred years of industrial advancement has given us.
In seeing Roker’s oil work, I am reminded of some sobering scenes growing up: driving East in Grand Bahama, out of the strange failed utopian dream that is Freeport and heading toward Plane Crash Beach, Gold Rock Creek and Freetown, you must pass a long expanse of pine forest – granted it was a bit more overgrown than Roker’s romantic depiction. One hurricane season, the landscape changed. Not far after the chicken farm road, going east, the forest had been replaced with a sea of brown; marsh and the pines had been stripped – reduced to single toothpicks above the briny underlayer. The pine and thatch forest had flooded; the airport had too. This has been Bahamian reality for a long time, but rather than this being the traumatizing ebb and flow of storm season, the permanence is truly terrifying.
Storms get worse, the water gets higher and all the environmental efforts in the country couldn’t save us from what 200 years of other countries have been doing that lead to this. It also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Just as hurricanes clear ground, forcing us to reckon with the aftermath and what is left, should we not also use this as a moment to consider what sustainable truly means in our space? Is sustainability yet another foreign direct investment to clear away land, leaving not even a single pine, for the sake of a few jobs, or is it trying to find a way to make our space viable in the time of impending sea level rise?
Short or long sight doesn’t quite matter when grammy’s house and the memories gently settled in its walls sit five feet underwater. Roker had pride and hope in this piece for the state of the new nation, and it’s high time we find our higher ground (moral or literal) and think through what nationhood means in a global crisis. This is one of the many ways that works build and take on meaning as time goes on, and just as it is with the art we make, so should it be with the lessons we can glean from our history.
See works like Roker’s and more in the current Permanent Exhibition, “TimeLines: 1950-2007”, curated by Richardo Barrett.