Arts & Culture

Max and Amos: enchantment and magical realism in service to freedom

Reviews of the permanent collection of the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB) should always demand an examination of the works and aesthetics of two of the country’s outstanding and prolific indigenous artists, Amos Ferguson (1920-2009) and Maxwell Taylor, better known as “Max”. Ferguson has a particular call on prominence in this regard, because it was the Bahamas government’s purchase of 25 of his paintings in 1991 that launched the National Collection.

An unreflective look at the lives and output of Ferguson and Taylor will likely evoke sentiments of polar differences. While Taylor is considered a “fine artist”, his style exhibiting traits of artistic convention, Ferguson is still mostly categorized as an “outsider”. The latter term is of doubtful validity. “Out is now in,” as Sarah Boxer has proposed in her article. In 1985 Ferguson was translated from house painter with aspirations to lionized “insider” in the exclusionary realm created by the monarchs of the art world — gallery, museum and art critic.

Nevertheless, freed from the longstanding biases, a reviewer can uncover a delightful correspondence between the two artists. This essay attempts to reveal notable points of convergence and equally salient areas that separate their production. In order to accomplish this aim, it is necessary to begin by looking at such elements of their origins and experiences that were likely promoters of what can be perceived in their art.

Early Influences

For both men, the environmental and familial milieux of their formative years would have a discernible impact on their art. Ferguson was born on the island of Exuma in The Bahamas, one of 14 children born to Robert Ferguson, a Baptist preacher, carpenter and farmer, and his wife Lavinia. Ferguson’s formal education was no more than what was offered by an all-age school, as was invariably the case on the backwater islands of a neglected British colony. It was clear too that familial resources were limited; Ferguson had to leave home at fourteen to earn his living in Nassau, the country’s capital. This combination of factors meant that his ethos and aesthetics were informed primarily by the Bible, the freedom of mostly undeveloped nature and a great accommodation for make-do and hard work. Importantly, that he would have been less mentally encumbered by the capital’s politics, hierarchies and disparities of opportunity, strongly allied to race, may account for Ferguson’s strongly entrenched sense of self and right to self-determination.

Taylor, on the other hand, was Nassau-born in the Over-the-Hill area of the island of New Providence, a portion of which comprising a village established in the 19th Century to situate African freedmen close enough to the country’s upper classes to be of service, yet segregated from the mainstream of the economy and society. In the seat of governance and centre of trade, the damaging perception and experience of the more negative impacts of the colonial mechanisms and colour-based structures of privilege were inescapable. Here, for many Bahamians of African descent, physical blackness erected a very high and almost insuperable barrier to a positive notion of self-worth or of aspirations to upward mobility.

It seems that, early on, Taylor and Ferguson both experienced an impulse to create art, but while the latter had no formal education in the discipline, Taylor benefited from several exposures to the canons of mainstream art. As a pupil in the public school system, Taylor received instruction from Horace Wright, a peripatetic art teacher and practicing artist. Another mentor was Don Russell, who operated the Academy of Fine Arts. Next, he became an apprentice at the Nassau branch of Britain’s Chelsea Pottery where he was able to add pottery to his portfolio of art forms.

“Some. Body Is Noking. At. Your Hart Door It Nok Like Jesus Why Don’t You Let Him In He Want Too. Sit With You” (1991), Amos Ferguson, house paint on board, 36 x 30 inches. Part of the National Collection.

With his next move, Taylor attained what might well be seen as the watershed of his development. In the late 1960s, he travelled to New York, where he enrolled at the Art Students League of New York to study printmaking. During his four or so years (1968 to 1972) in that city, he also expanded into photo silkscreen at The Pratt Graphic Center and did more printmaking at Bob Blackburn’s Printmaking Workshop. He next moved south, seizing learning opportunities to increase his proficiency in the various forms in his command. This would become a lifelong pursuit.

Here is a major point of divergence. It is often written that Ferguson was entirely self-taught, but this is an attribute that requires qualification. By his own declaration, Ferguson’s direction and instruction came from a divine source. During his house-painting years, he said that his nephew, George Bastian, reported a dream he had in which the Lord instructed him to tell his uncle Amos to abandon his occupation and take up art. Ferguson, steeped in fundamentalist religion, accepted the call as authentic and obeyed. His was a providence he shared with the American naïf, William Edmondson (1874-1951), who has been quoted as having claimed:

“I was out in the driveway with some old pieces of stone when I heard a voice telling me to pick up my tools and start to work on a tombstone… I looked up in the sky and right there in the noon daylight He hung a tombstone out for me to make.”

Two artists, two defining moments

An examination of their paths to the pantheon of fine art reveals that Ferguson and Taylor share an important commonality. In part, their rise to prominence had roots in “discovery”, with a remarkable difference: Ferguson was discovered, while Taylor was a discoverer.

Taylor’s website says of the artist: “Max found his way to New York. The visit was to last approximately twenty years before he moved south to the Carolinas, and traveled extensively in Europe observing the social, economic, and political dynamics of many cultures. This exposure opened doors to the unique and intensely sensitive perception of the world of Max Taylor.”

In New York, Taylor had found himself at a powerful nucleus of rising black consciousness. The city was the legatee of the Harlem Renaissance, an intellectual, social, and artistic flourishing, engendered by African American and Afro-Caribbean thinkers, musicians, artists and writers. Here too was a locus of the Black Power Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. This was a time of the undeniable impact of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement in the United States. Max was also there in 1977, when the potent television miniseries Roots, based on Alex Haley’s book about a black family in America, was first broadcast. Such streams, whether artistic, political or social, were characterized by advocacy for racial pride, self-sufficiency and equality for black people. It seems that this upward thrust of descendants of Africa was a seminal period for Taylor, contributing to the sharpening and ennobling his view of his blackness and clearly influencing his social and artistic perspective.

When Ferguson’s watershed moment came, it was not an awakening on his part, but a validation of what he already believed of himself — his worth and artistic practice were ordained and gifted by God himself, and thus imbued with greatness. He came to the notice of the international art world as a result of the confluence of two developments. Towards the end of the 20th Century, the art that emerged from the realm of therapy for the mentally ill and the work of untaught artists were conflated into “outsider” art, both flouting convention and seized upon by “modernists”. Such works were beginning to be avidly sought by the mainstream art world in pursuit of fresh fodder to slake a constant passion for novelty. Ferguson, basically unlettered, unashamedly unencumbered by the baggage of external canons, was well-positioned for discovery by the art pundits.

In a story told again and again, the nexus occurred in 1978, when Sukie Miller, an American collector, bought several of Ferguson’s paintings and introduced them to Ute Stebich, a dealer in Haitian art. The two women traveled to Nassau to confer with Ferguson and photograph more of his work. They sent images to the Wadsworth Atheneum of Hartford, Connecticut. Curators of that institution were so taken by what they saw, they organized an exhibition of 50 of Ferguson’s paintings and his oeuvre became almost instantly and internationally collectible. This success was followed by tours, especially to New York, where he was treated like royalty.

Comparing works of Taylor and Ferguson: enchantment and magical realism in service to freedom

Ferguson’s life and artistic production were simple declarative sentences; no distracting, modifying phrases or received conventions. Both embodied pride — both shouted “I am Mr Amos Ferguson, worthy of notice and to be accorded respect”. His wife, Bea, was an integral part of that declaration and any show of disrespect to her or to himself would cast the offender into the outer darkness beyond the sunlit innocence of his personal milieu and work. When fortune drew him into the wider art sphere and collectors from around the world began to buy his work, he took it as validation of what he already held as an article of faith that could spill over into arrogance.

Nothing better describes this unique Ferguson perspective than the title of George Lamming’s seminal, autobiographical novel, “In the Castle of My Skin”. Nothing gives better evidence of it than his “Paint by Mr Amos Ferguson” signature on his paintings from which the “Mr” honorific was never absent. He was deeply offended that the general run of Bahamians took a long time to acknowledge what he saw as his primacy among the artists of The Bahamas.

“I’m known all over the world. The Queen of England owns one of my paintings and Rajiv Gandhi bought one when he came to The Bahamas in 1985, but the Bahamian people hardly know I exist and don’t seem to notice my work.” (Tribune 8.3.91) His use of the phrase “Match me if you can”, used to title the painting “Junkanoo Cow Face Match Me If You Can” (1990), was both a taunt and a throwing down of the gauntlet.

Ferguson affirmed the legitimacy of his world and ennobled it in his paintings. In his strong fundamentalist religious belief, the Christian Bible was the undoubted word of God and provided much of the source material for his prolific production. Two examples in the national collection are “The Lord Feeding his disiple with too small fish. balley loves” (1991) and “The. Family Off. Eight Saved In. The Ark Noah And His Wife. And His Tree. Son And Their Wife. Saved And The Animal” (1991). Both titles are iconic Ferguson — unconventional in grammar, spelling and punctuation and scorning contemporary secularism.

Ferguson simply created his own paradigms in ethos, language and certainly in techniques of painting. He had no concern for the fine art traditions, where linearity and perspective ruled. Neither had he truck with the self-consciousness of contemporary art, where often the desire to shock trumps beauty. He never learned prevailing conventions and did not consider it a lack. He was not driven by the need to address social issues or propose solutions.

To a certain extent, his work was a physical projection of art historian Suzi Gablik’s yearning for the “re-enchantment of art”. Ferguson evoked a world of innocence, purity, absence of conflict, yielding no space to ambiguities or shadows. With not even a hint of satire, Ferguson has endowed us with regimented rows of white angels — heaven before the corruption of Lucifer’s prideful war. Here also is Eden before Eve succumbed to temptation. Covering cardboard and other repurposed items are his brashly coloured, essential depictions of iconic images of The Bahamas — Junkanoo, Poinciana trees in bloom, showy pink flamingos, the Parliament buildings, robed church choirs — and other elements Ferguson considered beautiful, such as peacocks. The enchantment is deepened by his incursion into the world of faerie — in this case, renditions of Bahamian folktales where animals and humans disport themselves in equality.

How much Ferguson’s work shares with that of another, earlier outsider — American Bill Traylor (c. 1854–1949), whose work Sarah Boxer describes as “spare, off-center drawings of humans, animals and ‘Exciting Events’ on scraps of used cardboard.”

Ferguson’s work is deeply narrative, as shown by the expansive titles of many of his works. He becomes storyteller with the paintings “Mamaid Half. Fish And Half People Live In Jump. Hole And They Always Come Out. Too Catch The Sunshine” (1990) and “The Bussett And The Monkey. Story About The Bussett One Day. The Monkey Was Playing Sleep On The. Side Of Road. As The Bussett Was Flying Over. He. Stop And Ask The Monkey If He Will Like To Have A Ride In The Air And He. Said Yes.” (1990)

Ferguson’s subject matter draws on a very narrowly conceived world view, drawing a relief map of the Bahamian cultural experience. While Taylor’s content certainly does project a unique brand of cultural allegiance, his artistic engine is fueled from a deeper well. He recognizes the many similarities between the Bahamian experience and that of the African American. He does not, however, conflate them, but reinterprets African-American striving for self-definition in a Bahamian idiom.

“I have the privilege of two cultures; Afro Bahamian and Afro American. They are different in some aspects of our social struggles. Many of us share the same traditions coming from the African background. I have long been fascinated with the use of extraordinary colors. I am learning to use color more with every painting and I enjoy the challenge.”

There is further divergence between the two artists. If Ferguson’s art elevates the spiritual and mythic, while banishing political or social commentary, Taylor’s oeuvre stands in sharp contradistinction. Though Taylor tends towards Cubism in his acrylic paintings on canvas, he stands well away from José Ortega y Gasset’s call for the dehumanization of art. Rather, like Gablik, he has embraced “connected aesthetics”, “a new interpretation of the relationship between artist and society, based on a sense of ethical responsibility towards the social and environmental communities”.

This social engagement is clear in several of the works that form part of the NAGB’s permanent collection, namely “Burma Road” (woodcut, c. 2008), which starkly reflects the 1942 riot, which prefigured the Bahamian struggle to rise above the inequities of an age-old oligarchical system of governance to eventually achieve majority rule. In Taylor’s work, the crowding together of the bodies, while maintaining their distinction, projects the unity would underwrite that necessary achievement.

Taylor seems deeply aware of and sympathetic to the migrant plight, as evidenced in his “The Immigrants” series. He shows even more concern for the inequities suffered by women, as has been demonstrated in such works as “Woman’s Woes” (woodcut, 1978); “Women’s Suffrage” (watercolor, 1990) and “Aint I a Good Mother” (woodcut, 2003).

The artist says of the latter, “‘Ain’t I A Good Mother’ is inspired by the struggle of women in general… It always intrigued me in the sense of how people had to struggle with little or nothing. And I always like drama — drama in the sense that you’re looking at people who had to hide, they had to struggle, they faced all kinds of hardships. It gets me.”

“Aint I a Good Mother” happens to be one of Taylor’s finest; the central figure, her back a sweeping concave arc, arm reaching out and upward conveys a passion, pathos and beauty that is hardly surpassed anywhere else in the art canon of The Bahamas.

However strong Taylor’s impulse may be in limning the human condition, this versatile creative, deeply resourced with an inspiring range of art forms, techniques, style and colours, has not abandoned beauty. Rather, it pervades all his production — acrylics on canvas, woodcuts, ceramics, murals and sculptures carved from laminated plywood — like “The Family”, which embellishes the arrivals terminal of Nassau’s Lynden Pindling International Airport. It must be noted, however, that Taylor does not proselytize or judge. He uses his ineffable skills to present the culture, woes, talents and joys of a race of people, leaving viewers to judge worthiness or not, but certainly to have a moment of discovery and delight. Here is a highly personal form of magical realism or Expressionism. Taylor is a master artist by the most discerning standards.

Ferguson and Taylor are distinct landmarks on the topography of the art of their homeland, sharing a love of its culture, daring to self-define, to celebrate. Where Ferguson revels in unalloyed light and beauty, Taylor sees the necessity of painting out of darkness to give full value to those co-dependent qualities. Diverging in many respects, these men converge primarily as Bahamians, whose artworks share the commonality of heartfelt conviction, deep individualism and uniqueness in service to freedom. Both have earned their place in the pantheon of Bahamian art.

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