The art of paradise

A closer look at the Bahamian art scene

Lynn Parotti, Diversification, oil on canvas

Although the Bahamas are not immediately associated with art and culture (other than historic Bahamian culture which is both distinct and rich), the art scene is burgeoning by leaps and bonds.

Our all too brief forays into it delivered some unexpected results. We started with visiting the D’Aguilar Foundation where we met with Saskia D’Aguilar.

A bubbly Swiss/Dutch import married to a Bahamian politician, Dionisio D’Aguilar, Saskia is a formidable ambassador of Bahamian art and artists.

The D’Aguilar Art Foundation, DAF for short, was created by Saskia’s late father-in-law, Vincent D’Aguilar whose contribution to Bahamian art and artists cannot be overestimated. He was a founding Co-Chairman of the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas (NAGB) and an avid collector himself who is widely credited as the father of the Bahamian art scene and motivator-in-chief of Bahamian artists.

DAF carries on the torch he lit and houses his collection in a dedicated building in Nassau, additionally lending works to the National art gallery and other institutions. It acts as a platform promoting Bahamian art globally and offers grants to Bahamian artists to visit major cultural destinations in Europe.

Saskia is an artist and a collector, as well as the foundation’s director. She is knowledgeable and eloquent, and the first and best point of introduction when it comes to Bahamian cultural life.

‘It is Bahamian art that made me embrace the Bahamas as my home.’

Saskia D’Aguilar

It was she who made the introductions to everyone we met subsequently and that allowed us to get a more in-depth sense of what is happening on the Nassau cultural landscape.

Our first invitation came from renowned art collector Dawn Davies whose house is a living gallery in every sense.

Dawn started collecting in the 60s and one can see the evolution of a number of artists’ work at her home (she has also published two books on her collection). Installations compete with paintings and sculptures of all sizes throughout the house and the garden is one large installation in its own right. Besides offering a truly fascinating glimpse into Bahamian art over the years, Dawn Davies is one of its oldest-established custodians and historians.

We were privileged to join a private tour which comprised Amanda Coulson, her husband Uli Vosges, Director of Central Bank Art Collection and Max Hollein, the director of the Metropolitan Museum, and his family.

The Dawn Davies collection

Major artists

Stan Burnside
Tavares Strachan
Jackson Burnside
Brent Malone
Max Taylor
Antonius Roberts
Kendall Hanna

Mid-career

John Cox
Kendra Frorup
Lavar Munroe
Heino Schmid
John Beadle
Lynn Parotti
Holly Parotti

Emerging

Tessa Whitehead
Giovanna Swaby
Cydne Coleby
Melissa Alcena
Anina Major
Jodi Minnis
April Bey


Image: Detail from Kendal Hanna, ‘Line II’ (2018), acrylic on canvas

Amanda, the hugely knowledgeable former director of the NAGB and co-founder of the TERN Gallery, says:

The Bahamian art scene has always existed, in the sense we had extraordindary artists making great work, but for many years both pre- and post-independence in 1973, there were few consistently supportive structures that were able to build capacity and international reach.

In the last decade—largely building on the foundations laid by both independent spaces like Doongalik, Popopstudios and Hillside House or institutional sites, such as Central Bank of The Bahamas art gallery, the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas or the D’Aguilar Art Foundation—there is now a much larger ecosystem with a variety of art spaces.

Commercial galleries such as The Current, TERN, Sixty2Sixty, or Contemporary Art Bahamas, are all working at different levels and can really support the number of incredibly talented artists that are here. The University of The Bahamas (UB), together with the NAGB, is also now creating both BA and MFA programmes, as well as a Museum Studies certificate course, so that with this suport our artists won’t have to leave home—as did Janine Antoni, Tavares Strachan or Lavar Munore—to become sucessful in the more global art world.

The hope is that curators and collectors will see The Bahamas as a must-visit location for its cultural production and not only for the beach. While the extraordinarily talented group of artists in The Bahamas is still the world’s best kept secret, it won’t be for much longer.

At the time of visiting TERN, it was hosting a digital exhibition of Bahamian and Caribbean artists. I had a long conversation with its other co-founder, Lauren Holowesko Perez.

The daughter of financier Marc Holowesko, Lauren was able to convert an existing building on the grounds of the Island House hotel into a good size, high ceiling space that hosts regular exhibitions. With an art degree and experience of working at a London art gallery under her belt, and Amanda’s contacts and know-how, Lauren is well-positioned to launch Caribbean art on the international scene.

It’s not that Caribbean and Bahamian artists haven’t made their mark already – they have and many are exceptionally well-established/signed to major galleries – it’s just that Caribbean art is not as well known as a movement in its own right as, say, Cuban art, nor does it have an established auction market as, for example, Chinese art has. This is all set to change as TERN makes strides towards participating in art platforms, such as Artsy, and international shows.

Lauren and Amanda have signed the crème de la crème of local artists and are poised to capitalise on the zeitgeist, and on being the first major Bahamian gallery with global credentials.

Given that Lauren has many strings to her bow, it is telling that developing the gallery is a priority to her. Being at the forefront of establishing a new market is an added motivation to someone whose family is steeped in the global investment landscape.

Next, we took an afternoon to visit the Pop Up Art Studios in up and coming Chippingham where all but one artists are signed to TERN.

There we meet with four artists:

Tessa Whitehead is the founder of studio NINE and an artist represented by Tern Gallery. Her former workspace at Popop Studio was destroyed by a major hurricane, prompting her to create an alternative that she could share with fellow artists.

Whitehead’s large conceptual works explore themes such as landscape and love, and often the connection between the two. She subtly captures this as well as her passion for her home island in her large canvasses. Her favourite work and one she has decided to keep for herself is the piece de resistance, occupying central space at the studio at the time of our visit.

Heino Schmid dedicates his time to producing some awesome statement pieces, as well as holding a professorship at the College of the Bahamas,. His works are large, very large, ranging from conceptual installations to a diverse photographic portfolio, to large scale paintings and drawings. Some are so large, in fact, that storage is a challenge in itself. In true artist’s fashion, canvasses are dotted around his studio, some having hung on the wall for the past few years, others rolled up here and there. Nonchalant? Perhaps. Talented? Extremely.

Kachelle Knowles’s works have a distinctly earthy quality about them, using decorative paper, colored pencils, graphite and ink on Stonehenge,. Her subjects are everyday people portrayed in ways that are infused with subtle social and political elements, such as men wearing earrings, or other displays of ambiguous sexual alignment. Topics generally considered as socials taboos are questioned in a refreshing medium.

Delton Barrett has clear skill in taking portrait photographs. Utilising elements of the Bahamas in his sets, his photographs are whimsical, enigmatic and evocative. We enjoyed discovering his multimedia works that combine photography, painting and resin – a unique series of works.

CAB

The legacy of colonialism has left a truly international footprint on the islands – from Europe (including a Greek community spearheading the sponging industry in the 1880s), to the Americas, both North and South, and more. From this mix of cultures the Bahamian people have proudly shaped their own distinct identity.

Parlaying this blend of multiculturalism into a cohesive art scene comes with its challenges, however.

Eager to meet this challenge, CAB was developed as a platform to promote contemporary Bahamian art. With a roster of local artists such as John Cox, June Collie, Melissa Alcena, Cardo Knowles, Thierry Lamare, Max Taylor, CAB represents, essentially, the (nascent) cannon of Bahamian art.

Many (but not all) of the artists represent an older generation. The newer generation is flourishing, both in terms of visibility (mainly concentrated in Nassau) and ideas.

This engenders its own identity issues. What does it mean to be a Bahamian artist? What does it mean to be Bahamian? What is Bahamian art?

Most of the artists that we met at Studio Nine have primary jobs to support their artistic careers/development. One of the most memorable moments was artist Heino Schmid showing us an image he took from the ‘backyard’ of the city of Nassau juxtaposed to the Goliath development that is Atlantis. The mega structure was synonymous, to most Bahamians, with the opportunity of a job and financial stability.

The first hurdle, therefore, for the Bahamian art scene, is creating a space and a platform where artists are encouraged to pursue a career in art and that alone – seeing it as an (economically) viable future. This, given real estate prices and cost of life generally in the Bahamas, is not easily accomplished.

Stability is not a prerequisite for the flourishing of art (many a well-respected/ hugely bankable artist died in abject poverty and, arguably, some of the best works in art history have been created in times of penury and suffering). The reality of the art market cannot be ignored, however. We trust that art and culture will continue to be actively encouraged, supported and developed by local projects and institutions, such as the ones listed above, aided by the very real spirit of entrepreneurship native Bahamians are championing.

Bahamian identity is diverse, fascinating and not always easy to define. The sense of duality is evidenced literally in black and white; in poor and rich; in proactiveness and laissez-faire. Yet it is important to capture this very identity in order to determine the future trajectory of Bahamian art.

It is not enough to merely borrow conceptual ideas that are floating around the international art scene and to apply them.

In order to be a fully-fledged stakeholder in the international art scene, Bahamian art needs to embrace its own narrative and rich cultural roots, be these black, white, mixed race, rich or poor. Whatever that narrative, it needs to be uniquely and quintessentially Bahamian. This is something that the ‘cannon’ of Bahamian art has already started to develop. And, with an institutional backbone and a dedicated support system, Bahamian art has every opportunity to come into its own.

Baha Mar’s art space

The massive hotel and resort development that has, since opening, become something of a landmark in Nassau, hosts an art space, curated by renowned Bahamian artist John Cox. The space is somewhat incongruously positioned, in the midst of a string of hotels, restaurants, bars and casinos that are reminiscent of Las Vegas. Blink and you might miss it altogether.

It is well worth the visit, however, because it has several galleries, variously dedicated to the history of the Bahamas, through to photography, sculpture and contemporary art. It is superbly curated and possibly the most comprehensive art space in Nassau in terms of breadth of historical reference and periods.