Visitors to The Bahamas mostly come for its great beaches, snorkeling, shopping and of course, the weather. However, there is also a deeper side to these islands and that ongoing story is being told at the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas in Nassau. (See our profile of the NAGB)
The mission of the National Art Gallery is to develop, collect, and promote a national collection of art for the benefit of Bahamians and the international audience. The easy course for a museum with such a mandate to have taken would have been to view it as a license to go out and collect art from all over the world which would then serve as a general educational tool just as a library purchases books from all over the world.
Instead, the museum has chosen to develop and showcase Bahamian art. In doing this, the museum has placed itself in the midst of the conversation about what it means to be Bahamian. Topics such as colonialism, independence, tourism, religion, race, class and immigration are among the many topics dealt with by Bahamian artists. The museum does not impose its own views on these topics but rather lets the artists speak.
To illustrate, one form of art that developed before independence in 1973 is picturesque scenes of the islands' natural beauty and scenes of everyday life. Some in the Bahamian art community criticize such works as presenting a superficial view of the islands and catering to "neo-colonial" exploitation of the Bahamas by the tourist industry. However, this uniquely Bahamian art can be viewed as analogous to the American Hudson River School, which showcased to the world the beauty of the young United States without going into the social and political issues then-facing the young nation. Just as the Hudson River works are recognized as valid and important art so too the Bahamanian picturesque. The National Art Gallery provides a forum for such conversations.
This does not mean that only Bahamians will be interested in the National Art Gallery. By the end of my visit to the museum, I felt that I knew much more about the complexity of the Bahamian people and the issues they face. This added dimension to my visit to these islands. Furthermore, the works were visually appealing.
Because the museum is interested in the full span of Bahamian art, it does not specialize in one particular movement or style of art. During my visit, I saw works that were traditional European style landscapes, contemporary realism, abstract art, folk art, sculpture, conceptual art and works that combined elements of African, European and Caribbean influences.
One element that recurred throughout the exhibitions I saw was strong use of color. Perhaps this is a result of the light in the Bahamas, perhaps it is emotion, perhaps it is tradition, perhaps it is a desire to speak boldly but it does seem to be a unifying element.
I particularly liked the strong use of color in Ricardo Knowles' “Turtle Cliff”, Dorman Stubbs' “Flamingos” and Lynn Pavoritti's “Mangrovia.”
The National Art Gallery of the Bahamas is not a store-front operation but rather a first class facility. It is housed in the historic Villa Doyle. Located just down the street from Government House, Villa Doyle was built as a mansion by Sir William Doyle in the 1860s and served as the home of the first Chief Justice of the Bahamas. It was enlarged by Sir Arthur Moore in the 1920s, becoming one of the premier residences of Nassau. After the colonial era ended, it fell into disrepair. However, in a seven year restoration project, it was transformed into an art museum while preserving the exterior architecture. It was a pleasure to stroll around the landscaped grounds and observe the building.
It is particularly commendable for the government and people of the Bahamas to have made such a commitment to art. Few other nations in the greater Caribbean have made such an investment. However, not only does the NAGB provide a vehicle for cultural self-examination by Bahamians but it also lets visitors see that this is a multi-faceted country with great creativity.
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Rich Wagner is a writer, photographer and artist.