A Bahamian cultural exchange

Sonia Farmer reports for Nassau’s Guardian.

Where do the boundaries of nation, personal identity and environment begin and end? Where do they intersect? This summer, two artists have been creating bodies of work in new and influential surroundings that address these very concerns about place. This past Thursday at the Ipswich Art School in Ipswich, the UK, Bahamian artist Dede Brown and UK based artist Bettina Furnée presented the work they completed during their residencies abroad in an exhibition titled “Material Response”.

Brown has been working intensely at the school and through the Colchester & Ipswich Museums since June and Furnée has spent two months at Popop Studios in Nassau which she will follow up with a last month of work in Ipswich. Their cultural exchange was part of the “Stories of the World” series put forth by the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad which promotes exchange between UK-based artists and international artists. The aim was to explore the interaction between people, cultural artifacts and the negotiated territories of cultural identity.

Indeed, though the two artists worked exclusively in their new surroundings and approached the aim from different angles — whether personal or political — their work deals with similar themes, straining to define and then challenge cultural identities.

DEDE BROWN

For Dede Brown, being immersed in the creative and cultural worlds of England for the entire summer allowed her the space to create work that directly references The Bahamas — something which her work hasn’t necessarily done in the past. “For some reason, being away from home you kind of want to go back to it or express it or show other people what it’s like,” she explains.

She continues to explore anonymous female figures in striking positions with surprising pops of color, but the figures now wear elaborate headdresses, drawing into the portraits the cultural artifact of Junkanoo as its centerpiece. Besides a series of paintings, she also explored costume-making, creating a complete Junkanoo outfit with a headdress, shoulder piece and trousers, which she will display with cowbells, a whistle and a horn.

Yet the work as a whole — about 25 pieces in total — only hints at Junkanoo, taking certain parts from its signifiers and combining them with signifiers from British military uniforms. Though the traditional shape of Junkanoo is there in the three-piece costume, the color is predominantly red like that of many uniforms of the Royal British Army; though the trousers are fringed in a traditional Junkanoo way and made out of Bahamian-made fabrics such as those from Bahama Handprints, they too display the blue, red and white colors of the British flag; though the costume headdress and those in the paintings are unmistakably Junkanoo in silhouette, the addition of feathers from a British pheasant brings the work almost out of focus for Bahamian audiences. “I was trying to offset this link between the Bahamas and the UK and one way I wanted to do that was bring in the colors of Britain,” she explains. “When I was going through the collections (at the Colchester & Ipswich Museums) their historical uniforms stood out to me — there was just so much detail and emphasis put into them, it does seem to be about their national identity and the whole idea of costume. So linking that with Junkanoo costumes made sense.”

Viewers may come to see the work as a postcolonial object, critical of the overlapping cultures between the ex-colony and the colonizers, bringing forth questions of an independent cultural identity. Indeed, Bahamians and British alike may find the combination of signifiers so dear to their hearts and so very ingrained in their individual cultures as challenging and even somewhat uncomfortable or insulting.

Yet the work itself resists entering into political territory through the use of the personal — Brown’s own connection to the work is through a search for personal identity, and how such personal identity relates to culture and nation. Her figures, though painted in striking poses that demand attention and command space, are anonymous, alluding to something missing, something yearned. “It started because — I’ve had this my whole life — when you leave The Bahamas and you go somewhere else, meeting people, their response to you when you say you’re from The Bahamas, sometimes there’s disbelief,” she explains, pointing out that she is a white Bahamian and is often not thought of as an “authentic” Bahamian in the wider global mindset — and even the mindset at home, too.

“I’ve been trying to make that the whole underlying theme — the whole search for personal identity,” she says. “It’s a cross between personal and national identity and trying to decide what the difference is between those things. I don’t know if I’ve quite figured it out. It’s all an ongoing exploration.”

Indeed, the reason the piece may incite awe over anger is through the evidence of this personal involvement, allowing the pieces instead to act as new cultural artifacts through which audiences can think about their own personal identities. “I hope the audience get a little more insight into The Bahamas and what we’re all about, culturally and in terms of people,” she explains. “A lot of people have an expectation of what a person looks like or sounds like from a certain region and I’m pretty sure I’m not what they were expecting so I hope I’m giving them something to think about in that sense; we all have our stereotypes.”

The residency itself has been a fantastic experience for the artist who works at home out of Popop Studios, allowing her to explore the galleries and cultural spaces all over the UK and to provide a time to focus solely on this new body of work. When she returns to Nassau later this month, she hopes to either display the pieces themselves at home or continue to create work in the same vein. “I think I could because personal identity is never something you necessarily solve, it’s just a continuous journey,” she says. “So the work might take a new direction but it’s definitely something I’m not finished with I think.”

To see Dede Brown’s journey take shape week-by-week, visit her blog http://dedebrown.blogspot.com.

BETTINA FURNÉE

In her time lapse video, “Here’s Luck”, of a silver tent on Adelaide beach washing out to sea as the tide moves in, Bettina Furnée raises many questions of the relationship between a land designated as a country and its people, and what culture this may create.

Does the tide taking the tent out of sight tap into some fear of the water which could overwhelm the shore via tsunami or hurricane? Does it “do away with” the stereotypical perception of natives living on huts on the beach? Or is it a glimmering treasure, a construction of paradise floating out of sight?

If the tent floats back to shore, what does that say about migration and immigration? What does it say about colonization and extinction? How does tide defy our human-imposed rules of boundary — tides and waves that can and have moved and eroded and created entire shorelines? And finally, what does the flash of human presence at the end say about perseverance in a culture that lives with all of these aspects — presently, historically, and looking to the future? The film is a rather unassuming, yet hypnotic, piece, but it presents a veritable Rorschach test of Bahamian culture — what does the simple move of a tent floating out to sea mean for Bahamian identity?

For UK-based public installation artist Bettina Furnée, site-specific work usually has some form of social engagement, often dealing with interactions between people and nation by addressing the political boundaries of such places through land and language. From 2004-2006, she worked with writers Simon Frazer and Tony Mitton to create “If Ever You’re in the Area”, a series of site-specific works on coastal locations of Suffoulk and Essex, the UK, about the effects of World War II on the human consciousness.

As part of that project, the time lapse film of one year captures the fate of one installation, “Lines of Defense”, where letters on a series of thirty eight flags in five lines spelling out the phrase “Submission is Advancing at a Frightful Speed” disappear into the ocean as the coast is eroded. The piece uses the ocean and the natural environment to tap into the fear of climate change while using the language of war.

Indeed, one of her concerns as an artist is the role the environment plays in human constructions such as boundaries and maps. In The Bahamas, she was particularly interested in the relationship between humans and an environment that could turn on them at any time with a hurricane. “I was interested in hurricanes and how people live here and how environmental change makes them —how a whole community or country accepts that hurricanes happen,” she explains. “It must be strange to live in a place that can be blown down every five or six years and you just get up and keep going. But you do it really well.”

For her, residencies abroad are perfect for her site-specific work — and The Bahamas was no exception. “When they approached me and asked if I wanted to do a residency in the Bahamas, I mean, you cannot say no! It’s The Bahamas, it’s such a magical thing,” she laughs.

Yet Furnée did not begin to formulate her project in The Bahamas right away, taking her visits one month at a time — in April and then again in July — allowing her to submerge herself in the Bahamian art world, starting with the annual island-wide art tour of Transforming Spaces. “It is different. You realize what a western outlook you come with. It’s inevitable,” she says. “So it took me a little time to get used to it. But I was really excited by the level of commitment and energy.”

Yet the time she waited to begin creating her final project also allowed her the prolonged experience necessary to transcend any cliched ideals she may have held about the perceived paradise. “We’ve got all these ideas about being on a desert island that fruit drops off trees and there’s a sweet spring,” she says of the books and representations in popular culture of the construction of paradise.

“But then coming here you realize how harsh the climate is — it’s difficult to stick to the land, in history people found it hard to stick to this land,” she continues. “So I had an interest in island nations and identity and how you perceive coming and going on a place like this.”

Her piece also addresses the politically-driven issues of immigration and migration — tapping into the relationship between the Bahamian and Haitian nations and also Bahamians who settle abroad rather than at home and how that changes the demographic.

Furnée herself is no stranger to this — having been born and raised in The Netherlands, she migrated to the UK at eighteen. “It enabled me to reinvent myself which is great, but to fit the land, to take ahold, is very difficult because your history is very different and that first bit of life you can’t replace, so you’re left with this disjointment,” she says. “Plus once you’re on an island, there is that barrier of the sea too. You’re kind of isolated and I guess The Bahamas has that situation too, just much more.”

Though Furnée spent two months in The Bahamas making the film and exhibited it with an ambient soundtrack of waves in the background, this month is the last month of her residency. She’s hoping to finish the piece by creating a different soundtrack, weaving together voices of Bahamians. Before she left in July, she held a “Story-Writing Workshop” at The Hub art gallery and invited writers to create and then read out loud a piece inspired by the three-minute film. Those in attendance explored themes of loss and recovery through lyrical narrative or anecdote, allowing listeners to understand the layered and complex identities that make up a place and people. “I love language and I love spoken word,” Furnée says. “In a sense, language is almost a material that you can pick up. Language holds so many of our structures in it, it’s a nice metaphor for where we’re coming from and who we are.”

“Having these writers was a good opportunity for that,” she continues. “I’m interested in people reading to each other but if I like something in my recordings I hope to come back to somebody and see if they’ll work with me maybe.”

For the original report go to http://www.thenassauguardian.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=12612&Itemid=59

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