Sitting with the Dead: “Medium” a show of Bahamian religion and spirituality


Just found a fascinating review of the exhibition “Medium: Practices and Routes of Spirituality and Mysticism” by Ian Bethell-Bennett. Read the full article at The Nassau Guardian.

[. . .] Our double-consciousness denies the survival or the importance of such cultural elements as asue, lodges, burial societies, friendly societies, all of which allowed our spiritual and physical survival during and after slavery.

[. . .] In ‘Nuestra America’, or ‘Our America,’ Martí posits the spiritual mixing of our people in the Americas.  It is the fusion, the syncretic combining of North and South, Europe, America and Africa that has brought about this incredibly spiritual existence, this ability to ‘sit with the bones’ as recent transplant, Canadian/Bahamian scholar and artist, Charlotte Henay puts it.

Yet, as Bahamians, we seem to be walking away from this ability.  We sell off graveyards and think nothing of it.  We embrace fundamentalism over anything else and police to extinction any expression of local beliefs that demonstrate spiritual life. We still drink cerassee tea, sage tea, and lemongrass tea, yet we ignore the spiritual side of this.  Or, at least we say we do.

All of the above sayings had and have very deep roots in Afro-Bahamian spirituality.  In some communities, it remains a practice for the dead to be buried either the day they die or the day after they die, disregarding the arrival of relatives from far and wide, recognizing the local culture and lore that made it a community even where bodies were washed and prepared for burial by kin, not embalmed, and the passage would be intimate and spiritual.  In Cuba, as with many other locations, when a person dies, the body is quickly laid to rest. In Santería, it usually occurs in the first day, much like in Judaism, in many branches of Islam and in some, especially Catholic, Christian churches.  Death is not only celebrated, but embraced, because without death, there can be no life.

In the painting “El Velorio” by Francisco Oller, the process of celebrating death is demonstrated in the Museum of the University of Puerto Rico. Nicolás Guillén and Celia Cruz were two famous proponents of Afro-Cuban spirituality, along with Fernando Ortiz, who wrote about it often, they brought spirituality to the world.  In Exuma “The Obeah Man” was celebrated and Maureen Duvalier was loved.  Both these entertainers sung of Obeah, and spirituality.  Does singing it make it less real and more acceptable?

Today, our connection with spirituality seems far more distant that it was in the past, as fundamentalisms set in and further obfuscates its important, the overlaying of mainstream religion that denies the existence of any spirituality.  Where there is life, there must be death, there is always a balance.  We have become consumed with scapegoating all African-derived religions as bad, evil, dark, black.

When the freed Blacks from the Americas, the enslaved Blacks from other places and the Blacks born into slavery managed to sit with their own thoughts, their spirituality was incredibly dynamic.  The dynamism of Bahamian spirituality, it must be underscored, occurred in opposition to all efforts to control/kill it. Junkanoo, was, and perhaps, for some, remains a very spiritual practice.  Drumming, dancing, ‘gyrating’ can all be profoundly spiritual practices.

Yet, Exuma can still sing ‘Damn fool ya married to gallin” and explore the whole Obeah aspect of that tradition.  The dismissal and simultaneous embracing of spiritual is intriguing.  However, the doubled-consciousness of denial of any ‘Blackness’ is even deeper.  The absolute disavowal of Blackness is alarming.  We so often hear that arts should not celebrate the post ‘40s or the ‘30s or we focus too much on the creation of Black nation.  Yet the creation of the Black nation has also led to the death of much Black culture.

Not a great deal of work has been done on spirituality in The Bahamas; more work has been done on it in the Anglophone region and a massive amount of research and discussion has been centered around spirituality in the wider Caribbean, including the Spanish, French and Papiamento territories, not to mention the circum Caribbean or the Atlantic world.

[. . .] Perhaps “Medium: Practices and Routes of Spirituality and Mysticism”–which opens on Thursday, December 14, at 6 p.m. featuring the work of 33 artists and remains on view through March 11, 2018–can begin to break the gravestone imposed over so much of Bahamian culture and spirituality. We must begin to (re)learn or to re-member how to ‘sit with our bones.’

[Image above: Tony McKay (aka Exuma) “The Stars (Signs of the Zodiac). Courtesy of the D’Aguilar Art Foundation.]

For full review, see

Also see our previous post

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