activists staged a 'Day of Absence' last February. The name was taken from
a play about a small American town in which the white inhabitants discover that all the black people have suddenly disappeared. What
would happen if Bahamians woke up one day and
found that all the artists and cultural workers had vanished?
Wouldn't our world be a poorer and sadder place?
former cultural affairs director Nicolette Bethel (now a lecturer at
the College of The Bahamas), the Day of Absence attempted to make the
point that Bahamian artists, musicians, writers, actors, directors,
dancers, designers, craftworkers, you name it — are marginalized,
disrespected, and taken for granted:
"They are unable to find
work in the areas in which God has gifted them. Our greatest brain drain is arguably in the area of the
arts, and culture has absolutely no respect in the national discourse." I wrote a column about this last April, and one of Bethel's colleagues - Ward Minnis - was moved to write an essay "congratulating her on a job well done while taking her to task for ideas that are at best half-baked." What follows is an abridged version of that essay, published here as a guest column.
Minnis (the son of songwriter/artist Eddie Minnis) recently earned a Master’s degree in history from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is a visual artist and a writer, with poetry appearing in Yinna volume 2 and Tamarind volume 1, and a satirical play on prosperity theology in development. He continues to research The Fergusons of Farm Road - a Bahamian radio serial. On January 12 the National Art Gallery will host a debate on the merits of the Day of Absence between Bethel, Minnis and the Bahamian art community.
When I first heard about Nicolette Bethel’s Day of Absence, I felt that it filled a niche in the evolving Bahamian arts ecosystem. However, the more I thought about the proposal, the more I was bothered by its incongruities. This abridged article is a condensed version of my odd way of congratulating Nicolette on a job well done while taking her to task for ideas that are at best half-baked. The full essay and podcast can be found at Mentalslavery.com.
As presently constructed, the Day of Absence clouds over and conflates many different and unrelated ideas while advancing an awkward historical agenda and an unsubstantiated theory of cultural development; it is political and apolitical, about something and about nothing at the same time. While I sincerely believe that the Bahamian art community is in need of something like this, I feel that we need to begin an extensive dialogue before we can get at what we really need.
A World Without Art
The Day of Absence that Bethel articulated requires us to conceive of a world without art. Everyone can agree that without art we would have a pretty dull world. Unfortunately, the broad net that she casts also makes her central argument almost meaningless. While it is true that everything we touch has been designed by someone, this generalization covers over a very important issue for BAHAMIAN artists. The reality is that most, if not all, of the images and products that filter here from abroad have been produced by professionals who have already been paid. And if you really think about it, our money is going to pay their salaries — let us not even touch the issue of cultural imperialism that this type of art perpetuates.
To ask what the Bahamas would be like without BAHAMIAN artists is like asking what 100 Jamz would sound like without BAHAMIAN music. Artists in the Bahamas have not only had days of absence but have had years, and even decades, of absence. We do not need any more absence. The public is quite aware of what their life would look like without Bahamian artists — it is the life they currently lead.
This fact is perhaps why Nicolette never articulates a true Day of Absence. She instead describes it as
"a symbolic day, … where artists can come together in person or in cyberspace, and blog, email, sing, act, perform, speak, or whatever they want to do, in honour of art and artists themselves."
I will say it plainly: it is necessary for Bahamian artists to come out and do something on the Day of Absence because if they stayed home one day, or even a whole week, no one would notice.
The metaphor of absence is in error. Bahamian artists need to finally make their presence here felt. This central contradiction leads to more explaining than is necessary, and the point of her Day is lost. It also misses the problem that we, as an artistic community, have.
The Myth of Brain Drain
The Day of Absence decries the “creative Brain Drain” that is robbing the Bahamas of its best and brightest artists. Contrary to this assertion, however, the Bahamas doesn’t have much in the way of a well-known creative diaspora. There are writers like Helen Klonaris and artists like Janine Antoni who live away from the Bahamas, but despite these exceptions it seems that the majority of our writers, musicians and actors are still here. And many of our visual artists not only stay but make a decent living. With more study it may be proved that the country is already able to retain quite a large portion of its creative people. Unless the goal is to ensure all artists never leave the country we are already doing better than we should.
Of course, we also have to assume that “creative brain drain” is even possible. Let’s take V. S. Naipaul for an example. It is true that by leaving the island of his birth, Britain gained a notable and gifted writer, but what has Trinidad really lost other than his physical presence? Trinidadians claim his Nobel prize as their own and his cultural production is as available to them as it is to the British public.
It can even be argued that the prevalence of Bahamian writers and artists to stay at home has prevented them from actually doing their cultural work. In other words, if Bahamians left the country more we might have better art to show for it. Ironically, this is a point that Nicolette herself has argued in one of her newspaper columns.
Government and the Arts
The Day of Absence seems to rest on a peculiar theory of cultural development. The theory postulates that cultural development in the Bahamas is directly correlated to the policies of the Bahamian government. If the government gets involved in the arts, they flourish, if they don’t, they wither. The Day of Absence seems designed to awaken the government to take up the responsibility that it had in the so-called cultural golden age of the 70s and early 80s.
The part of Nicolette’s proposal that I am most inclined to agree, is her assertion that it is in the government’s best interest to channel a portion of their large tourist advertising budget towards local cultural development. But I have reservations here as well. I am not convinced that commissioning a Bahamian to create tourist entertainment will improve the authenticity of our art. That is, of course, if more authentic art is the desired result.
The problem is that the separation between what is for tourists and what is for us has become so thin that we can’t even tell the difference anymore. If the Day of Absence is really about tourists pleasure, let us be clear. Let us not confuse Culture for Bahamians and "culture" intended for tourist consumption. I believe that we should deal with our own cultural hunger before we worry about how to provide better shows for visitors. Confusing the two will eventually bring us right back to the same emptiness no matter how much money we divert into the local arts.
The Bethel Hypothesis
Nicolette’s theory of government involvement in the arts goes quite a bit further, however, by suggesting that Bahamian cultural development was mainly a product of the influence that a single person, her father, former Director of Culture, the late E. Clement Bethel, had on the government. According to this theory, when Nicolette’s father died unexpectedly in 1987, the Bahamas started to become the cultural wasteland that it is today. Simply put, culture is related to the government and the government only did its job because E. Clement Bethel was Director of Culture.
But is it true that our cultural development only takes place because of Bahamian leaders? Did Exuma the Obeah Man sing, did Brent Malone paint and did Jeanne Thompson write because of the policies of the government? And did any of the artists of the 70s and 80s do what they did, directly or indirectly, because of E. Clement Bethel? These are very serious claims. If they are true, they would support her choice of the date for the Day of Absence, February 11th, which is of course, her father’s birthday.
Mr. Bethel was by all accounts a notable writer, musician, scholar, and civil servant, perhaps best known for his masters dissertation on Bahamian ethnomusicology and the folk opera Sammy Swain. He made invaluable contributions to Bahamian music and theatre, so much so that the National Arts Festival is named in his honor. The website of the Bahamas government says that
his contribution to the cultural development in the Bahamas was recognized by the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce which presented him with a Distinguished Citizen's Award for the Performing Arts and Culture in 1979. In 1983, he received a Ministry of Tourism Achievement Award.
Yes, without doubt we can say that Mr. Bethel was a prominent Bahamian and he definitely made his mark on our culture and should be remembered as such.
However, the claims that the Day of Absence manifesto makes for his importance are outrageous. This is not an attempt to disparage his achievements, but it is difficult to convince me that I should attribute the entire cultural output of the Bahamas to one person. Why should I have to place Bethel’s contribution to my heritage above that of Pat Rahming, Ronnie Butler, Max Taylor, or Winston Saunders (to name only a few)? I asked a number of artists, who were his contemporaries, whether or not this type of adulation is justified and I could not find another person who would go even half as far as Nicolette has. The burden is on her to prove these claims. Instead of this odd hypothesis I believe it is far more reasonable for us to conclude that Bahamian cultural development has occurred in spite of government policy and not because of it.
What we Really Need
I sincerely hope that the Day of Absence does not reappear unchanged in 2010. As I stated at the outset, I believe that Nicolette deserves to be commended for doing something to help the Bahamian arts, but in its present form the Day of Absence is flawed beyond salvation. A proposal such as this needs to be fleshed out with the input of the entire arts community, it should be open for debate and not simply announced. The scope of the Day of Absence is far too broad to be effective. If we are going to give the art community a day for self-evaluation it needs to be far narrower, be held on a politically neutral day, and be something that everyone involved can agree on.
Ironically everything I have read about the Day of Absence points at the concept of presence. It is the presence of the arts community that is sorely lacking in the Bahamas. The wider society needs to be reminded that we do exist. I asked poet Maelynn Seymour-Major what she would have liked to have seen the Day of Absence become and she said:
"[I wanted] A day where we were all encouraged to do something. Where we put guerilla art and poems all down Shirley and Bay and plastered busses with poems. Where we sent poems to the community announcements and had them put on screen for people to read among the dead. A day where we saturated the air waves with Bahamian music — all kinds. Where we could walk downtown and hand out flyers with poems and stories and photos and paintings to everyone."
Like her, I believe that we need to take a baby step. A small step forward into the greater sphere of social responsibility. We need to put our distinctive stamp on Bahamian living and let our voices be heard. We need to stop waiting for government, to stop pointing fingers at everything ‘out there’ and realize that the greatest hollow is actually in our own back yard. We need to be here. Really here. Or, to paraphrase the words of Helen Klonaris, the new day will be born only when we come out of absence.