“A Life I Lived To See”

By in News on July 14, 2011

“Happy Birthday to Me” (2008) by Kendal Hanna was completed on his 72nd birthday. (Collection of Lawrence Bascom.)

A week before his retrospective, “Happy Birthday to Me” opens at The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas, covering his 75 years of life and his artistic career with 143 paintings, Kendal Hanna was still working on new pieces.

Tiny splatters of dried blue paint decorate his clothes; dried droplets sit about his work boots; random blue specks peek out through the winkles of his face; and his fingers too wear the mark of an artist furiously at work.

“Ironically, it’s a funny thing, it’s given me life, art,” he says.  “I feel my good friend art has always been with me.”

For Hanna, art has been both a failsafe friend and a savior in a long life of psychological and personal struggle.  It’s a story that’s been reflected in his pieces in the only way he knows how — through abstract expressionism.

In that way, he was certainly a man before his time, practicing a form of art that had not caught on in the landscape of the Bahamian art world, a form of art that is difficult to engage with and was not readily accepted by viewers to be “authentically Bahamian” art.

It was, admittedly, a hard path to take, but he believes it was the only way he could go.

“It’s a lone backdrop, abstraction, it’s very unknown and it’s unloved and I think it’s just up my alley,” he says.

“Abstract artists, abstract expressionists, if you get involved in this, you’ll find yourself at the same time,” he continues.

Indeed, his work becomes a form of remembering a life that, through traumatic treatments causing memory loss, came at him in fragments.  The struggle to connect with his past and to remember his present is reflected in the abundance of self-portraits making up the collection, each one an attempt to capture the self in present time to return to later.

“His memory is quite interesting,” says Erica James, director of The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas and curator of the exhibition.  “He doesn’t remember dates but he remembers events and he remembers them quite better than most people.  When he’s recalling a self-portrait, he’ll recall exactly how he felt on that day, what he managed to capture on the page emotionally and psychologically.”

The exhibition, which will take up the entire gallery space, comes across as an emotional map of the artist’s 75 tumultuous years, and James has curated the show to tell the story of his life reflected in his art that for so long had flown under the radar, underappreciated for its risks and differences.

“I decided to tell his story.  I believe that his story is incredibly important,” James says.  “It’s about his life as an artist, his life bitter and sweet, and how they’ve come out on the canvas and how they’re still coming through.  How he’s worked through these things is always through the work, even when he’s been displaced, it’s always been back to his work, that’s the thing that has centered his life and has been very consistent.”

For her, the show is an accumulation of almost seven years of work.  In early 2006, she visited Hanna every weekend to interview him on tape about his life, and since then has been helping him piece together the events of his life, from place to place, from hospitalization to recovery, from milestone to milestone, detailing the story of his life in the essay “Testimony” which is included in the show’s extensive exhibition catalogue.

Though a challenging task, the reward is invaluable.  The move came out of the realization that we rarely and only recently found the importance of preserving Bahamian art history — “I’m a born realization of that,” said Hanna.  It’s a history of which Hanna is an invaluable part, being one of those in the initial art movement of The Bahamas.

“When I think of Bahamian modernism, I think of Max Taylor, I think of Brent Malone, and I think of Kendal Hanna,” James says.  “When I think of them coming together at Chelsea Pottery and the friendship they forged there, and the different directions they took and remained friends, and each of them brought a certain perspective to art and a certain love and passion to art you don’t see very often to this day.”

Such translations of this complex and driving passion in all of it’s playfulness, grief, defiance and joy are put in each and every one of Hanna’s pieces, whether abstract self portraits or portraits of those who have helped and inspired him, or a breathtaking array of a landscape of brushstrokes and splashes mimicking Rorschach tests.

“I’m a very honest man, a very honest person.  I don’t copy anybody,” Hanna says.  “What I’m doing right now is totally truthful, honest and on the record.  It’s truthful of who I am.  My work is me, it presents me.”

Such outright honesty in this work, such emotional struggle laid bare, creates complex pieces that viewers may initially — and may still — find a challenge to deconstruct.  But that’s because his work isn’t easy, it doesn’t present the viewer with something to easily recognize and it doesn’t come from an easy place; it asks the viewer to feel, and it asks the viewer to think beyond what they know, and it asks the viewer, overall, to bear witness to his history and validate his presence.

“It wasn’t really criticism you know, coming from Bahamians.  It was more of a curiosity about my work,” Hanna says.  “I just said, ‘Well I guess there will be a time when they come around.’”

They certainly did, for Hanna carried the torch for abstract expressionism in early Bahamian art history, forging the way for the next generation of Bahamian artists to explore such a mode of expression and develop a critical understanding of the medium so that today, Bahamian art has been opened up to many new modes of expression, inclusive of the abstract.  And though his was a hard path, Hanna looks back on it and takes it all with grace.

“His story is a tragedy, Shakespearean in some ways, but at the same time, he has no regrets — he’s worked through them, and he’s risen out of it.  He’s someone who believes in his future,” says James.

“People look at him and he doesn’t say much, and people take him for granted, but I really think he’s one of the smartest people I’ve met,” she continues.  “He’s incredibly inquisitive, he really believes he is a man of his time, he believes the onus is on him to continue to understand and to know that.”

Included in the exhibition along with his collection of work and sketchbooks is his personal library, the wide array of content reflecting an insatiable hunger to learn as much about the present world as possible.

“He said ‘I’m fascinated by the time.  I’m fascinated by this age in which I’m living,’” remembers James.  “And he feels everybody should be fascinated, but we aren’t, we take so much for granted, and Kendal takes so little for granted, he really does, and it’s so refreshing, to be around a creative mind like that.”

“People will find the show very interesting because life is such a journey and life is about living with your arms wide open and taking it in, and Kendal has really done it,” she continues.  “He talks about having an experimental personality and an experimental mind, and he really does, within reason, he likes to try new things and experience new things, but he’s still very fragile and very delicate.  It’s a complicated thing but what remains is the art and I think people are going to be blown away.”

Indeed there is an undeniable spirituality to his process and his finished pieces, an awe at the universe and all of its components, the act of painting becoming the expression of this and his refuge and the way back to himself, his role in the vast machinery of the universe.

“Now, I have come to the belief that I was born to be an artist,” he says.  “So to arrive at this stage, I say that means more than anything else.  I believe by God’s grace I’ve arrived.  I know that being alive now I have the ability to contend that this story is going to come to an end someday.  I don’t know when, but as long as I’m alive, I’m going to continue this and fantastic things will evolve from this time on.”

To Hanna, the experience is somewhat surreal, but brings him great joy, for being underappreciated for so long led him to believe his work would never be presented in this way, let alone that his story, forgotten even by his own troubled mind, would never be told.  That in itself is the great testament to his place in Bahamian art history.  But for Hanna personally, it also brings great closure.

“I do have favorite pieces but it’s hard to choose,” he says, looking back on his artistic career as reflected in the show.  “But what I would call favorite are those that I choose as major works to stand to cast new light in the era of my progression, to bring that together to show this collection.  It’s a life I lived to see.  That’s what so exciting right now.”

“Kendal Hanna: Happy Birthday to Me” opens on Friday, July 15th, and continues throughout the year at The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas.

Sonia Farmer
The Nassau Guardian
July 9, 2011