A World Without Art: COB Students Protest
Photo above: The Nassau Guardian
The Color of Harmony, a display of visual and musical talent from students in the Department of Visual and Performing Arts at the College of The Bahamas, has always been a grand fete. Patrons attend a program of vocal and instrumental talent under the patronage of the Governor General His Excellency Sir Arthur and Lady Foulkes, and then view beautiful paintings, mixed media and ceramic work by art majors during a following reception.
Gallery photos by June Collie
Patrons expecting the usual display of colorful work downstairs however instead came upon a coup of sorts by the COB art majors’ paintings and unglazed ceramics in various shades of grey, conveying their collective shades of anger, grief, accusation, disappointment, betrayal and distress over what they believe has been a systematic denial of their rights to necessary space and equipment.
One pieces blares in black paint “Without art there is no music, history, creativity, art design, culture, you”; another places a stop sign over “dreams of a future artist”; another displays a 404 error message, “The artwork you requested cannot be viewed”; and still another, made up of text from the vision of the college, declares, “The vision is blind.” Art majors stood in the space dressed in black, ready to express their reasons for the decision to anyone wishing to ask.
Many may argue, like the administration taken aback by the display, that the prestigious annual show was not the right time for such a protest. But it’s no secret that the art students at COB have been struggling for some time with an administration they believe has stripped them of necessities. Last year after a botched meeting between students and the last acting President, Dean and Chair led to a full-out protest on the streets – which they say improved little.
“I think we’ve reached out enough and protested enough,” said art major Steven Schmid. “The administration here seems interested in a very short amount of time – they’ll pat us on the back and then we get swept underneath the rug in a week. This is pretty much the last resort. It’s a public event and we knew they would invite people here, and we just really needed to have our voice be heard.”
Indeed, despite their efforts to hold conversations with the administration and the president, the students say they saw no improvement and in fact experienced more hardships.
One of the most major concerns reflecting in the show and which the students would like to see rectified is the lack of space. The 60 students take five classes in one room divided by a makeshift wall, creating T20a and T20b.
They used to have another room that was recently given to architecture and engineering students, which the art students say is hardly ever used besides their one class per week. Meanwhile, also stripped of their lockers, the art students continued to work and take classes in one room made to be two, causing a catastrophe of space for both in-class and out-of-class work.
In fact, the loss of that second room was the straw that broke the camel’s back and led to the decision by all art majors to stage a protest that would once and for all get the attention of the COB administration.
“It was a group decision,” explained art major Veronica Dorsett. “We thought we’d have black canvases and not give them what they want. There was a room taken from us and I think there was this hope that we would get it back and when we found out that we weren’t getting it back, we decided to show them that this is problem and they don’t recognize it.”
“We’ve been pushing critiques and final assignments back because we don’t have the facilities to finish our work,” she pointed out. “People want to come to events like Color of Harmony and see finished products but they don’t understand the struggle that it is to be able to get to that point. I think this show represents that struggle that we have to go through, and I think people may not want to hear it, but I think it will leave a mark in their minds – they will not forget this one.”
Indeed, the lack of functioning facilities compounds the problem of space – out of six kilns, say the students, only one works reliably. In fact, they point out that one of their instructors has given up on asking the administration to fix at least a second kiln, going out on her own to find someone who can repair it so students can have more of a chance at finishing their assignments.
“Unfortunately for a lot of us it’s not that we don’t have the talent to go off and pursue higher degrees in art, we just don’t have the funds,” said art major Cydne Coleby. “So I believe that just because we don’t have $50,000 to spend on our education per year, that we have to be subjected to mediocre facilities.”
“We have one kiln for two classes. We have to do painting assignments in the ceramics room,” she continued. “We have to do printmaking on dirty tables and move friends over who also have assignments to do. There is only space for one student to do their printmaking assignment at a time.”
Such treatment, they say, is unacceptable – and quite rightly so. Art as a major requires specific equipment and space. Unlike other majors who can take their reading home or into a (sparkling new) library, art majors cannot complete printmaking assignments in their kitchen or buy their own personal kilns or splatter paint across their floors. They need space to work and space in which to store the huge amount of equipment artists possess for their practices. Such equipment is expensive, so it cannot be stored in rooms that are shared or cannot lock – to say nothing of their own in-process or final pieces.
Art majors in many schools are not only given adequate space for classes, but even personal studios within which to develop their artistic practice during a vital time in their artistic development. Not having the space or proper equipment to finish their basic assignments – let alone explore additional artistic work outside of class – is highly detrimental to their creativity and the creative health of the college. It is absolutely ridiculous that during a time when The College of The Bahamas is seeking university status, a segment of their student body is being mistreated and ignored in the way they say they are.
“It is ridiculous that we have to work in these conditions,” said art major Imani Moss. “I just want them to hear what we have to say about our space. Give us something to work with. Stop treating us like we aren’t here. It feels like they never listen to us unless we protest – why do we have to protest for them to hear us? That bothers me. I hope they hear us now and make it better for those of us who are here and the future art majors coming.”
Considering, also, the rich history of the space with instructors like Stan Burnside and Denis Knight under the watchful eye of Dr. Keva Bethel, turning out students who have helped to define the current landscape of Bahamian art and culture – Erica James, John Beadle, Clive Stewart, Dionne Benjamin-Smith, Joylon Smith, Neko Meicholas, to name only a small sampling – such current conditions signal great distress in how we as a society – in our very governments and scholarly institutions – value our rich heritage of art and culture. These student artists are distressed, and rightfully so, over their treatment.
“I think honestly they don’t consider us to be a career choice,” said art major Amy Collins. “I think anything different from the norm is something to be frowned upon in Bahamian society. They think art is too free and it isn’t a career choice, isn’t something that will get you anywhere in life, it’s just a hobby.”
“I hope people understand we do have struggle in this college. Art is very undervalued and overlooked,” she continued. “We don’t have what we need. We’ve been accused of some of this not being true, but if it weren’t true, why would we stage this show, why would we mention it? We’ve been fighting this issue ever since I’ve been here and it hasn’t changed.”
It doesn’t take a master artist to see that the most recent group of students emerging from the art program has serious talent. Under the influence and mentorship of such great Bahamian artist instructors as John Cox, Heino Schmid and Sue Bennett-Williams (among others), these students have been pushing the boundaries of Bahamian art. Their work singlehandedly stole the show at the past Transforming Spaces tour under the theme of “Fibre” – patrons expressed awe in their feedback at the innovative work by the youngest among us.
How they are achieving such breathtaking work in the face of this adversity is beyond comprehension and can only be explained by their determination. Because of this high caliber of this student work, their protest at Color of Harmony doesn’t reflect protest for protest’s sake; it reflects the knowledge of the potential of that art department in who it has historically turned out, the rightful desire to have those same opportunities and basic rights as art students, and the hope that it can get better.
It now falls to the college to take these critiques seriously and to recognize they have the responsibility and power to shape our cultural landscape. In response, the college released an official statement yesterday that had this to say:
“The visual and performing arts are important means of self-expression.
“Senior administrators continue to meet with students. Friday, April 13 is the last day of Spring classes at The College of The Bahamas and we are exploring options for the Fall Semester.”
“The college is in the initial stages of a comprehensive Campus Master Planning process that will guide future campus construction and development.”
Indeed, the college swiftly organized a meeting after the show’s debut with the student body to talk through the concerns expressed in the show. It remains to be seen, however, what comes of this meeting. The fate of a vital institutional program lies in their hands.
For more images of the protest and images from the music performances for the evening, check out our online gallery at www.thenassauguardian.com.
The Nassau Guardian
Arts and Culture
Published: Saturday, April 14, 2012