Amos Ferguson: Bahamian Outsider
Visual art falls into many categories, but none greater than the trained/untrained artist divide. Outsider art goes by many names – intuitive, primitive, folk, self-taught – yet always stands in opposition to the established artist on the inside of the art scene with their trained eye and academic backgrounds.
Though many have attempted to use such language to strengthen this simplified view, the divide unfortunately works against both sides, devaluing the outsider artist work for its child-like qualities and unskilled compositions, and the insider artist work for its lack of vision and intuition.
Out of the many Bahamian artists who formally fall into the “outsider” category, Amos Ferguson is perhaps the most famous – ironically, since it wasn’t until decades after he started painting and after receiving international attention that his very own people, who had largely dismissed him before, began to take notice.
Now, only a few years after his death, the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas presents a retrospective of his work in “Amos Ferguson: Bahamian Outsider”, opening May 24, cementing his great legacy and influence in Bahamian art history.
“We’re trying to create a historical context for the development of art in the country, and the first thing we have to do is look at significant developments that have formed the language, and Amos is such a central part of that,” said Curator of the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas John Cox.
“I think what this exhibition will do is set up a very comprehensive look at his work in ways that have not yet been initiated. We’re interested in the evolution of his style of painting, how he sets a stride in his symbols and how he arranged his compositions that became legend.”
Indeed, the very perceived downfalls of outsider art are also its saving graces – in Ferguson’s pieces, dreamlike qualities and playful compositions free from technical worries create charming examinations of Bahamian life, from its landscapes to its people to its folklore, religion and traditions.
With over 100 paintings divided into seven categories of subject matter – Prayin’, Tellin’, Livin’, Sailin’, Bloomin’, Weddin’, and Playin’ – as well as painted art objects, the exhibition successfully taps into the growth of Ferguson as a visionary in his own right.
As Director of the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas, Amanda Coulson, points out, the exhibition, with its work from collectors and many private homes, will allow its viewers to take a first hand look at how the artist came into his own as a gifted visionary. As a house painter, Ferguson’s earlier work of reclining women and vases of flowers are reminiscent of paintings he could have seen at his client’s houses – yet eventually, his pieces began to embrace his vision of the world around him and the world of his dreams and faith.
“You can see the transition,” said Coulson. “He didn’t come into his own style for a while – it wasn’t until he was confident in his own vision that he painted in his own particular style, [which] we know and love so well.”
“This is not meant to step on anyone’s toes, but when you look at realist paintings and the work by Amos, there is a big difference between copying something and creating something. Amos created his own language for himself that was clear and unique.”
Indeed in Ferguson’s work, the visual aspects narrated by his own text seem like they belong in a children’s book at first glance, but they can often provide enough of their own subtle complexity in subject matter and execution to be entire separate stories in and of themselves.
Whether they present different perspectives of the same biblical story or Bahamian life scene, provide ambiguity in their misspelled text, present a tapestry of meticulous painting practices using found objects such as a nail head or subtly touch on social issues that continue to this day in tourism and class warfare, Ferguson’s work defies the flawed definition of the untrained artist.
“One of the challenges with this show was to make Amos interesting because he’s interesting to me but he presents challenges to people and a lot of people dismiss it,” said NAGB Curator Cox. “I think there’s some work to do to align people’s focus with the really unique genius qualities of the work and I think that’s what we really tried to do here.”
“Amos brings social critique to Bahamian culture,” he continued. “His mindset is broader than the general public tends to think that it is. There’s an immediacy in his work, and a fascinating relationship between inside and outside worlds.”
To that effect, the National Art Gallery transformed their PS space into an interactive component of the exhibition. Creating a space like Ferguson’s studio with its known materials, tools and inspiration, participants can set out to produce their own Amos Ferguson-inspired masterpiece.
“This is an area where people can test their skill,” said NAGB Director Coulson. “Everyone always says ‘Oh, Amos Ferguson, I can paint that.’ Oh really? Go ahead.”
However the exhibition of Amos Ferguson’s work also ushers in a new era of the NAGB, one which sees the upstairs ballroom space – previously used as offices – become a gallery space once more after about five years.
With this space addition, the NAGB will also debut their new exhibition structure – while special exhibitions like the Amos Ferguson retrospective will take place in the ballroom and the top floor of the main gallery building, the ground floor of the main gallery building will be reserved for less frequent permanent exhibitions. Such shows will use artwork from the permanent collection of the NAGB to present meaningful context to special exhibitions upstairs.
The change comes after years of requests by locals and visitors alike to see work from the national collection presented in a formal way. Now, along with the Amos Ferguson exhibition upstairs, the NAGB will also open the first two permanent exhibitions downstairs: “Outsider Artist” and “The Bahamian Landscape”, presenting the strong tradition of outsider artists in Bahamian art history as well as examinations of a source of inspiration for many Bahamian artists.
We’re going to use the thrust of the permanent exhibition to reflect the nuances in the special exhibition,” said Cox. “It is here for the everyday person that comes in that wants to see the bigger picture, the context, the history, the broad brush of what’s going on here to see a wider spectrum of process, technique, subject matter and expression.”
“It aligns Amos with a common Bahamian visual interest,” he continued. “There are rights of passage in Bahamian art – a type of iconography that artists negotiate in their careers that Amos did in all of his work – nautical themes, junkanoo, landscape, religion. That comparison helps to broaden those themes and create an alignment with other artists.”
“Amos Ferguson: Outsider Artist” will open to the public on May 24 from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas. For more information, visit www.nagb.org.bs, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 328-5800/1.
The Nassau Guardian
Arts & Culture
Published: Saturday, May 19, 2012