The Art of Politics

By in News on May 7, 2012

If artists and politicians had a relationship status on Facebook, it would certainly read as “It’s Complicated”.

Art in its many forms has undeniable power, able to bring groups of people across social strata and cultures and even social beliefs together in an instant – just think of the myriad of pop culture musical references and local performances used in our political rallies. Did people really think Tina Turner would appear at an FNM rally? Did it matter once the turnout stretched beyond the eye? And how many undercover PLPs, DNAs or undecided voters attended – or attentively kept an eye on their TV screens at home – waiting to catch a glimpse of the beloved internationally-acclaimed musician? That’s some powerful art.

Yet local artists will openly admit feeling like the jilted sweetheart of their political paramours, finding a lack of funding for their endeavors and no certain systems for their craft that can only be put in place by politicians through law. The truth is being an artist in The Bahamas means paying 45 percent duty on your supplies, battling a one-dimensional view of Bahamian culture that is synonymous with Junkanoo, a lack of government-issued incentives to develop their craft (funding, scholarships, awards, residencies, gallery/performance spaces, public art initiatives) and the push for sun-sand-and-sea tourism over untapped cultural tourism.

On the other side, politicians balance the cries from the art community for such change with the ever-pervasive belief that art is a luxury. Such efforts often give only just enough to artists for boasting rights during election time, yet leave artists unsatisfied and often resentful. The unfortunate inability to commit wholly to the arts in all of its forms just continues to perpetuate the art-as-luxury idea instead of helping the public to realize the necessity of art to expand the definition of Bahamian/Caribbean culture and identity.

After all, here in The Bahamas, the major political parties are reduced to a single color to drive their campaigns – “Red Splash” and “Gold Rush”. And if that’s not art as the most basic, one-dimensional way to powerfully define Bahamian identity, then I don’t know what is.

Yet the resistance too from the political side comes from a long history of spats between artists and politicians – after all, art, as said before, is powerful, and when not in favor of the status quo can be quite problematic for authority figures defining issues for society in black-and-white terms or altogether pulling the wool over the public’s eyes. Through socially critical work, artists keep authority figures and societies honest, and complicate objective stances with subjective realities.

Take the work by artist Dionne Benjamin-Smith. In her earliest printmaking pieces, she explored the politics of the feminine in raw, honest linoleum-cuts that confronted viewers with its uncensored imagery and themes.

Now working in digital media and drawing more heavily from her graphic design background, she continues to make work that keeps authority on its toes. For that she’s been called an artist that expresses social commentary or a political artist, and has garnered equal shares of criticism and praise for her fearlessness and ability to present troublesome political decisions or social trends in clever representations, such as the “Black Crab Pledge of Allegiance” and “Bishops Bishops Everywhere But Not a Drop to Drink”.

“What drives me is speaking the truth – showing the naked emperor – so people can make their own decisions on how they view a situation,” said Benjamin-Smith. “I am constantly thinking about issues I see before me. I pray about them and I am often moved to express them in some way through the work. Hopefully, people will see the truth of a situation and that the authority figures will see that the people aren’t stupid. Hopefully, it helps bring truth to a world that is very messed up.”

Her latest collection of work, “Birthright for Sale” which was on display at Popopstudios Center for the Visual Arts during the Transforming Spaces 2011 tour, aimed to bring new perspective to recent political decisions regarding the sale of Bahamian land and Bahamian companies. Ripped-from-the-headlines issues such as the BTC sale to Cable & Wireless and the Mayaguana land sell-off are repackaged as everyday cheap Bahamian products like Mahatma Rice, Wesson Oil and Carnation Cream, shown as individual products then represented in ubiquitous food store ad placements, all shared on a loop of digital image slides to non-descript elevator music.

“All these huge swaths of land being given away for such little in return; it grieves me,” said Benjamin- Smith. “I’m witnessing these things and I wondered how to express this indignation, how to show people what’s being done because so many people don’t see. How do I express that our land is being sold away from under our feet?”

“The idea of them selling The Bahamas as a product came to me, selling these places that were and are special to me and is the birthright of me and my Bahamian brothers and sisters,” she continued. “I included the details of the transactions on each product so people could see the truth of the matter – that their birthright was being sold like a product off the shelf – for a pittance.”

Like in her earlier pieces, Benjamin-Smith brings the absurdities of reality to extremes in order to shake a response from her viewers. Indeed the pieces, critical of both politicians’ decisions to sell off Bahamian land like a cheap product and of the public for not holding them accountable, are a case of “laughing so as not to cry” – the product design itself is enough to weigh on any viewer’s conscience.

Indeed her work is a powerful voice in contemporary Bahamian art, being one of those artists who feel the responsibility to keep authority figures and their decisions in check for the greater good – and in a smart, respectful way, too. She even makes her pieces first and foremost for the people she’s questioning, allowing society at large to bear witness to such confrontation and find their own voice in the crossfire.

“I’m respectful of the position of authority, and God says to be so, however when they’re doing wrong or they’re not honoring or doing the things they need to be doing, then they need to be shown,” she said.

“I want them to see how their actions affect society. I’m always wanting the politicians to see – and to understand that they’re not doing these things in darkness, they’re not doing this without people seeing and knowing, and hopefully they will be convicted that some of their actions are hurtful and detrimental and affect people.”

With work like that by Benjamin-Smith, the fear shared by many politicians is always that the art itself will not supplement them and their decisions but rather come to define them or usurp them and become the center of controversy – and a force for social or political change – themselves.

Indeed when it comes to politics, often a single image can define an entire political movement or change – from J. M. Flagg’s 1917 Uncle Sam “I Want You” poster to Shepard Fairey’s 2008 Obama “Hope” poster, artists have been taking their social and political beliefs to the public eye. But whether to slant public opinion or shed truth on a matter, such work has great power that stays in the public’s consciousness throughout time – whether they consider such work fine art, tribute, or extreme propaganda.

Take a mural recently designed by Kishan Munroe, commissioned by the Democratic National Alliance candidate, Wayne Munroe. The impressive piece shows Wayne Munroe close to the front of a pack of people from a wide cross-section of Bahamian society walking in the glow of a lighthouse toward a better future, leaving catastrophe – in the symbol of a shipwreck and natural disasters – behind.

It’s easy to label the work as a piece of political propaganda, yet Munroe insists it’s an idea he’s been manifesting for some time during his travels abroad. As quite the global political and social activist, Munroe has traveled worldwide to find the source of the human experience which he reflects in his artwork. He’s attended protests for Occupy Wall Street and stood in solidarity with global groups calling for justice. Knowing this progressive background may be the difference between taking a cursory look at his mural and searching for the deeper meaning he always aims to incorporate into his work.

“The sketch wasn’t specifically for them, it was an idea I’ve always had, a theme I’ve always wanted to work with,” said Munroe. “Wayne Munroe has always supported my endeavors, and he wasn’t trying to take advantage of me for political reasons.”

“In the beginning he was only asking for something to beautify the place, and me being the artist that I am, I decided to take it to a totally different level, especially after my mural (on ‘Da Balcony’) burned down on Bay Street,” he continued. “I felt compelled to make a statement, another national statement about contemporary issues we have, and something that is more uplifting, relevant, and doesn’t sugar coat issues.”

So is it propaganda? Then again, it depends whose interests are being served, and how damaging that is to the wider public. Many may find the road signs sharing “abstinence-only” tips or blatantly declaring “homosexuals aren’t allowed into my kingdom” as problematic pieces of propaganda Bahamians see every day that perpetuate ignorance and hatred, however well-intentioned they may be by those who placed them in the public’s eye.

From the artist’s perspective, Munroe believes his piece doesn’t exist to gain DNA votes from the public – it’s a call to action to the Bahamian public in general, including politicians. After all, it’s only DNA-centered because the party commissioned it – he insists he would have made a similar mural had the FNM or PLP approached him instead.

“The message would still be the same, it would have the same feeling. The piece isn’t of Wayne Munroe; Wayne Munroe is of the piece,” he said. “I don’ feel it has that strong of a political implication because at the end of the day this is about the progression of a people to move forward.”

“That’s why he’s closer to the front – not right at the front – because he is of the people. But most of the dynamic figures are those before and behind him, because the composition overall comes from the motion of the people as one.”

Indeed, by no means is the poster one-dimensional: from the “in-between” orange hue mixing red and yellow, to the figures – worker, educator, planner – who all have a role to play to salvage society, to Wayne Munroe’s garb of half-lawyer, half-everyday man, the mural is an impressive call to arms to not only the public, but to politicians as well, to move through these turbulent times with a master plan to uplift the nation.

Indeed, to Munroe, everything we see and do is a political act whether we are consciously aware of it or not, and has consequences. For him, such work is a rarity in Bahamian culture, and he calls for artists to continue to make work that challenges its viewers with its social commentary.

“Any art is propaganda, because at the end of the day you’re trying to get people to respond to your thoughts, to what you believe and what you want the piece to say,” pointed out Munroe.

“It’s important for me to be able to not only share my international experiences but also to actually use a visual language to create an alphabet for Bahamians to understand. This is a visual language of globally turbulent times but it’s also a Bahamian dialect of a visual language they can understand.”

In the end, who can say when art crosses into the sphere of propaganda? If an artist’s work isn’t openly critical and rather praises a politician or a movement, then many may say such a tribute – like Munroe’s – is propaganda by nature. Is this fair? Must artists only be critical, or can they be in support of an idea without being blamed for selling themselves out?

A clever way to address political beliefs no matter what the alignment is through humor – and with the road to the 2012 election unfolding the way it has been with a exhausting amount of mudslinging and bipartisanship from three main political parties, there is no shortage of material for satire, as seen in the various comics or cartoons in the daily newspaper.

Especially in this digital age of social media where nothing escapes the public eye, the true ugliness of political races happen in real time – more so now than in any other time in history. For artist Damaso Gray, whose piece “The Amazing Spectacular Circus 2012” has been making the rounds this political season, the use of satire can keep things in perspective. In this outrageous piece, Hubert Ingraham and Perry Christie battle it out on sea creatures while Branville McCartney observes from a distance, giving new meaning to “the silly season”.

“I wanted to bring humor to the occasion to enlighten the people of the grandeur of events in Bahamian history,” said Gray. “I feel that it was about time that we see politics from an unbiased and insightful point of view.”

“I think that the audience should see it as just that amusement rather than take it so seriously. I would hope the public sees the election campaign as it really is: a spectacle to amuse and gain the interest of the people at any cost, using multiple props and comedic mudslinging.”

Yet Gray also operates from a space of honoring history, recognizing his role as an artist often intersects with that of a historian, and makes his work accordingly. In the diptych, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide”, two elderly figures sit in front of two political signs – one for the PLP and one for the FNM. Gray points out that he wanted to show that these people are very set in their ways, but that the younger generation could “capitalize on their mistakes” to move the country forward.

In the end, he insists it’s important, once the viewer understand the humor in his work, to move past it and come to the realization that Bahamians have to be for Bahamians – not for a certain party.

“My work I would hope gives an unbiased report of the event and gains a humorous but rationale response where it is plausible to see the event retrospectively,” he said. “I would hope the public would embrace and appreciate the art as it is one of the greatest political battles in Bahamian history.”

“I would hope politicians value our opinions on the how we feel about the process. It is significant that they engage artist to document Bahamian history and I hope that they see it fit to create historical spaces for the arts.”

Indeed, at the root of every politically- or socially-minded piece – despite criticism, despite support, despite humor – is that very hope to be taken seriously as a member of the voting public who wishes to see a better Bahamas – a member of the voting public who sees the potential in Bahamian society and culture as still tragically untapped by their political caretakers.

For the artist, politics continues to offer a torrid affair, a constant balancing act what is and what could be, that irresistible urge to ask “what if?” even when presented with hopelessness. And if their work can help even one other member of the voting public not to decide who to vote for but to think beyond red, yellow and green, then perhaps they too can demand politicians of any party build that bridge between reality and dream together.

Sonia Farmer
Arts & Culture
The Nassau Guardian
Published: Saturday, May 5, 2012

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