The F Factor

By in News on August 8, 2011

The F Factor
Female Artists of the Bahamas

It’s no secret that in most industries, including in the art world, women are taken less seriously, treated with less respect and paid less than their male counterparts. This is magnified in The Bahamas, where outdated laws and societal standards continue to keep women from achieving equal standing.

It is even perceived that female artists have less of a place in the history of the Bahamian visual art world and community. One doesn’t have to look any further than the 2008 documentary “Artists of The Bahamas”, which so unfortunately missed the opportunity to include several powerful and significant female artists that have been practicing for decades, certainly alongside a few of their male contemporaries in the film.

Straining to think of a few? How about 24, all in one place?

Last week, the dynamic exhibition “The F Factor: Female Artists of The Bahamas” opened at The D’Aguilar Art Foundation, showcasing work in a wide range of media from 24 established and practicing female artists based in The Bahamas.

For curator Holly Parotti, the show is a culmination of experiences that she and her contemporaries have faced over the years — from exclusion to outward sexism — both as artists and simply just as women.

The show itself is even drawn from extensive Bahamian collections in the care of two women, Dawn Davis and Saskia D’Aguilar. Viewers may even be pleasantly surprised to find a piece each by both of these powerful women alongside the work by female artists they supported and promoted through their collecting.

Parotti was inspired by the spirit of the Guerrilla Girls, a group of anonymous female artists, formed in New York City, that addresses sexism through powerful — and some may say antagonist — artwork, especially sexism in the art world itself.

“Collecting the work from this group, I asked myself, what were these women thinking when they decided to become an artist and to really put that into their perspective in life?” Parotti says.

“I think it’s a conversation to have with the male and female artists in this community, to ask when did you decide to become an artist? What was going on in your life? Were you raising a family? Were you getting married? It’s that whole part of Bahamian culture of what happens in a young woman’s life that she makes those decisions that could take her one way or another, based on the pressures that may be put on her from whatever sources.”

Yet, she points out, the show isn’t meant to be outwardly “feminist” or deal solely with “female” issues, though they need to be addressed. Indeed, themes considered exclusive to women — maternity and femininity — are certainly addressed, and traditionally “crafty” media — quilting, ceramics — are used.

Pieces such as Lillian Blades’ “Baby in Womb”, with its painted panels surrounding a stuffed baby toy, and Jessica Colebrooke’s “Fertility God, Earth Mother” of a ceramic fertility figure looking to the sky in anguish or elation, address that perilous “unknown” of motherhood, tapping into excitement, wonder and dread.

Erica M. James’ “Milk (drawing)”, JoAnn Behagg’s “Bathing Beauty”, Sue Katz-Lightbourne’s “Repose” and Tamara Russell’s “Backography” all explore the feminine body and its complex cultural representations, while artists such as Susan Moir-Mackay in “Idol (Prayers and Worship)” , Janine Antoni in “Lipslick” and Claudette Dean in “Lady in Red” explore ideas of feminity, sentimentality and memory.

However the show’s power lies in its resistance of that ‘Guerrilla Girls’ path. Its wide range of themes, including environmentalism, Bahamian social woes, immigration and even the financial crisis, all come to the surface from what is unmistakably a feminine perspective—and a fully valid one at that.

Lynn Parotti’s diptych “Abandoned Shack with Rusted Crane & HSBC, West Indies Quay, Canary Wharf” explores through a luscious painting, the bleak landscape in changing financial society, while Dionne Benjamin-Smith’s “Sweetheart” offers a prickly reduction of a sexist and destructive aspect of Bahamian society. Meanwhile, environmental issues come to the forefront in Sue Katz-Lightbourne’s “Nature” and Nora Smith’s “Fish Bones.”

Even the quilt and ceramic forms — mediums that have quite a history with women especially — are turned on their heads. Imogine Walkine’s three ceramic pieces, “Orange for Saskia”, are gorgeous organic shapes with no function other than their very beauty, their size and sturdiness faced to their fragility, while art quilts by Sarah McClean (“Mermaid’s Wineglasses”) and Maria Chisnall (“Mad as Hell!”) forego the traditional grid quilt pattern, creating instead vibrant and lively scenes.

Indeed, the themes overlap and intermingle and hold meaningful conversations with another — conversations the public needs to hear.

“What is it they say — women let their emotions get to them too much where they’re not able to function in certain aspects of industry?” Parotti says. “But to me that’s one of the key things that allows a female artist to have an opinion or expression and present something in a medium, because there’s a certain sensitivity, a certain personality in it.”

“With all due respect to my male contemporaries, there’s just something about a woman and the intuition of how we react and present something — and that’s in conversation, that’s in poetry, that’s in body language, that’s in all of these aspects. That is what it means to truly be female,” she points out.

The result is a show that is entirely self-possessive, confident in its power to both transcend the criticism that it lives with and transform the feminine voice.

And yet the show is permeated with the theme of possibility and all of its constant reminders. Possibility for a woman is a powerful thing—and in this time they are faced with more choice than ever, and more struggle.

“I just think socially, women are recognizing their strengths outside of care-givers. You can certainly also have those who do both effectively,” explains Parotti. “There’s definitely been a shift. The options are there, we’re aware of them, and we’re in a position to take those opportunities to see where they take us as a person — the option to be a CEO, in charge of something on Wall Street, the option not to have children even.”

Herein lies joy and strength, regret and despair, resilience and recovery. Here too lies the possibility for change, the possibility to see beyond, a tenacity and a wisdom that Bahamian culture has always revered in the figure of the proud matriarch. The show draws upon that power and expands on it.

Parotti hopes that the show has the effect of bringing these dynamic voices more to the forefront in conversations about Bahamian art — whether historical or contemporary — so that we may hear them and perhaps speak back.

“We all know and work with each other and it’s important to me to see a balance, and the balance is formidable enough that we have an exhibition space where both male and female artists are represented because work is strong on both ends of the spectrum,” she says.

As for Parotti’s work itself, viewers will need to go elsewhere — for her, the contribution exists in simply bringing all of these women together as a curator to share their stories.

“In my work I just recognize I’m an artist from the Bahamas who is a woman,” she says. “Sometimes it’s woman first, and then artist and then Bahamas; sometimes it’s artist and then Bahamas and then woman. It just changes with the situation. But right now I’m just a curator who is a woman who recognizes that a conversation needs to begin.”

“The F Factor: Female Artists of The Bahamas” is available to view by appointment on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. at The D’Aguilar Art Foundation. Call 322 2323 to make an appointment.

Sonia Farmer
The Nassau Guardian