Typical of our region, Chantal E.Y. Bethel’s background is diverse, reflecting the complex history of the Caribbean, our roots by birth, our ties with Europe through the vestiges of colonialism, our stories of relocation due to political upheaval. Born in Haiti, she left at 12 years old for Brussels, Belgium, where she was educated. Later, she relocated to The Bahamas where her father had settled after fleeing the Papa Doc Duvalier’s regime.
While Bethel came to her artistic practice later in life—after a long career in medical management—she has become known as one of The Bahamas’ foremost painters. She studied assiduously under mentors such as Bahamian artist Antonius Roberts, and furthered her education at the Haliburton School of the Arts in Canada in the ’90s.
She describes the overdue connection with her inventive side as a “renaissance,” and this re-birth connects with a deep spirituality in her person that is evident in her craft. Emotion and a re-connection with her heritage is a strong part of Bethel’s practice, creating images that are reminiscent of the landscape of her youth, tales and stories that are passed down.
Bethel’s presence on the Bahamian scene was evident since 2003, but a real mark was made in 2011 with a body of work entitled Poto Mitan, created in a response to the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The artist saw her childhood home razed, the solid realities of her memory being erased, and this was the crucible in which her practice was purified and strengthened. The body of work was powerful, stark and resonated deeply with all visitors, bringing newspaper articles and acclaim both at home and internationally. Works from this particular body are currently owned by both the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas and the Waterloo center for the Arts in Iowa, a museum with a very strong Haitian art collection.
The Poto Mitan show took the artist even deeper into practice and her painting expanded to bring a more material focus to the canvas, which became a support for sculptural interventions as much as for paint; experimentations with new techniques, using Royal Palm leaves, objects applied to the surface and particularly the “crackle” for which she has become known. It may not be accidental this “crackle” is reminiscent of the shattered earth and literally allows the viewer to see beyond the surface.
The National Art Gallery has played host to Bethel’s works on many occasions, with an installation in 2007 and works selected for various iterations of our national exhibition, held every two years.
Bethel has further received international recognition for her work on many occasions. Two of her paintings were selected to feature in a book of African-American art: A Time, A Season - A Visual Tribute to Oprah Winfrey (published Feb 2011) by Janelle Dowell; and most recently she was the selected artist for the 2015 World Day of Prayer, including the issuance of a commemorative postal stamp of her work by British Pobjoy Mint.
Chantal E. Y. Bethel is held in high regard, not only as a representative of The Bahamas, but with strong associations to her childhood birthplace, Haiti, and her home for many years in Brussels, creating a complex and multilayered artist whose work reflects her story.
Text written by Amanda Coulson, Art Critic/Curator
Director of the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas