By Holly Bynoe, Chief Curator, National Art Gallery of The Bahamas
With a play on words, one enters a sacred space, a sanctuary and haven honoring the horrors of history, the betrayal of conquest, the beginning of the New World and the underpinnings of violence that begot the West.
The myth was gold. The myth was youth. The myth was hope...the promise of nectar to heal.
In Bethel’s Holey Space, we honor the matriarch, goddess, Atabey as she hunts, gathers, protects and glistens like gold in the shine of the sun. She is unmovable; the heroine, mother and the center of her parable. Here she is already fiction, already lost, the frame of her body writhing on history pages, withering away slowly from our collective memory and what we are left with are traces.
In Bethel’s imagery, there are semblances of a kind of Eden that we can acknowledge. An Eden that disappeared overnight with the arrival of Columbus and the 14th-century explorers which heralded the extinction of the Tainos; the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean.
The Caribbean and in particular the region of The Bahamas is iconic for its claim to infamy, being the place of explorer’s arrival and since then, a sublime paradise. Within the narrative of the tropics, we became a haven for colonialists to enjoy the balmy air; the quiet calmness, the lush vegetation, and stillness of the islands. In creating this paradise we ignored a genocide and looked only within the pages of our poorly written history books to gather an understanding of what and who we are. Then an abyss emerged.
In fact, what we are is a complex network of people that have come to silently mourn and or willingly ignore the loss of our past and the lack of understanding of ourselves, our heritage and the land that we now occupy. Most importantly the skewered and patriarchal narrativized and conditioned understanding of our past myopically takes into vision very limited renditions of the power dynamics played out around Slavery with discourses only take into consideration the European and African polemic.
This displacement from our origin is gestured towards in visceral ways in the intuitive markings of Bethel, profound petroglyphs made on the surfaces of her paintings and the stones that she culls from beach sides and cliffs. Bethel acts as a scavenger and a manipulator of surfaces. At once, her assemblages and paintings glisten like water recalling the palpable sense of loss for things we never knew, simultaneously helping us to recall what could have been or what was. This fluidity ends when the crackling begins, and you begin to witness and hear broken bones, severed necks and if you listen closely the waters lapping on shores where atrocities have occurred.
However, the collection of visual stories within these Holey Space, aren’t only filled with horror, violence, and death, there are also beauty laden and deeply spiritual moments of reconciliation, peace, and stillness. The totems, made from porous limestone, hang with power and grace bringing our folklore, oral traditions and the power of stories to the forefront.
Resuscitating the language of the Taino, Bethel’s archaeological dig happens in service of self and others. An act of remembrance and recalling something so distant from our lived in reality pays testament to how things are inherited and how we find peace through the pain and love through the ritual of thought.
We are honoured to showcase the important body of work that is represented in Chantal Bethel’s Holey Space.