ESSAY BY DR. ERICA M. JAMES, Phd
CURATOR OF THE NATIONAL ART GALLERY OF THE BAHAMAS 2005
"She has traveled far to be here: Haiti, Belgium, The Bahamas. She says that as one travels, many things known fall away. Besides items taken in suitcases, hands, trunks, and in some cases, one's back, the only thing that remains true to the individual on such a journey is their soul.
Chantal Bethel's journey has been shaped in large part by sudden transitions necessitated by crises and forces beyond her control. But like all of us, each place and each experience lived, has left a trace on her soul. It is these traces and their accompanying emotions that spill onto her canvases.
Inspired by the historic Haitian School of Beauty, a movement that was led by artists such as the late Bernard Sejourne and Emilcar Simil whose dreamy evocative paintings celebrated women, Bethel's work has in recent years come into its own. Though the School of Beauty's paintings were characteristically pretty to look at, they were driven by a social imperative in that the artists who followed the school's philosophy sought to create beauty in opposition to the increasing, harrowing realities of everyday life in Haiti. Like the school, the composition, colour, and spirit of Bethel's work seem to, in a word, give the audience a "pretty" picture. However, the content of the work coming from the School was found in their objective beauty, whereas the content of Bethel's pretty things sometimes lie in the disconcerting secrets of their narratives and signs. Like her native Haiti, where nothing is as it appears and where one's ability to dissemble is often directly correlated to one's ability to survive, the life of Bethel's work, its content, exists somewhere between what is imagined and what is known.
In order to center her vision, Bethel has created a semiotic language composed of universally recognized – though not necessarily universally interpreted, signs and symbols. These signs, such as dried trees, the moon, the sun, and visual phrases such as that represented in the mother and child relationship reappear in her work time and time again. However the artist's use of the sign, or the sound of the phrase is rarely duplicated. While the painting Miracle can be read as a positive representation of the Madonna and Child, the relation between a mother and child anchors works as diverse as Separated, Krik Krak and The Survivors, but in each painting the articulation or the accent is different. Though on first glance Krik Krack appears to represent an innocent moment of scary storytelling between a woman/mother and a child, the dry barren landscape beyond them and the warm but feeble moon glow transforms it into something that is fragile and threatened. It is only a matter of time before what is outside infects or consumes what is inside. Though drawing its structure from traditional Madonna and Child compositions in The Survivors, a child's faith that it will always be protected by its mother, is threatened to dissolve in the face of violence.
The play between appearance and content is echoed in two strong works, L'etrangere where we see Bethel's experiences negotiating race, gender and culture while growing up in Brussels erupt and My Native Land, where Haiti's historic past and its potential, is quietly juxtaposed against internal forces that perhaps helplessly but never the less continue to destroy it. While there are personal and political dimensions to these images, one can argue that Bethel constantly courts the danger of aiding and abetting the willful blindness of the Bahamian society that for now remains her primary audience. Though the pretty can be too successful in masking the ugly, potentially aborting the communication with the viewer the artist admittedly seeks, Bethel's ability to reach beyond the surface lies in her ability to dissolve content into image-making as her marks hold on tenuously to both nostalgia and violence."
Timeline: A Two Woman Art Exhibition with Artist Claudette Dean
was held in Freeport and Nassau in 2005