NASSAU, BAHAMAS — For hundreds of years, the majestic silk cotton tree has played a vital role within the cultural landscape of communities in The Bahamas and the Caribbean.
Beneath the towering branches and amongst the enormous partitions of roots, the enduring tree served as a vital venue for normal gatherings for the people of freed slave settlements established on New Windfall after the abolition of slavery.
In places like Grant’s Town, Fox Hill, Adelaide, Gambier and Carmichael, the silk cotton tree was the place from which government announcements were made, political discussions and debates held and “silk cotton justice” meted out in informal courts.
In keeping with folklore, the silk cotton tree also had one other, more sacred, purpose as a dwelling for local spirits. Legend has it that residents so revered the “ghost/duppy” tree that they protested attempts to chop it down over the fear of what might occur to the spirits held inside its ancient trunk and branches.
In the newest installment of the “Double Dutch” exhibition series on the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB), Bahamian artist Tamika Galanis and Trinidadian artist Rodell Warner explore the role of the silk cotton tree not only as a witness to the history of an area and its people but as repository of data.
Natalie Willis, the show’s co-curator, said: “There may be this weird lack of awareness not being handed down. You possibly can consider the tree as something that holds these memories, that holds the spirit. It’s one other strategy to interpret the archive.”
For Willis, the work represents an investigation into what archives can seem like within the region.
“As Derek Walcott imagines the ocean as a historical archive within the Caribbean story in ‘The Sea is History’, perhaps we are able to consider archives to not only include pages and pictures and ephemera of times long gone, however it could also exist as something way more intuitive and abstract. In spite of everything, what’s an archive if not a series of witnessings?”
The work of each Galanis and Warner is rooted in the gathering and reimagining of historical records of the Caribbean.
Galanis is a documentarian and multimedia visual artist whose work focuses on archiving, with a selected emphasis on Bahamian cultural identity and preservation. Her work includes traditional documentary and new media abstractions of written, oral and archival histories.
Warner, who is thought for his investigation of Caribbean archives, works primarily in new media and photography.
Willis said: “In The Bahamas and the Caribbean, we get told a version of our history that’s told from a particular standpoint. The retelling (of that history) is as necessary as knowing the history in the primary place.”
For this exhibition, “Double Dutch: ancestral stays to be seen”, Willis decided to supply the artists images from the NAGB’s national collection, specifically colonial photography — the term used to explain the concept during colonialism, photographs portrayed explicit cultural ideas and justified colonization.
Each artists selected to work heavily with the silk cotton tree.
Certainly one of the photographs utilized by Galanis and Warner was captured by well-known American photographer Jacob Frank Coonley, who lived in The Bahamas within the late 1800s. Its subject is an unlimited ancient silk cotton tree, with five men in uniform and a lady in white carrying a tray of products atop her head standing at the bottom of the tree.
The tree captured in Coonley’s photograph once stood in the middle of town, between the downtown courts, and was known around the globe. It’s believed to have been planted within the early 1700s and is alleged to be the mother of all silk cotton trees planted on New Windfall.
It was described repeatedly by visiting naturalists, journalists and tourists as “the best and most curious cotton tree known”. It is alleged to have been the “most illustrated and photographed” silk cotton tree on the planet before it was removed within the mid-1900s.
Warner successfully captures the otherworldliness of the silk cotton tree with the insertion of fractal digital images within the Coonley photograph, which is digitally projected within the gallery’s ballroom on the second floor. These GIF-formatted images are harking back to fairies or spirits, who appear very much at home amongst the big folds of this ancient and seemingly sensible tree.
Warner’s “spirits” also appear in a diptych titled “Augmented Archives (Brothers)”. The piece focuses on two colonial photographs — considered one of a street in Grants Town and the opposite of a sailing sloop loaded with livestock.
The effect of the digital “spirits” floating in such a historic setting is unsettling. It made this viewer wonder in regards to the lives and experiences of the pictures’ subjects belied by the idyllic settings.
Galanis’ work engages the spirit or “sperrit”, because it is thought within the Bahamian vernacular, through a wide range of mediums, including mixed media, installation, digital prints on wood and a movie collaboration with Bahamian diasporic storyteller and scholar Charlotte Henay.
Her installation titled “Community Ancestral Altar” consists of a sideboard covered with family photographs, very like you’ll find in a typical home. What shouldn’t be so typical are the 2 glasses of water and tealights placed on either side of the tabletop, a nod to African spiritual practices, explained Galanis.
Viewers are invited to light their very own tealight in honor of an ancestor and add a photograph to the “altar”.
At first glance, Galanis’ digital prints on wood series, “Two Things Can Be True at Once”, seem like familiar historical photographs depicting Parliament Street — two smiling boys on a dinghy and a Nassau street lined with royal palms.
But upon closer examination, the viewer’s attention is captured by the faintest of images superimposed over the principal photograph, making a ghost-like effect and an eerie reminder that the stories of the “sperrits”, our ancestors, are at all times with us and shape who we’re.
Perhaps the crown jewel in Galanis’ contribution to the exhibition is a six-minute film that follows the ritual of an Obeah woman’s visit to a silk cotton tree in Adelaide Village to petition a spirit.
The stunning cinematography and voice-over of Henay reading her poetry are a strong account of the importance of the silk cotton tree, which Galanis described as a “repository of the dead and portal for spirits”.
The collaboration between Galanis and Warner ultimately tells a compelling story in regards to the people of the Caribbean. The exhibition not only formally documents elements of our shared history, but creates an appreciation for where we come from.
For Willis, this sense of appreciation is powerful.
“Although archiving is commonly seen as a purely critical or academic exercise, the works of Ms Galanis and Mr Warner introduce a more human element to the method.
“There’s something powerful about something not shying away from the concept feeling adds intending to what we do and informs what we do.”
This installment of the “Double Dutch” exhibition series runs from November 2, 2021, through January 23, 2022. For more information, visit nagb.org.bs.