NASSAU, BAHAMAS — From the dimensions of the delegation, choice of cultural offerings, to the associated fee to taxpayers, the country’s participation in Expo 2020 lit a powder keg over the weekend.
After nearly two years of total shutdown of the humanities and entertainment industry, with scant support for artists, the prospect of Dubai cuts deeper than being denied an all-expense-paid trip. With so many within the country experiencing economic and social hardship, most cannot afford to see the forest for the trees.
Amid calls for a full breakdown of costs, there are also deeper questions we must reckon with: what’s the value of our culture and the way can we validate it?
The country’s participation began as a collaboration between the Bahamas Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the University of the Bahamas. In February 2017, UB students gave the then-Christie-led Cabinet a first-hand take a look at concept designs.
Reports of the country’s resounding impact on the second International Participants Meeting in Dubai flowed months later in October.
“The sheer size and complexity of the (Pavilion) design took my breath away,” said Hind Al Boom, associate manager, Expo 2020 on the time.
“Not only was the strategic design of the Pavilion built across the objectives of The Bahamas Government, the scholars took elements that were of their Government’s agenda, like sustainability and ran with it.
“The Bahamas Pavilion encapsulates a story that you could imagine walking through, it’s cohesive and made sense – it’s playful and the scholars understood the concept… they got it!”
But as Tony Joudi, non-resident Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the State of Qatar for The Bahamas, intimated in a press release ahead of the expo’s opening in October, in the next six years the country faced immeasurable crisis and three successive administrations with different strategies on steering the country forward.
“Throughout the past six years, The Bahamas has been hit with two catastrophic events, a serious hurricane which devastated two of our major islands that produce 33% of our GDP and the Government remains to be working to bring them back to their former glory,” Joudi’s September statement read.
“Secondly, the COVID pandemic set back our nation‘s primary economy and exposed vulnerabilities in our health care system. Now we have also witnessed the elections of three successive governments with different strategies as to methods to promote, protect, and save the country for future generations from the impact of climate change that has affected and devastated several countries worldwide.”
More directly, Former Director of Cultural Affairs Dr Nicolette Bethel described the country’s pavilion as “an unholy mashup of what happens when politicians become involved”.
In a series of tweets, Bethel wrote: “…5 years ago UB students were starting with off the chain designs of the pavilion…4 years ago the professors and designers on the front line were struggling to get government to see the worth of the chance…3 years ago sensible people were proposing contingents that might represent the Bahamas in unexpected and excellent ways but that might again COST TOO MUCH.”
She continued: “2 years ago COVID got here and sense left & nothing happened and so… what we see is what we get. We is a individuals who will spend enough money to feed a small child on clothes, cars, hair and makeup but who will and have put NOTHING into things that make us proud to be us.“
As much as $1 million was approved by Cabinet to support the country’s participation in Expo 2020, in line with Communications Director within the Office of the Prime Minister Latrae Rahming, who noted the previous Minnis administration had approved a $1.7 million sum.
The UAE reportedly funded $3.5 million, inclusive of the prime minister’s delegation, and the Bahamian private sector contributed half 1,000,000 dollars.
Joudi continued: “The Bahamas Pavillion exists to advertise and concentrate on the resilience of an island nation that consists of an archipelago that spans over 1000 sq. miles, positioned 90 miles off the coast of South Florida. The Bahamas Pavillion consists of a 7500 sq. ft. two-storey, rectangular shape constructing with a gorgeous façade, featuring images of the local folklore dancers called Junkanoo.
“Our first floor exhibits promote business investments in green, blue and orange economies specializing in tourism, financial services, real estate, and our natural resources…In the bottom floor space, we feature locally made items to be sold as souvenirs, and we tell the story of a resilient country of 700 islands, its warm and hospitable people and great cuisine. It promotes the distinct characteristics of every island through their music, the people, the stories curated by our team of pros from the Antiquities Monuments & Museum Corporation.”
The handling of the 2020 expo has eroded the greater than five years of creative and cultural efforts to encapsulate Bahamian culture and project it onto the world stage. The visceral response of the humanities community to the expo reflects the frustrations of a battered and exploited cultural workforce that far often sees too little of an excessive amount of. Heavy investments in culture are often draped in controversy on account of the inconsistent and to some extent, schizophrenic approach to our support in national arts programming. The general public’s response to the expo reflects poor public communications strategy to coach Bahamians on the country’s participation and construct public support for an initiative greater than half a decade within the making.
At a One Bahamas service in 2010, then-Governor General Sir Arthur Foulkes remarked: “…today we’re one individuals with a definite identity among the many nations of the world. We’re Bahamians. Now we have come through many trials and tribulations but now we joyously have a good time the blessing of having the ability to live as one people, in peace and unity, and to call probably the most beautiful spots on the planet our home.”
He continued: “We’re Bahamians, and we have now woven a single, wealthy cultural tapestry of threads from Africa, Europe and Asia, threads spun and coloured within the Americas and the islands of the Caribbean. We are actually one people, One Bahamas, happy with our music, happy with our songs and dances, happy with our folklore, happy with our artworks.”
We’re undoubtedly a proud people. The time has come to dig deeper than a way of national pride in our achievements and switch our focus as a substitute to the ecosystems that propel our culture forward and the sort of investment required to realize loftier goals.