The Bermuda National Gallery is open every Thursday and Friday from 10am to 4pm and on Saturdays from 10am to 2pm. If you haven’t already seen the 2020 Bermuda Biennial in person, we urge you to do so.
The Biennial, now in its 14th iteration, is a critical platform for Bermuda’s contemporary art community. Organised by the Bermuda National Gallery and sponsored by Bacardi Limited, the exhibition showcases the dynamism of local and international artists living on the island and serves as both an educational resource and a platform for programmes on art, culture and dialogue.
As a member of the International Biennial Association, this important exhibition continues to represent the excellence of local contemporary art and brings Bermudian artists the opportunity to engage in an internationally juried process overseen by established international curators, both independent and from prominent art institutions.
The 2020 Bermuda Biennial is co-curated by Melissa Messina, an Independent Curator and Curator of the Mildred Thompson Estate and formerly the Interim Executive Director and Senior Curator of The Savannah College of Art and Design Museum of Art, Savannah, GA; and Kimberli Gant, the McKinnon Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art at the Chrysler Museum, previously the Mellon Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Arts of Global Africa at the Newark Museum, in Newark, NJ.
Qian Dickinson, co-founder of Bermemes, sat down with the curators when they were on island to discuss their vision for the show and why the exhibition plays such a pivotal role for Bermuda’s artists.
Click here to watch the film on Stories, the BNG blog.
Emma Steele uses textiles to challenge preconceived notions of craft based practices, drawing from a place of strength to express a feminist directive. Her 2020 Bermuda Biennial artwork, which explores sex from a woman’s point of view, roots the traditional medium firmly in a contemporary context.
“Experiences leave impressions. The impressions are the aftermath.” explains Emma of Aftermath, which marks the second time that the artist has exhibited in the Bermuda Biennial. Her 2018 artwork Just One Word: Consent fused knit textiles with prose, drawing from personal experience to explore the trauma of sexual assault.
We caught up with Emma, a former BNG student currently studying for an MFA in Textiles at the Royal College of Art in London, to discuss why textiles are both misunderstood and underestimated, how they have given her a platform from which she is able to make her voice heard and why the fourth wave of feminism has brought us to the cusp of change.
BNG: Could you please talk us through Aftermath?
ES:Aftermath looks at the experience of sex. We are born pure and innocent but over time, experiences leave imprints on the body. The body adapts and manipulates its form.
Each person you have been with leaves an imprint. You adapt and change to that person. Over time experiences leave impressions. The impressions are the aftermath.
The knit represents the body. Each piece has a different print, created using my body, which is cut out of the polyester knit, leaving an abstract form within it.
Broken. Reformed. Marks disappear but the experiences stays with-one forever. Forgotten. Lost. Undefined.
I like the similarity between the representation of knit and the representation of a woman. There is a raw openness in the way that the knit falls when it is cut. It creates its own new form.
Experience. Expectation. Colliding into one defined piece. The aftermath remains.
BNG: How do you tell a story through textiles?
ES: Photography captures one part of the story. It is then placed within the structured form of a textile through dye sublimation – a print technique that allows me to print photography onto my knit structures – which further opens up the story.
The knit, with its tactile nature, represents a woman; her naked form. The photography adds layers of imagery to the piece. These are printed on both sides of the knit so that the viewer is able to walk around and examine it from both sides, a metaphor for the woman being displayed in her most vulnerable state.
To touch something. To desire. To want. To crave.
BNG: Aftermath explores sex from a woman’s point of view. Why was it important to you to tell this story?
ES: Sex has been stripped down and twisted back and manipulated into a social form, creating conflict within the topic. We are constructed and deconstructed.
Sex. Reclaiming. Judgement. Imprint. To be wanted. To be desired. To be loved. To be touched.
How do we cope with the reality of sex?
The experience of sex. Defining and remembering the experience. Reclaiming sexuality. Defining sexuality.
I wanted to re-introduce the narrative. To reclaim it for women so that we don’t live in fear of judgement. For me, this meant reclaiming something that I had lost.
I was sexually assaulted when I was eighteen. After my trauma I did not know how I felt. I had no emotions. I did not want to be touched. I did not know if I could be loved again. I did not know if I could feel beautiful and comfortable in my own body.
To be seen naked is to allow someone to see you fully vulnerable. You are at your most vulnerable state when you are naked. You are allowing someone to become a part of you.
I wanted to open the topic up, look at the emotional aspect of sex and the experiences of it.
The simple motion of a touch. To see. To react. To notice.
BNG: Both your 2018 and 2020 Bermuda Biennial artworks use knitting – a traditionally feminine and passive pastime – to tell stories of female empowerment. How do the medium and the message interplay in your work?
ES: I did a BA in Textiles at the London College of Fashion before going on to the RCA, where we were taught the history of design and fashion. I became fascinated by the historical portrayal of women though the lens of fashion, particularly the portrayal of feminism through photography.
Throughout history, different stages of feminism have continued to evolve. This is the same for textiles, especially knit. In the second year of my BA, I began to interlink storytelling with the use of knitting. Textiles became a platform for my voice to be heard.
I use knit as a portrayal of femininity. Textiles are misunderstood and underestimated. Historically, women have been portrayed in a certain way, as has knitting, and I am trying to bring the two together to explore them both and to showcase it as more than just a craft or a simple pastime.
BNG: Your work is an expression of female strength in the face of male aggression. In what ways has this impacted your artistic practice?
ES: I was assaulted when I was eighteen, at the beginning of my artistic career. Over the past four years I have explored the topic by creating two individual pieces of work: Just One Word: Consent, which was exhibited in the 2018 Bermuda Biennial and a dissertation entitled Am I asking for sympathy? Do I need to be looked at differently? Will you listen to my story?
These two separate pieces of work allowed me to explore and understand two separate sexual assault cases that occurred to me. It was a way for me to allow myself to heal through an artistic platform and identify my feelings around the subject.
Being assaulted has impacted my life but it has also allowed me to re-think and re-design as an artist. There is a long healing process to being raped and there is not always help available when needed. These projects allowed me to open up the conversation and explore a new form of creating.
I use my traumas and how I am feeling as concepts for a project. It helps me to explore things and it is a way of self-healing though my creative practice. I allow my feelings and the events that have occurred to me to define and lead me within my practice.
BNG: The conversation surrounding sexual assault has been amplified in recent years with the growth of #MeToo. How has the movement affected people’s perspectives on consent and sexual intimidation?
ES: The Me Too movement was first started in 2006 but did not gather strength until 2017. I am sure we all remember this hashtag appearing on our screens with friends posting #MeToo. I posted my #MeToo post in 2017. I was hesitant at first. I wondered how I would feel typing those five letters on my keyboard. When I posted it, it verified that I had begun to accept what occurred to me. I had announced to the world that this had happened.
The Me Too movement has opened a new form of feminism. We are now in a new era and the internet rules the fourth wave of feminism. It has allowed women to take their voice back and it has given them a platform from which they can use their voices. We are at the starting point of change.
BNG: In the past year alone we have seen the conviction of both Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein for serial sexual assault. In what ways have these high profile cases helped to shift the conversation?
ES: These cases have opened people’s eyes up to the sheer volume of victims out there that have been silenced for years and are only now feeling comfortable enough to speak up. The Me Too movement has helped bring the fourth wave of feminism to life. Feminist power is growing and it is allowing the victim’s voice to be brought back to her.
Let’s begin to open up the conversation about rape. Let’s let the survivor know they are not alone: “I know it’s hard, but if we don’t figure out how to have tough conversations, we will sacrifice another generation of victims” (Anderson, 2019, Time, 15 January).
This is to help further educate people into a better understanding of what consent is and how important it is to give it. It is about helping the victim to become more empowered in herself and to allow her to begin to heal.
Education is the key to success. Educate people about what they are unaware of. The conversation needs to keep moving forward.
BNG: Do you have any advice for women who have suffered a trauma similar to your own?
ES: I am sorry to anyone who has suffered from a similar trauma. I would like to say that what occurred to you is awful. Remember that you are a strong person and that you will overcome this trauma. It will not define your life forever. It may feel that way at the moment but I am a survivor and you are a survivor too.
My advice to anyone who has had to deal with a similar trauma is to understand that it was not your fault. You are not to blame. No matter what you were wearing or what you were doing, it was not your fault. That is something that I have struggled to come to terms with over the years.
I am three years surviving my trauma and every day is a new beginning. Some days I feel pain and anger and other days I smile and giggle like nothing has ever occurred to me. Let the pain come in and then remember that you won and that you are a survivor. Use that anger and pain to let you feel like a woman again – the powerful woman that you are.
To deal with such a traumatic event will change you. There is no way around that. It is how you deal with that event that will shape your future. Remember that you are a survivor and that you will overcome any aftermath that occurs to you.
Catherine White describes her 2020 Bermuda Biennial artwork as a prologue to her life. The piece was inspired by a roll of undeveloped film that she found shortly after the death of her father. In developing the film, Catherine discovered a series of portraits of family and friends that her father had taken before she was born. The resulting insight into a day she never knew, yet longed for, led her to explore the notion ofremembrance.
In Figment, portraits of Catherine’s father and mother, both discovered on that fateful roll of film, are printed onto a sheet of aluminium substrate. Hung at eye level, the result is an intimate experience that allows the viewer to join them in the frame. Whilst the reflection places the viewer in a time long gone, the coated surface of the material distorts the mirror image, mimicking the haze of memory.
Created as a way of re-connecting with her father, Figment is a quiet, emotive work, that simultaneously breaks down and puts up a barrier between the past and present. We caught up with Catherine, who lives in London where she works as an interior architect, to talk about the 2020 Bermuda Biennial and how her fine art practice strives to evoke the ephemeral nature of memory.
BNG: Figment was inspired by a roll of undeveloped film your late father had taken before you were born. What was it like to discover these photographs?
CW: It was really exciting and also a bit overwhelming. I had three rolls of film that I found and after sending them off to a specialised photo processing firm only two were viable, and then they could only develop them in black and white, not colour. I had no idea what would be on the film, so to find an entire roll of beautiful portraits of friends and family on a dreamy day out was a real gift. Seeing the world through my late father’s eyes was like being given an extra day with him.
BNG: When and how did you start thinking about turning the photographs into an artwork?
CW: Immediately I knew I wanted to do something with them. I felt that they embodied a moment as a group, so how to best translate that to other people was an exciting challenge. It was probably a year or so before I started seriously exploring what to do with them. I tend to let concepts sit a bit instead of forcing them. I have another piece I am developing from that series but in a much more intimate format.
BNG: Could you please talk us through the process of creating Figment?
CW: Two of the photographs which resonated most with me were of my parents looking directly into the lens of the camera. Possibly the one of my father was taken by my mother? I felt as if there was a moment passing between them. I was looking for a way of capturing that moment and showing it in a way that would allow me to think on what they were thinking about. With families and children on the boat, perhaps their minds had turned to a family of their own.
I started by overlaying transparencies of the portraits to represent a combined thought. The strongest representation was simple; a family portrait without me in it, but that was complete when I stood in front of it. A figment of their imagination. A prologue to my story.
BNG: You have in the past described your landscape works as “looking back from afar”. The same could be said for Figment. How does our memory of people and places alter them and how do you attempt to capture this in your work?
CW: I often focus on details or moments. Pairing the concept down to its bare bones can help the essence of the memory increase in strength or resonance. Removing the noise and focusing on the moment or detail allows me to bring you to that memory. Being often away from Bermuda and my late father creates a perspective that allows for reflection.
BNG: This is your first Bermuda Biennial. What does it mean to you to be included in the exhibition?
CW: It is an honour. I’ve grown up seeing the Biennial and admiring participating artists. This year is no different, although I am so sad I have not been able to visit in the flesh!
BNG: What are you working on at the moment?
CW: I have a few pieces I am developing, again looking back. My mother’s house is “home” and there is a certain sense of emotional safety when I look out of her windows and see her garden. I’m looking at ways of exploring that concept, capturing that emotion.
The bright colours and bold stance of Whining Queen greet you with confidence as you enter the 2020 Bermuda Biennial. Taking up an entire wall of the Humann Gallery, Niamah Frith’s fabric and chalk pastel portrait, which the artist describes as “an examination and celebration of the black feminine body, a site of resistance, power and resilience” sets the tone for the exhibition which provides a crucial platform for Bermuda’s contemporary artists.
The artwork, which the recent graduate created as a final piece for her BA in Fine Art, marks her first time exhibiting in the Biennial and pays homage to both the crafts passed down by the women in her family and the sense of freedom she found in working with textiles. “This work takes apart and puts back together the politics of my culture, femininity and the things that have been handed down to me as truths” she explains.
We sat down with Naimah, who is currently teaching the Bermuda National Gallery Art + Tech Summer Camp programme alongside education officer Louisa Bermingham, to discuss the Biennial, breaking free of the constraints imposed by a traditional art education and why she has wanted to teach art since she was six years old.
BNG:Could you please tell us about the background to Whining Queen?
NF: I made the artwork last year in my studio class during my last semester at the Nova Scotia College of Fine Art (NSCAD). Before taking the studio class, I had been in other drawing classes where the focus was on traditional mediums such as charcoal, oil painting and acryclic. I had a really hard time connecting with the class. It simply wasn’t doing it for me. So I asked one of my teachers if I could do something else and call it drawing. That started out with wire and led to a sculpture piece using wool, which was where fabric came in for the first time.
BNG: What drew you to use more tactile mediums?
NF: I like working with my hands. I always have done. I guess that drawing is also a way of working with your hands but I enjoy seeing something come off of a page, to have the chance to mould it and shape it. To feel. The approach in the drawing class was incredibly precise and it felt too prescriptive. It gave me a good foundation to build on and go outside of but I found it very frustrating. My classmates were very good at taking such a figurative approach, which I admired, but I wasn’t interested in capturing things in the same way.
Being from Bermuda, I also had a different language in colour. I’ve always been drawn to bright and bold colours and I was a bit embarrassed about my colour sense at first. I felt like I wasn’t doing it correctly as the other works were very muted. I come from a very bright place where everything is colour! I had to figure that out how to translate that which took some time.
I continued to make things with other materials in drawing class and then I went on to studio classes which was where I first started experimenting with fabric. That was fun. I liked the challenge of it. I loved being able to take two very different textiles and transform them into something that made sense together. I enjoyed using materials that wouldn’t usually be appreciated and incorporating them into my artwork. I really enjoy (fellow Bermuda Biennial artist) Gherdai Hassell’s work for that same reason. Her artworks are so vibrant and I admire how she incorporates a lot of different ways of making art into a single piece.
BNG: Have you always sewn?
NF: Before I started sewing the fabric in the way I do now, I used to create sewn portraits. I would draw the face on a canvas which I would then sew, incorporating scraps of material to create the portrait. It was a very time intensive process and not conducive to art school as you move so quickly through projects!
I don’t think I’ll go back solely to that way of working but I do think that there is a place for it in my practice. Back then, the sewing was the main focus of the work; whereas now the fabric takes centre stage and the sewing compliments it. Both ways of working use the same materials and mediums but I’ve switched their importance.
BNG: Do you think of Whining Queen as being part of a larger body of work?
NF: It’s the beginning of a series, in the same way that each of the other pieces are part of a series that led me here. They are all women; usually mother figures, working women. This figure would be a younger, freer woman. I’m very drawn to and inspired by motherly women in my life and I tend to make art about them. My family also has a history of craft making, specifically women’s craft, which has been passed down to me. I’m currently working on more pieces as a response to Whining Queen. I never saw her as just one thing. Just one piece. She has a lot more women to accompany her on her journey.
Being back in Bermuda, I don’t currently have access to the same selection of fabrics that I did in Canada, which is difficult. It has made me change the way I work. I used to plan my piece by sketching it out, planning the colour scheme and earmarking specific fabrics which I would then source. Now, I have to start with the fabrics that are available and make it work from there. I have turned to collecting personal, used, fabrics since I can’t select exactly what I want at the moment. This adds another layer to the work. Each piece of fabric has its own life. Its own story.
BNG: What was it like to be able to work on a bigger scale at college? Was it quite freeing?
NF: I was actually really scared. It was very nerve wracking. I felt like I should have been comfortable but I wasn’t. Up until that point someone else had always had full control of everything that I had been doing – the size, the subject, the material. When you are at school you are limited by the materials and the space available to you. You only have your desk to work with. Then you get to art college where have your own studio space. You can make all the mess you want. You can go as big as you want. Suddenly everything was up to me.
Even now, teaching the BNG Summer Camp programme, we’re telling the kids what materials to use and that constrains how big it can be. Which is needed. We need rules in life. But when that is gone the freedom can be quite overwhelming. That was definitely a challenge for me when I got to art school. But it was a good struggle to go through. I was able to figure it out and it made my work stronger. I had to find my own voice.
BNG: You have been working as a para-educator at Dellwood Middle School this past year. What’s next?
NF: I would like to be an art teacher. I’m going back to school in September to do my MA at Kean University in New Jersey. It’s a dual programme with a focus on both teaching and fine art. I get my teaching certificate and then go on to the masters where I get to deepen my artistic practice.
I have wanted to be an art teacher ever since I was 6 years old. I had a brilliant art teacher in primary school, Miss Friday at West Pembroke, who taught me in P2. Her classes were so fun! I have wanted to be an art teacher ever since. I remember being very struck by her and wanting to teach art, not just make art. The classes were so fun to go to and we would explore different materials. I enjoyed the freedom of the art class. There was no right or wrong answer. The answer was whatever you wanted it to be.
BNG: You’ve just finished teaching the first week of the BNG Art + Tech Summer Camp. What has that been like?
NF: Teaching the summer camp has been a learning experience for me. The students have an amazing sense of freedom that we often lose as we get older. They are very open to trying different things. They are not confined by the rules, which is very different to the way that I was taught in art college.
The students are teaching me to be a little more forgiving in my own art making process and I’m also teaching them the same thing. They can be hesitant about whether or not what they are making is good art. I don’t want them to have that mindset as it can really hold you back. They need to understand that there is no such thing as good art. That was a huge challenge that I had to face when I got to art college. I worried that I couldn’t draw like my classmates. That I couldn’t paint like them. Eventually, I came to the realisation that my classmates couldn’t make a piece the way I did either.
It’s been exciting to see the summer camp students grow in such a short span of time. At first, getting them to draw on a larger scale was a challenge. They were used to working in a small space whereas now they have the whole gallery to themselves. They have been looking at the works in the Biennial, many of which are large in size. We have been encouraging them to make a mess of things and bring it back together into something new – it may be beautiful, ugly, whatever it is. But it is their own.
Click here to learn more about the Bermuda National Gallery Art + Tech summer camp programme.
An instinctive eye for colour and composition combine with a meticulous attention to detail in the work of Bermudian artist Christina Hutchings.
A distinct discipline informs her fine art practice, gained from many years spent working as an architect in New York for cutting edge designers Peter Marino and Henry Smith-Miller.
Christina, who now focuses solely on her artwork, takes a studied approach to conceptualising and developing an idea through drawing whilst allowing herself to be led by an intuitive sense of discovery and experimentation.
It is a dichotomy apparent in her work, which ranges from collage, painting and sculpture to installation, all many layered and marked by sleek materials and striking colour combinations.
We spoke to Christina about her 2020 Bermuda Biennial artwork, the intersection of fine art and architecture and how, for her, one has always informed the other.
BNG: You studied both fine art and architecture and went on to work as an architect in New York for many years, all the while maintaining a fine art practice. Why was it important for you to dedicate yourself to both disciplines concurrently?
CH: It was important to me to dedicate myself to both architecture and art because of my interest in the ways these two creative disciplines influence each other. When I was younger and making career choices, I was not confident that my artwork would provide a way to support myself. This was a disappointing realization. As a practical person with the goal of supporting myself, and because I had a natural interest in architecture due to having a relative in the field, I chose to study architecture at graduate school. In my mind, this would build upon and enrich my undergraduate fine arts education and equip me with a way to earn a living.
In addition to the practical aspect of this decision, there was a more important factor. I knew architecture and art are intertwined creative disciplines, and it was important to me that I work at excellent, highly creative architecture and design firms to gain comprehensive and creative work experience in the architectural realm. Throughout, it was the artistic side of myself that I brought to the projects I worked on, and which allowed me to expand my skills and understanding while gaining the discipline that informs my work habits to this day.
BNG: Did your architectural projects inform your artistic practice and vice versa? In what ways?
CH: Yes. My artistic practice and architectural projects most certainly did influence each other, and have continued to do so in many ways. My working experience at firms of architects whose work I admired greatly, such as Henry Smith-Miller and Peter Marino Architects, gave me the formative experience of being part of a talented team. Our job was to take a concept and through drawing and building models, we would allow the concept to become a built space. We would draw and draw, making gorgeous sets of drawings: plans, elevations, sections, grids, details, selections of colours and materials to the extent that the idea of the project could become a built space. This process of drawing to develop and discover the idea is key to my art practice.
Further, while in Peter Marino’s office, when their art department was busy, I was delighted to be asked, on occasion, to paint gouache renderings of projects showing the finish materials, furniture with designated fabric, and renditions of the artwork the clients had purchased for the space.
However, as much as I enjoyed the creative, artistic side of working in architectural design, the advent of computer aided design and drawing in AutoCAD, and a declining reliance on hand drawing, began to make the architectural work less enjoyable. There was no longer a connection for me with the hand, intuition, and the sense of discovery through drawing. It was during this time of increasing change that I began to consider that I could take a chance to be an artist.
I want to share two examples that I think convey how I connected art and architecture from my earliest days in architecture.
The first, a landscape design drawing assignment completed in 1980, is an example of art influencing architecture. A Braque paper collage is the compositional inspiration for this landscape design project drawing.
The second example is a 2012 collage, titled Henry’s Office, which is inspired by memories of my work experience in Henry Smith-Miller’s office. The shapes making up the collage are references to a pivoting red wall in his office, a pale yellow colour often used in his projects, a nod to the modernist aesthetic which Henry’s office practiced and a piece of yellow trace similar to what we always used for sketching in in the office.
BNG:You returned to Bermuda in 2008 to concentrate on your fine art practice. Does your background in architecture continue to be a big influence for you?
CH: My decision to commit fully to my fine arts practice took a long time to arrive at. The decision evolved and ultimately won out over the practicalities of making a living as an architectural designer. My decision to return to Bermuda to live coincided, happily, with that decision. My background in architecture has been, and will always be, a major influence in my work.
I have come to believe that one of the most significant influences of my architectural background is the realization that the concept and its development through drawing are the two most important commonalities between art and architecture. The concept determines the form, and drawings are the visual diagrams of the concept. For my art practice, the concept could be something like the title of the work, and drawing is how I develop the concept.
Another important way that my background in architecture has influenced my artwork is that I have recently started making large installations and collages. These installations require plans, elevations, detail and sectional drawings in order to figure out how they will be assembled. The starting point always begins with drawing grid lines, thinking about centre lines and systems of proportion. In all of my art projects, considerations of space, colour, materials, composition, and references to art and architectural history are part of my process.
Collages, and sometimes paintings, feature details made with hardware materials which are considered for their aesthetic value as much as their functional value.
BNG: Your work ranges from collage, painting and sculpture to installation. A single piece will often incorporate several of these elements. How do you decide which materials to work with and why when working on a specific project?
CH: I use different materials – either for structural reasons, if a project is large, or for metaphorical purposes – to help tell the story, or idea, behind the piece. For example:
In the Biennial 2016, with the theme being It’s About Now: Memories of The Present, I made a large piece called Double Take.
In this piece, I use the 12-ft fluorescent light, which is centred and situated vertically between the two almost identical anchors, to represent the instant that an object we look at (one anchor) becomes a memory of that anchor, (the second anchor).
BNG: Your pieces are very thoughtful and meticulously planned. How to you approach and then develop a concept? Taking your 2020 Bermuda Biennial artwork as an example.
CH: The theme for the 2020 Biennial is Let Me Tell You Something. After considering the theme, I titled my piece FAST TALK. The concept for this is the speed of our words when we tell each other something using our digital devices. Our words travel at lightning fast speeds in the vast networks of digital submarine communication cables below, and by satellites above, as they carry our telephone and internet traffic to and from Bermuda, and between continents, as we communicate with the rest of the world.
In formal terms, FAST TALK is a drawing and collage combination made with ink lines, layers of Plexiglas, metal rods, an aluminium angle and wood. I use ink and metal lines and a selection of transparent overlapping materials to help tell the story. These rods and ink lines represent the undersea cables and the data traffic within. The disc and white rod connected to it represent the satellites above transmitting our conversations.
BNG: You have exhibited extensively at the Bermuda National Gallery. How has your relationship with the BNG informed your artistic practice?
CH: The BNG in all aspects of its role as an art institution has been an important influence in my life, for which I am very grateful. The programming, the exhibitions and the art collection have had a life changing effect on me. I am honoured to have been a part of the gallery’s public programming and exhibitions, both as an audience member and as a participant.
The winners of The Bermudian‘s 30th annual Best of Bermuda Awards, which were voted for by the public, have been announced. Congratulations to 2020 Bermuda Biennial artists Jayde Gibbons who won Best Photographer and NOBODY for Best Visual Artist.
See works from both of the artists in Let Me Tell You Something, the2020 Bermuda Biennial which is on display at the BNG until the end of this year. Jayde’s striking black and white photography montage All The Kings Men provides an intimate look at brotherhood in Bermuda while NOBODY’s I-ANK-Forget is bold digital collage that calls for public art as a means of protest.
The Bermuda Biennial, organised by the Bermuda National Gallery and sponsored by Bacardi Limited, is a critical platform for Bermuda’s contemporary art community. The exhibition, which is now in its 14th iteration, continues to represent the excellence of local contemporary art and brings Bermudian artists the opportunity to engage in an internationally juried process.
Browse the 2020 Biennial exhibition catalogue HERE.
Michael Walsh is a contemporary artist whose engaging mixed media artworks, which often incorporate an element of performance, ask the visitor to respond and participate.
The artist, who lectures at the Bermuda College, has exhibited in the Bermuda Biennial a total of eight times – six alone and twice as a member of the Centipede Art Movement, a grassroots collaborative dedicated to creating contemporary artwork in Bermuda, which he describes as “a counteraction to self-imposed Bermudian censorship”.
We sat down with Michael to discuss the different ways in which we perceive the world, why not knowing the answer is the root of innovation and how he uses art as an attempt to be truly present.
BNG: You gave a lecture at the Bermuda National Gallery late last year in which you told a story about how your father had taken you to a cherry tree when you were a child and asked you to look at it in different ways. This has stuck with me as it was a very simple and very effective analogy for looking at the world through the eyes of an artist. Could you please re-tell the story?
MW: When I was very young, around 4 or 5, my father and I went for a walk. He stopped me by a cherry tree that used to grow in front of our house and told me to close my eyes. He asked, “What do you hear?” I told him. Then he asked, “What do you smell?” I answered. He asked, “What do you taste?” That one got me thinking, since we don’t often pay attention to taste when we’re not eating. Then he asked “What do you feel?” After I answered all his questions, before I opened my eyes, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Remember there is more than one way to perceive the world.”
BNG: How did this experience shape your curiosity and creativity, both as a child and as an artist?
MW: I credit this lesson as the foundation of my freedom. There’s a Buddhist quote about how our ideas of the external are as valuable as the world views of a chick still inside its egg. We are limited by what we believe is true, or; something is only true if you believe it.
“I don’t know” are the smartest three and a half words in the English language. Not knowing is the source of all learning, exploration, innovation, growth, and adventure! Knowing “I don’t know” gives me the courage and capacity to think outside my own box.
BNG: You have said that “the no-thing (the not described) has become the necessary focus of my work”. Could you please explain what you mean by this? In what ways does it drive your work?
MW: Reality exists outside your perception of it. Your brain has never seen, smelled, heard, touched or tasted anything. Your body lives in the world, but your mind imagines a reality misinterpreted from the electrochemical signals your body sends. Your reality is just an idea you believe.
The human condition is one of terrifying isolation. You are the center of your entire universe. You see everything. Nothing exists outside your awareness of it, but you are not the universe. The universe is everything else that isn’t you. The universe is everything except your consciousness. Even your body feels distant, different, like a thing outside the “you that is aware”. You are an isolated, disembodied, omniscient observer. You are an insignificant god.
So you reach out to connect with the world. You try to prove to yourself that the world exists and that you exist in it. Presence, being present, is the one true human need. It is the one true goal of all our endeavors. It is the one thing our consciousness really craves.
So you try to find what you have in common with the world, unfortunately you only understand in terms of contrast. Up is up because it is not down. Hot is hot because it is not cold. Black is only black because it is not white. Good would not exist without evil. You are you because you are not the universe.
So this is the problem; consciousness wants to feel real, it wants to believe it exists, but the only reality it has access to, is the reality it imagines, and because we can only comprehend in terms of contrast, any attempt to understand reality just proves it is different from us. Our understanding, our description of reality, separates us from it.
So to be present I have to find ‘The Truth’ outside of ‘My Truth’. The Nothing, the “no-thing-I-can-name”, is the visceral, deep, real, eternal soup we all come from. I am driven by the same thing that drives us all, to be present. I want to believe the one truth that every story is trying to tell us; “You are here.”
BNG: Your artwork often incorporates an element of performance. Even static works often ask the viewer to actively participate in more subtle ways. For example, those who look closely at your 2020 Bermuda Biennial work on paper will realize that it is not only two sided but that it also contains a hidden message on the reverse. Why is this active – rather than passive – viewing important to you?
MW: Do you know how to tell you are dreaming? You can’t read in a dream. The next time you think you’re dreaming try to read something; a sign, a book, something with more than one word on it. The words will move, slip, slide and change chaotically. I’m guessing this is because thought is always moving. It’s probably the same reason we ruminate on things, why we need to repeat thoughts and arguments over and over. If we only had a thought once it would be easy to see it’s just a thought and not a reality. We replay thoughts to make them feel real.
It is not possible to be present in a thought, because they are fluid and unreal by their very nature. The closest a thought can come to being reality is being a description of reality. Art is necessary because it is impossible to be present in an idea. Art is an attempt to make conciseness, experience, and perspective so real we can feel present in it.
Performance art is the attempt to be real. The goal in performance art is to be completely present in the task. To be a participant in reality instead of an observer or dreamer. Marina Abramović’s work, particularly The Artist is Present, is a clear and accessible example of this premise.
Martial Arts are a direct way to be present in your own body and experience. They give you the opportunity to feel where you end and where the rest of realty begins. Muay Thai has allowed me real access to a lot of what I now realize was just art theory. I would argue that everything we call Art is a relic, or an echo, of someone being truly present.
Communion is the only antithesis to the isolation of the conscious human experience. Art is a collaboration between artist(s), subject, material and visitor. I prefer to use the term ‘visitor’ instead of ‘audience’ because a visitor can respond and participate.
BNG: Could you please talk us through Holding Nothing?
MW: Studying Muay Thai took me on a retreat to Jamaica that culminated with three Witches burying me in the Earth. I’m using the term ‘Witches’ here with the upmost of reverence and gratitude, and to evoke some sense of magic, my fear of the unknown, and my awe of The Nothing. The goal of the ritual was to “let the Earth take something you no longer wanted to carry.”
It was intense. After the ritual I was struck with the revelation that when I was born the Earth made me a promise. She promised to hold me in the void. To bear my weight and take whatever I gave her. If everything else in the retreat was intense this was something outside of language. Outside of description. Maybe it was a “real” experience? Something that reached me through the Matrix my mind lives in?
I gave the Earth my “need to punish”. Before therapy I was an extremely angry person. In fact, I went to therapy because anger was dictating all my thoughts and actions. A large part of my identity, the story I told myself to make myself believe I had value, was that I would punish the unjust. Vengeance sustained me. I reveled in my anger, it invigorated me, but hated myself for needing it.
I no longer personify my fear and anger. They aren’t demons to exorcise, they aren’t creatures I’m a victim of. My fear is the part of me that wants to be safe. My anger is the part of me that is willing to do what is necessary to keep me safe.
‘Holding Nothing’ is the artifact of a performance that affirmed my gratitude for the Earth “taking my need to punish”. In preparation I created a mold by cutting out the negative of a skeleton in a piece of plywood. It was modeled after a skeleton half exhumed from the earth in an archaeological dig. I laid the paper on my skeleton matrix and began the performance. I wrote a few words of introduction then I repeated “Take my need to punish”, over and over like doing lines on a blackboard. As I reached the bottom of the paper, when there was just enough room for it, I wrote “thank you”. The act of writing pushed the paper into the matrix, imbedding the skeleton, the echo of my conviction, my presence, and my gratitude into an ephemeral record. I installed it hanging vulnerably away from the wall to heighten its ephemerality and invite visitors to see behind the avatar. It shocks me how so few of those visitors look behind it.
BNG: Let Me Tell You Something marks your 6th Bermuda Biennial. How has your inclusion in so many different iterations impacted both your work and your career as an artist?
MW: I don’t think I would even count as an emerging artist anywhere else in the world. I don’t complete or exhibit enough work to “perform on a global stage”, so the Bermuda Biennial is a really important resource and opportunity for me. A lot of my work is very labour intensive and financially restrictive. The Bermuda Biennial gives me a framework to work around and a real incentive to get work done. We are very lucky to have such an accessible platform to show our work and access to enlightened contemporary jurors that facilitate us participating in the global art dialogue.
BNG: As the Arts Lecturer at the Bermuda College what do you seek in to instill your students?
MW: You only need two things to be an artist. First you need the courage validate your perspective. You need to know that your unique experience has divine value. Your voice is worth hearing. You are not an insignificant observer. Secondly you need the empathy to validate the perspectives of others. No matter how terrifying or alien someone else’s perspective is they came by it honestly. Their perspective is their truth. So how do you communicate with an alien perspective? You have to learn where they are coming from so you can speak in a language they will understand. I like to say, “No one will hear you if you are not listening.”
These are not easy lessons. There’s a lot of tears, anger, cognitive dissonance, suffering and failure after failure after failure. Humanity is not for the weak of heart. You have to make an important choice. You can choose to be an artist, or you can choose to be a victim. You can choose to be someone with the empathy to see what’s really in front of you and the courage to create, or you can live disempowered, without responsibility, letting life happen to you.
I can’t instill anything in anyone. All we can do is show up, over and over and over, to give others the chance to see they are worth showing up for. I hope they notice I show up. I hope they see me stand when I fall. I hope they see my fear and my failures. I hope they choose courage, and then choose it again, and then choose it again, every time they need to.
BNG: You recently worked with the Bermuda National Gallery Youth Arts Council who have just completed a module on your Biennial artwork. What was the experience like for you?
MW: Incredible. Flattering and humbling. I was flattered to be asked to participate, and humbled by the presence of the students participating. Even through Zoom their courage was evident. They asked some powerful, poignant, relevant and courageous questions. I was impressed by their bravery and so grateful for their genuine participation. I can’t wait to see what they make!
BNG: How can the BNG engage with emerging artists?
MW: The challenge the Bermuda National Gallery faces in engaging with anyone, artist, visitor or donor, is that BNG is an institution. It’s the contrast problem again, even at its very best inclusion creates exclusion. If I say “I love red” what you hear is “I don’t love the colours that aren’t red.” As I’ve said, the answer must be “to listen” to whoever you want to engage with. Give them time and empathy to really hear them. I don’t know how an institution can commune with people, but I would be happy to help figure it out.
One thing I do see in my dreams for Bermudian Art is direct pipelines to international shows. Maybe the next Bermuda Biennial is in Jamaica, or Germany, while Japan has a Biennial here?
BNG: You are also exhibiting a second piece in the Biennial this year as part of the Centipede Art Movement, which is a grassroots collaborative dedicated to creating contemporary artwork in Bermuda. Could you please tell us more about the movement?
Bermuda has historically had a very traditional approach to art making. Do you think this is changing? Why/why not? In what ways?
MW: I’ll have to answer these last two questions together.
Bermuda has a very strong “don’t rock the boat” policy. This is a predictable dogma, symptomatic of our colonial and capitalist history. People avoid their shame, even if they are unconscious of it. The empathy necessary for communication is VERY difficult to access when the shame white people feel, having benefited and participated in a power structure that literally created racism to validate and perpetuate inequality, is coupled with the shame black people are expected to feel based on not qualifying for power in a system designed to disempower them. We cannot empathize when we feel threatened. We cannot challenge what we cannot face.
Capitalism persists because it is founded on our very real programing to “kill or be killed.” Our psyches respond to “not having” as “not having enough to survive” which makes sense in regards to food and shelter, but unfortunately it persists into our understanding of wealth and accolades. Any threat to what we “have” is perceived as an attack on our lives.
So we maintain the status quo because we are afraid of losing what we have. In larger countries there are more artists with “nothing left to loose”, coupled with a higher capacity for anonymity to fan their courage. You only need to consider how we hid our monument of Sally Bassett to see how terrified Bermuda is to share our communal reality and explore the differences in our individual perspectives.
The Centipede Art Movement is a counteraction to the self-imposed Bermudian censorship. It doesn’t exist in the traditional sense. There’s no organised meetings, or an agenda, or a budget, or even members really. No one is, or is not, a Centipede. However, every now and then, some Bermudian artist, usually someone young and taking art classes at Bermuda College, has a perspective way outside the status quo that they believe in so much they inspire other people to help them get their voice heard. I am grateful for their courage and look forward to seeing more Centipedes.
The BNG Youth Arts Council, aimed at students aged 13 -17, produces art activities relevant to the teens of today. Registrations is free. For further information contact email@example.com.
The Art Affectsis a new podcast by 2020 Bermuda Biennial artist Gherdai Hassell which aims to amplify the artwork and voices of artists of the African diaspora.
For her first interview, Gherdai caught up with fellow Bermuda Biennial artist NOBODY. The artist, who has been creating artwork under the pseudonym since 2018 in order to express himself freely, creates protest art.
He discusses his 2020 Bermuda Biennial artworkI-ANK-Forget, why activist art fuels the morale and how, in his view, “There is nothing more impactful, inspiring, and galvanising than art that communicates and expresses the pain, mood, feelings and energy of the people.”
Tune in to the episode, which launches today, to hear the artists in conversation as they discuss growing up in Bermuda, how the past experiences of loved ones can be used to understand contemporary issues and the ways in which the experiences of people throughout the African diaspora are interconnected.
“We need to bring our understanding of art into the 21st century. It is not merely decoration, it also can be social, political and racial commentary; and that too is acceptable, relevant and necessary. Those in positions of power need to stop censoring and muzzling the creative expression of the people. Public art should represent the public. The era of flora & fauna, pink cottages and longtails is over.” – April Branco, Bernews, 17 September, 2018.
Jayde Gibbons is a self-taught photographer. Her 2020 Bermuda Biennial artwork All The Kings Menis part of an ongoing series My Negus For Real (MNFR) that showcases black Bermudian men.
She says of her work ‘The goal for MNFR is to instill a sense of pride and purpose using photography by showcasing the everyday beauty of my people.’
In the exhibition, the photographs are presented on the wall of the gallery as one would see them in someone’s home, intended to serve as asymbol of family and unity.
We caught up with Jayde to discuss the importance of togetherness and brotherhood within our communities.
BNG: When did you first get into photography and how did you develop your practice?
JG: My first memories of being interested in photography are from childhood. I asked for my first camera in primary school. When I got into middle school, I used to buy disposal cameras from the local supermarket when I was packing groceries. I’d take pictures of my friends and stuff like that.
BNG: Your aunt Tiffani Paynter is an artist and has also exhibited in the Bermuda Biennial. How has she influenced you?
JG: My aunt Tiff is arguably my biggest artistic influence. Bring she’s only 6 years older than me and we were more like sisters growing up, as opposed to niece and aunty. I felt a little different from people in my family, so I’m glad I had her there to understand and to hone my creative abilities from such a young age. She taught me how to draw, introduced me to painting, poetry and alternative music genres. If I didn’t have that foundation coming up, I probably wouldn’t be as comfortable with myself and my art, so I’m incredibly grateful.
BNG: This is your first Bermuda Biennial. What does it meant to you to be included in the exhibition?
JG: I feel honoured! To have my work displayed alongside some of Bermuda’s most prestigious artists is an honour, especially Gherdai Hassell. When people think of photographers in Bermuda, it’s usually just services photography for hire, it’s not really looked at as a form of creative expression.
BNG: As a photojournalist you have a very powerful voice. How do you choose to use it and why?
JG: I’ve never been good at expressing myself verbally so I let my art do that for me. I understand how important visuals are and the impact they have on people and society. When I look at the imagery out there of Bermuda, and then I look at the state my people are in, both mentally and physically, I feel that it’s my job to do something about it. My main goal is to instill a sense of pride in my people, by showing Bermuda the way we see it, minus the pink sands.
BNG: The photographs in All The Kings Men are part of the ongoing series My Negus For Real (MNFR) that showcases black Bermudian men. Can you tell us about the series?
JG: It’s no secret that black men are judged based on appearance. And I believe that if you look good, you feel good and will do good things. We barely see images of black Bermudians, especially males, in a positive light, and that’s a problem to me. The imagery put out to the masses has a huge impact on society and the way people think. If black boys see no positive images of other black men, then how are they to view themselves in a positive light?
BNG: In your artist’s statement for the 2020 Bermuda Biennial you say that your piece intends to ‘highlight the importance of togetherness and brotherhood within our communities’. This has never been more important – both within the black community and the black and white communities coming together – as protests take place across the globe. How can we move forward?
JG: I believe that the first step is to look in the mirror and have that honest conversation with ourselves. What have we or haven’t we done to help the underlying issues? Do we support our peers? We should listen. Listen to understand as opposed to listening to respond. White people who don’t understand why black people are frustrated should listen and understand that we don’t share the same experiences they do. Black communities need to stop pointing fingers and causing harm amongst each other and support and uplift eachother more.
BNG: You once said in an interview, when asked for advice to up and coming photographers: “Don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone, if it’s uncomfortable you’re probably on the right track.” Is this something that you apply to your own practice?
JG: One hundred percent. How are we to grow, especially as artists, if we don’t try new things? Anything in life that you’re not used to will make you uncomfortable. I’m not saying it isn’t scary taking risks, but eventually you reap the reward. Good things don’t come to those who wait, they come to those who make sacrifices and work their tails off.