This year I’ve had the pleasure of being part of a significant collaborative project culminating in an exhibition at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas—which opened last month—as well as in a new chapbook from Poinciana Paper Press.
Spearheaded by Bahamian visual artist Kishan Munroe, the project is called “Swan Song of the Flamingo”. With contributions from Bahamian writers, singers, composers and filmmakers, as well as Cuban artists, the multi-disciplinary exhibition sets out to examine the collaborative process of memory, and by extension, how it functions in identity.
Tragedy and how it manifests in our individual memories is a deeply personal exercise. How that then translates into collective memory—of a nation for example—depends entirely on the space that is made to witness it.
The tragedy we address in this body of work is the sinking of the Royal Bahamas Defense Force ship, the HMBS Flamingo, by Cuban Fighter jets on May 10, 1980. On that day, the HMBS Flamingo attempted to arrest Cuban fishermen poaching in our waters near Ragged Island. In response, Cuba dispatched fighter jets that not only sank the boat, killing four Bahamian able seamen in the process, but essentially conducted a hostile takeover of Ragged Island itself the next day when the remaining seamen, with arrested Cuban fishermen in tow, took refuge there. Eventually they let up, but the fallout was explosive in terms of Cuban, Bahamian and U.S. relations. For one, Cuba would not apologize, maintaining the position that the fisherman had mistook the HMBS Flamingo for a pirate ship. But eventually, they did admit their grave error and hostile actions, paying reparations. The fishermen arrested in our waters were also tried and found guilty for poaching.
Context is everything here. At the time, The Bahamas was still a very young nation, having gained independence from British rule in 1973. The Royal Bahamas Defense Force itself had only existed for about 40 days before this event happened. I truly think the event shook Bahamians to their cores—the realization that they had to fully step into their hard-earned status as an Independent nation and diplomatically stand up for themselves. However, for all of its major historical and cultural implications, the event is almost never acknowledged in the public memory, which is why this project is so monumental.
Those familiar with Kishan’s body of work will recognize the similar underlying social and cultural currents present in his earlier project, “The Universal Human Experience”, during which he documented contemporary lives in a global world to find common ground. Following that project, he embarked on researching the sinking of the HMBS Flamingo, going so far as to interview those connected to the incident (which will form a comprehensive documentary about the event at some point soon).
Missing from the hours and hours of research, however, were pictorial sources. Taking up his paintbrush, Kishan set about making twenty large-scale paintings—averaging five by six feet—based on the events that unfolded on the sea that fateful day when the HMBS Flamingo intercepted two Cuban fishing vessels poaching in Bahamian waters. His paintings offer gorgeously executed meditations pulled between the motivation to historically represent the event and the desire to build a new visual language around its implications (you’ll have to visit the article I wrote on this subject to see images, I will not post them here.) When you walk through the exhibition in order, you’ll see how the paintings start off as realistic interpretations of the event, and slowly morph into magical realist interpretations with the images of flamingoes as angels, or the souls of the departed. They are really quite beautiful.
Though his paintings can stand well enough on their own in all of their breathtaking ambition, Kishan knew that providing his take alone would only offer another one-dimensional manifestation of an event. He began to invite other artists to offer their interpretations of the event in their own language, resulting in a multi-disciplinary exhibition that shows us the importance of reflection through a rich offering of artistic stories. After all, history cannot be written in one voice. Memory is a messy, collaborative and ongoing experience, the only worthy way to give witness to the complexity of human existence.
A year ago, Kishan asked me to write poetry in response to the event. I was excited to take this on, but also very intimidated because truthfully—and I elaborate on this more at the end—I did not know the first thing about it. He left me with a pile of newspaper articles written around the time of the event as well reflecting on the event years later. So that is where I started. I made many unsuccessful and flat starts—I simply could not write about this event because I felt like I almost didn’t have permission to write about something I wasn’t around to witness or experience in any real way. But was it appropriate to take it into magical realist territory, like I had with my Anne Bonny poems? I wasn’t so sure. All I knew was that the language being used to discuss this event were weapons in another kind of war being waged on the pages of the newspaper—everyone had an opinion about why this happened and how we could have avoided it, or what we had to do next.
On this summer trip, I reviewed the articles, thinking my new environment as well as creative exercises and classes could help me think about this project in a different way. I was still fascinated by the way journalists wrote about the event, and before I knew it, I was cutting out words and phrases and piecing together a new kind of story from the existing language of the period. The resulting poems—just 14 in all—offer an alternate reality of sorts, addressing what happens when memories are distorted by time and ignorance.
Then, while at the Women’s Studio Workshop for a summer class, another bolt of inspiration struck—what if I embedded these poems and newspaper clippings into paper? This act of cutting them out of one paper and placing them into another became appropriate to address the idea of context when we address history or tragedy. The sixteen pieces that emerged, “Paper Wars”, examine the chaos of the event, their messy immediacy, through the very nature of the paper itself: colors and textures splashed together and opacities bringing words and images in and out of focus.
Back in Nassau, I continued to piece together poems from the newspaper clippings. Since I have no way of making paper here yet, I decided to approach this second set of work through collage and letterpress. The sixteen resulting pieces, “Ink Treaties”, imply careful reflection and precision through the nature of printing itself: simple printed symbols or carved linoleum designs with accompanying phrases supplement collaged poems on handmade papers.
I didn’t plan for my poems to turn into more of a visual project, but I am glad they did and that they too can be featured alongside Kishan’s work in the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas.
Little did I know that Obediah Michael Smith—whose work can be found in many chapbooks and projects here at Poinciana Paper Press—had also been tasked with writing a poetic response to the event. Obediah and Kishan approached me to create a chapbook of Obediah’s work. With only a few weeks before the opening, I was wary of taking it on, but after thinking about the design, I agreed—as long as my poetry could be included as well.
The reason I wanted to include my poetry too—besides the obvious exposure—lies in a chapbook structure I had not yet tried before but that I knew would be perfect for two sets of work so closely related as ours: the do-si-do, where two separate chapbooks share one structure so that a reader, when finishing one book, closes the back cover to find it is a front cover for a whole other second book. Obediah’s collection was called “Cutting Teeth”, which inspired me to name my collection “Clipping Feathers”.
Both collections offer different interpretations on the same event. The most interesting aspect to me, actually, is that Obie and I hail from each side of this history: born before Bahamian Independence, he witnessed the event and is able to eloquently expand on that experience in his three poems. I offer, by way of a more distant interpretation, a version from the other side of Independence.
For the covers, I carved a flamingo out of linoleum that is my interpretation of the flamingo Kishan designed for the project itself. It looks like a flamingo getting shot. Originally I had planned to use a cut of a large ship and letterpress print that over the flamingo, but it just didn’t look right—instead, I used a smaller ship and printed it at the heart of the flamingo. From there, we set the cover titles in Columbus and printed them. With six separate runs, the cover took ages, and I have to thank the ever-present Orchid Burnside for helping me print it and also giving honest critical feedback over any artistic decisions made about the book.
She along with a few other very awesome volunteers—Corinne, Brooke, Alicia and Terneielle—helped to bind the 45 copies during a fun binding party at the press, just in time to launch the book at the opening. It went down very well. If you would like a copy, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or drop by the awesome Islandz store at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (after you’ve seen the show, right??)
Additional collaborators were exposed during the opening night last month: underwater filming by Gavin McKinney and the Royal Bahamas Defense Force; the book “The Sinking of HMBS Flamingo and Its Roots in United States, Cuba and Bahamas Relationships” by Patricia Glinton-Meicholas; a stunning performance of arias from Cleophas Adderley’s opera “My Boys”—composed shortly after the incident—by acclaimed soprano JoAnn Callender and Cleophas himself, accompanied by pianist Lee Callender; and a performance by two members of the National Ballet of Cuba, lead female dancer Amaya Rodriguez and choreographer Eduardo Blanco. The energy that evening was truly special and I felt very honored to have been a part of this collaborative experience.
|Thank you, Dominic Duncombe, for this great shot at the opening!|
|Reading from "Clipping Feathers"|
|Patricia Glinton Meicholas reads a poignant poem inspired by the tragic event|
|JoAnne Callender and Cleophas Adderley sing a duet from Adderley's opera "My Boys", accompanied by Lee Callender on the piano|
Truthfully, I knew nothing about this important event until Kishan approached me to write poetry for the project—and I took Bahamian history in school. This is what the project really taught me: that, ironically, Bahamian history, as its taught to our students, has nothing to do with the history of Bahamians as an independent nation. It has everything to do with what came before the 1973 victory: Lucyanas, Columbus, Eleutheran adventurers, Loyalists, pirates, and the road to Independence. Forty years later, Bahamians—especially post-independence babies—walk around with an incomplete understanding of themselves because we have yet to examine how the past forty years have brought us to this point. Maybe if we did, our country would be better off instead of slipping into chaos.
The event could remain a constant reminder as to why we need to be self-sufficient and self-aware in a globalized world, not a nation of people so tragically out of touch with who they are that they have no idea what it means to be independent. If we did, we would value educating our people in ways that speak to them; we would value creativity and entrepreneurship in our economy rather than failed cycles of sun-sand-and-sea resorts; we would have comprehensive food security instead of importing the very things we can grow from the United States or large British food store chains; we would support Bahamian-made products instead of perpetuating the mindset that ‘foreign is better’; we would realize our out-of-control crime problem needs more of a complete overhaul of the justice system, social programs, education, and her Majesty’s prison itself, rather than quick-fix 100-day plans; we would be less afraid of refugees and foreign volunteers and more wary of foreign investors; we would stop electing the same people over and over again to keep failing us and demand more from our leadership and political structure; and we wouldn’t engage in black crab syndrome every single minute of every single day when one of us tries to elevate the nation. In short, we would see the big picture. But we can’t—too many puzzle pieces are missing.
I hope that people who go and see this exhibition realize the implications it has to generate national conversation around these issues. It is up at the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas until March 2014.