|Creating a network of sacred space|
Guardian National Correspondent
Published: Jul 21, 2012
How do our creative spaces inform our sense of self? How do they allow us as creative thinkers to help define and understand our identities and our relationships to the physical landscape?
These questions framed two important symposiums that intersected at Schooner Bay, Abaco, earlier this month: Eco-Cultural Awareness and Citizenship and the Schooner Bay Sculpture Symposium.
PhD student in Cultural Studies at the George Mason University in Fairfax Virginia, Marielle Barrow, led a team of professors at the institution and local artists to the development on Abaco for an organic discussion about the interrelation of landscape, art and identity.
They met with artist-in residence at Schooner Bay, Antonius Roberts, whose work revolves around creating sacred spaces to form communities.
“My role from where I sit is to always be mindful that this is about the community and creating opportunities,” said Roberts.
“I understand the power of community and the significance of being inclusive and having other voices be a part of shaping not only a community but also a national dialogue.”
His original Sacred Space piece – a public art installation with Tyrone Ferguson out at Clifton Pier that pays homage to the past and meditates on the future – originally inspired Trinidadian Barrow to rethink the idea of the sacred within landscapes and Caribbean identities when she visited The Bahamas seven years ago.
“The space really just stilled me at the core. He introduced me to another artist who was there, and I could not even remember my name,” she said.
“I think a lot of what is happening now in The Bahamas in terms of artistry is related to Sacred Space,” she continued. “It’s about finding the sacred of ourselves essentially. This site evokes the sacred in Caribbean identity and our new way forward is about recognizing a visual iconography of The Bahamian.”
Indeed, after delving into that particular space created by Roberts in her Master of Philosophy dissertation, Barrow now expands her scope in her PhD studies as well as in a forthcoming book of essays, “A Sense of Space: Public Art, Political Space and the Sacred,” to examine how this space created other creative “sacred spaces” – galleries, public art installations, and the like – in The Bahamas since, and how this interconnectivity informs Bahamian identity.
Such practices, Barrow said, “perform” value through art, not in an economic sense, but in terms of social enterprise, helping the people who live in these spaces to affirm their individuality and respect the special offerings of their surroundings, creating a sense of the sacred that in turn builds a collective confidence and love for inherent creativity.
“I think we live in a space we don’t understand and know fully,” said Barrow. “Having these kinds of dedicated spaces making you aware of your own surroundings is critical because what happens is we become much more aware of things that are foreign to us through television and media and to forget our immediate environment, and that makes us foreigners to ourselves in the end.”
“In the long run the very things that we depend on for subsistence in many Caribbean countries like tourism can’t be sustained by people who are foreigners to ourselves – foreigners are coming here to find something that’s different and new, and if we are just like them, then exactly what are they coming to find?”
Barrow’s work is essential to examining the Bahamian cultural narrative not only to benefit The Bahamas socially, but her work which documents the strong interconnectivity of a now thriving visual art scene can inspire Bahamians to form their own cultural policy. Among the Caribbean nations, The Bahamas remains one of the few without a strong, well-formed cultural policy.
“There is room to accomplish a lot of things and to inform that cultural policy to make sure you have a cadre of trade individuals to fulfill all the dynamics of the art world that you need to have,” she said.
“And then do exactly what I’m doing – map the art world and prove in writing why it works the way it does and what it adds, in a very practical way,” she continued. “So what I’m trying to do for The Bahamas is to examine the art world and how it functions and to see how that links up with economic models and policy and framework.”
To that end, Barrow gathered with Roberts as well as with George Mason University professors Tom Ashcroft (head of sculpture) and Peter Winant (head of school of art) in a space that is actively working to preserve the reality – rather than the fantasy – of tropical paradise, especially for locals.
For three years Schooner Bay has not only been building an eco-conscious community with authentic and time-proven Bahamian architecture that respects the natural landscape, but also has been forming relationships with artists like Roberts to add richness to their community through creative installations and energy.
“I think Schooner Bay model is so innovative and important to where we are right now. It’s leading the Caribbean in a direction that we need to take notice of in terms of who we are as a people and what our future will be,” said Barrow. “So I think Schooner Bay is a model that Caribbean society can follow, and various aspects of it can be pulled out and we can build communities around it. It gives us a design for where we want to go.”
Under the theme “Eco-Cultural Awareness and Citizenship”, it was the perfect place for the group to witness how residents interacted with the space and hold informal discussions about how the space is developing the physical as well as the mental landscape of its residents.
Yet paramount to the symposium which took place over three days at the beginning of July was the annual Sculpture Symposium at Schooner Bay, during which Junior Summer Resident prize winners from Popopstudios International Center for the Visual Arts visited and toured the space to collaborate on a public art installation.
Now in its third year, the Sculpture Symposium speaks to the deep commitment to community by artist-in-residence at Schooner Bay Antonius Roberts. In previous years, the symposium produced very tangible results of sculptures created from salvaged material on the beach. However, this year, says Popopstudios ICVA founder John Cox, the practice took a more existential turn being combined with the second symposium.
“Antonius and I discussed what would happen if we combined the symposiums because it could bring richness to what Marielle was doing and it could also be a broadening factor for the Popop artists, to see that their project was part of a bigger conversation happening,” said Cox.
“I think that there was a message and that it was a bit organic. We never know exactly what we will do until we get there. We let it flow,” he continued. “This year was a very profound experience. I think what came out of it is that the whole aspect of planning was turned on its head and the idea of product as an object, a manifestation of creative process, was investigated.”
Feeding off Barrow’s symposium, the final piece by the Popop junior residents, “Piano” was a sacred space in and of itself. Finding a beautiful view atop a ridge, the residents watched as a D8 tractor cleared a path through the dense brush to the view, and placed a sparse wall around it to create a temple of sorts. Informed by Barrow and the George Mason professors, Ashcroft and Winant, the young artists were able to fully explore the deeply meaningful value of their actions and final product, and to honor that aspect of art making.
“Tom and Peter brought a lot of philosophy and ideas and they just showed us how to dialogue – how collaborative projects work and how people feed off of each other,” said Barrow. “I think if they were not acutely aware of that process through their own experience, what happened with the sculpture could not have happened.”
“For me it was revolutionary,” she added. “It was about community. From there, everything else emanated – collaboration, the collective good. It was about giving people space to experience something deeper than themselves. It’s another sacred space.”
Indeed the newest “sculpture” at Schooner Bay is about honoring that deep connectivity which runs through the cultural community in The Bahamas, says Roberts, helping to make us aware of how very important such spaces are to our self-worth.
“There is no separation – Schooner Bay, Popopstudios, the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas, Hillside House, New Providence Community Church, Doongalik, the D’Aguilar Art Foundation – it all came out of the whole community of like-minded individuals who exist in The Bahamas,” said Roberts.
“We probably don’t see the power of that or the way we’ve developed yet because we’re so close to it,” he added. “But when we have Marielle come down and these professors from George Mason University and international artists as part of residency programs wanting to be a part of it, that’s when you start to see the connectivity of it all.”