Breaking new ground in Bahamian art
Published: Oct 05, 2013
A visit to the new Holy Family Catholic Church on Robinson and Claridge Roads on the outskirts of Nassau, The Bahamas capital, will prove an extraordinary experience in many ways. The ecclesial structure for one – its hyper-modern architecture celebrates light. In daylight, an abundance of windows allows it to flood in to illuminate sacred appointments of sandstone, beautiful in their understatement.
But Holy Family boasts still more to delight and give rise to profound inspiration – the ground-breaking art of the 14 Stations of the Cross and 42 sculptures of birds in flight representing the Holy Spirit, angels in various postures and large and small crosses distributed throughout the sanctuary, the Blessed Sacrament Chapel and elsewhere.
The panels representing the passion of Christ and the larger crosses are embellished with relief illustrations of personages and symbols sacred to Christianity—all hand-built from clay, carved, fired, glazed and fired again in The Bahamas by a Bahamian.
This extraordinary collection of 56 pieces is the work of Bahamian artist Neko Meicholas, an artist largely unsung because of his dislike of self-promotion, but wonderfully endowed with a range of talents.
Neko Meicholas, owner of Guanima Press, is best known for his work in publishing and in book design. But Meicholas is first and foremost a multimedia artist—a graphic designer, illustrator, photographer and, more recently, ceramicist. It is the latter art that he chose to extol, when commissioned by the leader of the Bahamas Catholic flock in The Bahamas and Metropolitan of the Turks & Caicos Islands, Archbishop Patrick C. Pinder.
While all the pieces are beautiful and novel in their interpretation, it is Meicholas’ idiosyncratic and deeply moving approach to rendering the Stations of the Cross, which are among the most sacred of the Church’s iconography for their representation of the sacrifice that is central to the Christian theology—the Passion of Christ.
The Stations are made entirely of clay shaped to represent canvases with carved faces and side supports, which have been high-fired to enduring stoneware. It is the many aspects of artistry playing out on the face of these artifacts that is complex and marvellous. The episodes of the Christ’s journey from condemnation in Pilate’s hall to Calvary and to being carried to the tomb are carved into the clay surface and stand out in relief, which, when touched, bring a realism and tactile inspiration far beyond that of the flat paintings that are usually hung as Stations. Here manifested is a deft hand for drawing and carving.
This collection shouts that Neko Meicholas is a storyteller with great interpretive skills, who took on the challenge of creating metaphors in clay and giving voice to the medium. In representing the figures, Meicholas thought it of supreme importance to make them universal, so that people from across the globe could feel included and identify with them. Consequently, he chose to leave out race-bound features. The artist has brought the main actors in the drama to life by body postures that speak volumes—the almost tangible grief of the Blessed Mother touching the face of the Son who was both human and divine, the palpable, head-hung-down dejection of the women who followed Christ in his ministry.
It is fitting that Meicholas has made the central figure of the exposition heartrendingly vulnerable and accessible, yet powerful in his dignity at this supreme milestone in his earthly trajectory. In his quest to emphasize the universality and inclusion of Christ’s message and sacrificial gift to mankind, Neko Meicholas has cast him, in turn, almost metallic black, startlingly white, earthy brown and muted beige. The variety of glaze colors, which imbue these stone canvases, says this is a saviour with no separatist notions, but one who, by circumstances of birth, nationality, economic status, the company he chose to keep, the mission he chose to promote could not himself escape being despised, discriminated against and side-lined.
“During the design process I took several things into consideration,” said Meicholas. “Jesus would be of no specific race. He had to reflect the many races of the members of the congregation. I wanted to represent God in every one of the panels to show that, during the ordeal, he never abandoned his Son or his people when they were behaving at their worst.
“I chose the bird to represent God. When deciding on the colors to use and the design of the birds and angels, I wanted to reflect a more Bahamian color sensibility. I also learned that red is the color of the Passionists, the religious order to which Holy Family’s pastor Father Tom Brislin belongs. I wanted to reflect that in the pieces. This worked out wonderfully for me, as red is my favorite color.”
Meicholas himself represents the world in his heritage mix—His Bahamian-born father was half Greek, half Long-Island Bahamian, his mother mostly Syrian and Chinese of Jamaican birth and the artist uncompromising in his claim to being Bahamian by birth, ethos and definitely choice. This unshakeable allegiance to Bahamian heritage had to appear in the Holy Family art. The artist succeeds in achieving this aim in his choice of vibrant Junkanoo colors and juxtapositions, not “candy-colored”, he says, but given a slightly baroque, moody patina.
There is something most astonishing in this unexpected oeuvre of an artist who appears ebullient to those who don’t know him well, but almost completely self-effacing to those who do. What is truly spectacular is how Meicholas chose to unify the 14 different scenes of the stone canvases. Each features a glorious bird, its wings in various aspects, but always near and enfolding the central figure representing the Holy Spirit, yet at the critical moment, just hovering but not departed. To encapsulate the profound thought and position this creature incarnates, the bird is made golden in each case with intricate carvings in its wings.
In making his aesthetic choices and given the gravity of the work he was expected to produce, the artist had many profound choices to make. He is best able to describe them: “When I received the commission from Archbishop Patrick Pinder to create 14 Stations of the Cross for the new Holy Family Church, I was elated. As I actually began the design process, elation turned to worry and dread. What medium would serve best to carry a message so important to so many? How large should the main pieces be? Would the final piece fit in the kiln for firing? How to construct them so that they would survive the drying process and then the firing process? How to support them so that they would not sag and warp horribly during firing? What colors to use? There were so many doubts.”
Meicholas needed to make certain that he understood enough of the theology and the iconography, so he immersed himself in research that took him, via books and the Internet to churches in many countries to understand the parameters, what was permissible and what was not. He needed to have a heartfelt understanding of what it all meant and why such icons have been perpetuated for two millennia in communities across the globe. But what was certain, he was determined to break new ground, and the breakthrough would come in more than the art.
“Once the research started so did a slight depression. While I knew about the crucifixion and knew the story basically and had seen many Stations of the Cross in many churches, I had never internalized fully what Jesus had suffered. Having to look at so many images, to see what was acceptable as Stations of the Cross and read so much on the subject brought it all home in a powerful and extremely disturbing way. In the light of all the social trouble that we are experiencing today and all the terrible headlines, I was overwhelmed to think that, basically, man’s inhumanity to man has not diminished one bit over that long stretch of time,” he said.
If establishing mental readiness was challenging of the artist, the construction process was equally or, perhaps, more so. One of the central pieces of equipment can be as moody as any human being.
“Once the actual building process began many things conspired to prevent the completion of the project – pieces breaking up long before getting into the kiln, the gas kiln developing issues and its flames simply being blown out mid firing, causing many pieces to crack and have to be rebuilt from scratch. Then there was having again and again to lift heavy kiln shelves, the wet clay panels weighing about 25 pounds and dealing with temperatures at 2,000 degrees plus – no walk in the park,” Meicholas said.
“Inspiration or madness drove me to decide on creating more than 84 pieces for the entire body of work. Some pieces crumbled before reaching the kiln, some did not survive the 2,000-plus degree firing temperature. There were several stages for creating each piece – designing, drawing, carving, hand and slab building, firing once, then painting and a second firing.”
With the Holy Family sacred art has Neko Meicholas achieved the high goal he set for this collection? This writer, known for uncompromising truth in her writing and more than a little cynicism about the contemporary art scene, says a resounding “Yes” – this is a rare body of work – complex in conceptual choices, complex in thought and message, complex in tonality and altogether inspiring in its beauty. To those who make the connection between reviewer and artist and use it to question the veracity of this judgment – Go judge for yourself, marvel, be inspired, believe.
• Patricia Glinton-Meicholas is a Bahamian author, educator and cultural anthropologist.