In the Bahamas, Antonius Roberts Builds a New Home for Art
Above: Hillside House in Nassau (CJ Photo)
NASSAU — A CORAL-HUED PROPERTY on Cumberland Street could be a significant driver in the development of downtown Nassau, if celebrated Bahamian artist and sculptor Antonius Roberts has his way. Roberts has brought his studio and his spirit to Hillside House at #25 Cumberland Street. It’s here that he is looking to move beyond the traditional four walls of a gallery, making the site a centre for dialogue on the future of Bahamian art and the art community at large. To learn more about the site and his latest work, CJ Arts talked to Roberts about Hillside House, his new project at the Baha Mar resort and the future of Bahamian art.
How did this new space come about?
The reality is, I’ve been looking to relocate my studio-gallery for some time. I’ve really had a need to do that. And so I started to look for a new space. I have a patron and a friend who actually had approached me several years ago about partnering with him to purchase a building downtown that became available. I said to him that I couldn’t afford that right now, because I was going through some other stuff. He said, “You know what, I’m going to start it, I’m going to purchase it, and when you’re ready to catch up, you catch up.” So this was sitting around for about a year, going into two years. I asked him if the offer still stood. And we looked at this space and he said, maybe it’s a little too small, because we were thinking about buying it and fixing it up and selling it. And I said, that space is perfect. I said “I want to accept your offer.” And so we together decided that what we would do is restore this building, but restore it respectfully, from the view of using this as my studio and gallery space.
What do you envision for Hillside House?
There is this whole national dialogue about the revitalization of downtown, of Bay Street. The government just spent $12 million in restoring and rebuilding a huge building for the straw market, with the view of encouraging locals to produce indigenous, unique, original objects, artifacts and crafts to actually sell to tourists. So I thought this was an opportunity. The government was doing that for the straw vendors, and also some of the Greek Bahamians redid the Moses Plaza, as a means of helping to breathe life into downtown. So I said, well, that’s the merchant’s attitude, that’s the straw vendors, but the visual artists weren’t engaged in that dialogue. So I felt this was a great opportunity for me to become engaged in that dialogue by transforming the space which is, in fact, Hillside House, which is located at #25 Cumberland Street, and for Antonius Roberts’ studio-gallery to live in Hillside House. I also said it would be wonderful if other artists could feel so welcome to exhibit their work or to come along and contribute toward the transformation of Bay Street through art, and by engaging the artists.
You’ve said you’re looking to move beyond “four walls and a gallery.” Can you talk about that?
For a long time, artists produced work. I produced work, then sought a gallery, and sought to put my work on the walls in the hopes that somebody would come and purchase it. And this instance, this is not about putting my work on the wall in the hopes that somebody would come and purchase it. This is about creating an experience. The whole thing is that people will come here not just for the sake of purchasing a piece of artwork, but for the very sake of getting a touch, a feel, a taste of the Bahamas, an authentic, wonderful, unique Bahamian experience. Or, let’s say, an experience of the Bahamas that is unique to this place. And in so doing, they become so moved that they want to be a part of this whole community and in some way feel the need to contribute and to support and to help sustain what is happening here.
The whole thing is that people will come here not just for the sake of purchasing a piece of artwork, but for the very sake of getting a touch, a feel, a taste of the Bahamas, an authentic, wonderful, unique Bahamian experience.”
You have a work depicting your mentors, Jackson Burnside, Amos Ferguson and Brent Malone, on the wall here. How much has Bahamian art developed since their time?
Well, the Bahamian art community has been evolving at a rapid pace since I came home in 1981. And when I came home, I was considered or looked upon as the only Bahamian artist who had come home that year with a degree. So I was thrown into the classroom. But since 1981, and since my role as a teacher — I’ve been teaching for over 20 years — a lot of my students have gone off to college, to the Rhode Island School of Design, to the Savannah College of Art, to Pratt in New York. And the reality is those persons have been coming back and they have been trying to find their voices, and trying to figure out how they could adapt to this community and live as artists. And so there’s been a lot of energy from that perspective. In addition to that, we’re blessed with a national institution, the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas. So having the NAGB now is sort of centralizing, and what they are actually doing is beginning to set a standard. And they’re beginning to curate world-class exhibitions.
So as artists, we can come in and see what the curators are considering to be significant, and we are now trying to figure out, or, judging ourselves, by what the national institution puts their sign of approval on. So that’s helping to shape the future of Bahamian art. And we also have the D’Aguilar Foundation, which is playing a very significant role, because they are now opening their doors so that the public can come and see the excitement. And so there are other institutions like this space now. We are opening not only our galleries, but our studios, so that others can come in and experience this art. There’s the Popopstudios, which is the Centre for the Visual Arts, they’re actually doing residencies now. Then there’s the College of the Bahamas. And so you have a lot of stuff that’s happening, but I think what we realized now is that there has to be some interconnection between all of these institutions. So we can together begin to shape, nurture and embolden the whole creative visual-cultural experience in the Bahamas, which is somewhat part of, but can stand toe-to-toe with Junkanoo. Because Junkanoo is just like Pan in Trinidad or carnival. But we haven’t really established a strong enough presence because people don’t see this as a tight-knit force that needs governmental support to survive.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on this! This is it. I’m living out of my suitcase — this is it. But I started this year an intervention. My work has always been inspired by, and I’ve always had this passion to make a statement about this whole tourism moment, the tourist resorts, and the fact that, because of the prosperity in this country, there’s a lot of money being poured into building very large homes and resorts. And we’re losing a lot of our landscape. We’re losing a lot of our indigenous trees and hardwood trees and that stuff. So basically, the project I’m working on right now is with Baha Mar, the largest investor in the country. I’ve gotten them to partner with me so we can start a mentorship programme with a view of working with 12 Bahamian men where I can transfer my skills to them with a view of using benches. They would be a simple bench, in fact made from the same hardwood trees that are being eradicated and being cut down. So they are now in partnership with me and providing tools, and they’ve agreed to purchase some of the benches and use them in the sort as part of the campus. The benches signify the fact that there is an understanding and a respect and an appreciation for the fact that they have to be a little bit more cautious, a little bit more respectful for what is valuable in the country. And the trees are very much valuable to this environment.
What do you see as the future for Bahamian art?
I envision, like my mentor Jackson Burnside envisioned, that people will begin to flock to the Bahamas for the arts — more than for the sun, sand and sea.