This article explores some of the intersections among the Bible, the arts, and the Caribbean. Such conversations are critically important to the region and to biblical reception history, but they are in their infancy. For instance, the region remains comparatively poorly represented in studies of art. Moreover, whereas some nations have benefited from intensive postcolonial analysis of their literatures (e.g., Haiti, Trinidad), others either have no literary body to contribute while their predominantly oral traditions remain unnoticed (Bethel) or disparaged as “folklore.” Still others simply have not benefited from interest or opportunity for exploration. Added into this mix, the Bible is a somewhat obvious but strangely unanalyzed element. It seems everywhere, but its concrete presence is also oddly elusive.
Given the complexity of the Caribbean—its history, migratory origins, religion, present-day cultural diversity—it would be a Herculean task to represent properly the intersections of the arts and the Bible, all the while being true to the rich cultural mosaic of the entire region. To this end, this article aims to sample only some of that richness—really to introduce the reader to possibilities for research and to give a sense of some of the issues pertinent to their framing. At the same time, the article is careful to locate the particular (history, nation, artist, story) so as to avoid homogenizing—or othering—parts of this complex whole. Where some general observations will be made about numerous contexts, they will be most relevant to the Anglophone Caribbean. This is a choice made to try to limit the vast subject under investigation.
To further narrow the conversation, where necessary, cultural manifestations of the Bahamas will be chosen as examples. As an Anglophone Caribbean country, geographically distant from the “center,” and arguably more influenced by American culture than many other nations, this may not be an obvious choice. However, the Bahamas’ history and culture are frequently omitted from commentary on the region, perhaps for exactly the reasons just described. This is a great loss. It is hoped that including it here in a meaningful way will begin some of the analytical work around identity and culture that Bahamian intellectuals are encouraging—to allow, as it were, the Bahamas to speak amid a sea of voices.
For the purposes of this article, “art” is broadly defined to include music, literature, and the visual arts (painting, costume, dance). Other significant concepts, namely “Caribbean” and “Caribbeanness,” will require further commentary (see “Context and Terminology”). This article also provides a brief history of the region and some general comments about religion and the Bible (see “Religion and the Bible in the Caribbean”). From there, in lieu of providing a regional history of art, I explore the origins of the Caribbean oeuvre and discuss the European gaze (see “Being Looked At: Art and the European Gaze”); these matters in turn set the scene for a brief case study on Bahamian art (see “A Case Study: Bahamian Art”). Then, short explorations into oral traditions (proverbs, storytelling), music (dance/carnival, spirituals, and reggae), and literary genres such as slave narratives and fiction will be undertaken as a means of sampling some of the key areas that might usefully be explored in a study such as this one.
Context and Terminology.
It seems that a fairly typical course of action for critical work on the Caribbean is to begin with a definition of the word. The region is notoriously hard to define, not least because there is historical and contemporary variation in the use of the term with respect to which nations properly belong as part of the region. In addition, “Caribbean” is often used interchangeably and confusingly with “West Indies” and, to a lesser extent today, with “Antilles.” The variation in nomenclature is a vestige of the colonial heritage of disparate parts of the region. For instance, West Indies reveals the influence of initial European voyages to “discover” passages to the Orient and was largely used by Anglophone colonists. Moreover, though their employment tends to be geographical, sometimes these terms resurface in other guises, as with “Antillean,” which is an adjective newly identified to pertain to the entire Caribbean region and conceived as a political designation for a postcolonial, ideologically reconfigured grouping of nations who share a common historical and philosophical framework (see especially Glissant, 1997).
Despite this variation, some consensus—with definition as broad as permissible—must be sought. Here the term will be used to refer to a region that, sitting largely on the Caribbean Plate, consists of the Caribbean Sea and its islands, as well as nations, national departments, and dependencies that border the Caribbean Sea and/or the North Atlantic. More broadly, the South American countries of Suriname, Guyana, and Belize may be included, typically because of their colonial ties to other Caribbean nations. Finally, it would be important to avoid privileging land over sea in any definition and to stress instead that “Caribbean” refers every bit as much to the sea—the spaces in between—as it might to the (is)lands and the people who inhabit them.
Much more than a geographical entity, though, other factors help to delineate the Caribbean, such as the exploration of the common past of its people. It is a predominating Western myth of origins that, before Columbus’s “settlement,” the piracy of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the slave trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there was no real Caribbean. Such a myth betrays the Eurocentric and modernist perspectives of its creators, and it elides the many “Caribbeans” that have existed in the past. However, it is these perspectives, to be sure, that have generated much of the pictorial and written historical record of the region.
It would be important not to reify this myth here, but at the same time it is essential to regard the European expansion and the plantation as critical to the shape of the Caribbean as both insiders and outsiders encounter it today. The Caribbean, then, is most commonly understood as a source of wealth for European monarchies, and later as the source for sugar, a luxury of a growing, wealthy class, whose production formed a “main strand in the history of capitalism” (Glissant, 1997, p. 2). It was for these purposes that the enslavement and genocide of millions of individuals, predominantly via the Middle Passage, and, later, the indenture of hundreds of thousands more, took place.
Before these events, however, the region was consistently inhabited as part of the migratory routes of various indigenous peoples (Taíno, Carib, Arawak, and Lucaya, predominantly), whose lives took them from regions of the Atlantic coast of South and Central America, all through the Caribbean Sea and into the equatorial regions of the Atlantic. In the late part of the fifteenth century, European exploitation and settlement of the Caribbean began through the chasing of a dream: Columbus’s quest, beginning in 1492 and first reaching the Bahamas, was to find a passage through to Asia, spurred on by the promise of trade for (or better, acquisition of) gold and other material resources that could feed the growing hunger of European expansionism. This endeavor began especially with the capture and pressing into service of local aboriginal groups, who quickly died out because of harsh treatment and the introduction of disease. The African continent became the alternate and ultimately more lucrative target for slavers from Great Britain, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, and France, who were responsible, among them, for the lives of approximately 10 million people.
The “settlers” naturally had a marked impact on the region they occupied and on the people they brought there. Today, four main language groups are found in the Caribbean. The Hispanic is the largest, and the remainder consists of English and French speakers, with the fourth—Dutch—occupying the smallest group. These language groups “represent broad cultural entities,” though not consistent ones: compare the French culture of Haiti, independent for some 200 years, and with strong African influences, with the cultures of French Guiana and French Antilles, which are metropolitan and still largely tied to France (Poupeye, 1998, p. 15). Even so, it will often be the case that nations do not have clear-cut identities but show the complexities of colonization, as in the case of St. Lucia, which has English as its official language but a French-based creole (Poupeye, 1998, p. 14). These linguistic and cultural groupings—incomplete as they may be—are further complicated by the fact that, postslavery, both historical and contemporary migration within the Caribbean for reasons of work, education, or natural disasters marked the region as one that has for a long time been plural, hybrid, and constantly fluid.
After well over 100 years, abolition, which took place in stages for many nations between the years of 1794 (France) and 1888 (Brazil), changed the face of the region. It was, however, slow to implement, and when complete, only briefly dampened the still lucrative sugar trade. Slavery was continued after a fashion through indenture, primarily of South Asians. This began around the 1840s and lasted some 60 years. The resulting period after abolition proved to be one of social and economic chaos, which saw the slow progress toward emancipation, the waning power of slavers, the migration of peoples to cope with labor shortages, and the growth in political agency of former slaves, coupled with their increasing challenges to earn a livelihood and care for their families.
Sometimes, factors such as economic and social instability—factors that persist in the Caribbean today—resulted in movement outside of the region entirely. There is, then, another important dimension to “Caribbean” that must also be mentioned here, which is the robust—and growing—diaspora, spread predominantly across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. It is estimated that some 6 million immigrants from the Caribbean and their children make their homes, or pursue their livelihoods, elsewhere. It is also estimated that “most” Caribbean-born visual artists have spent a lot of their lives away from their homeland, which makes a definition of Caribbean art difficult: Should it be that which is created by Caribbean-born individuals? Those whose parentage is Caribbean? Those who reside in the Caribbean, or create there?
Today, much of the Caribbean is affected by poverty, poor access to education and adequate medical care, and domestic violence and substance abuse; the latter is partially facilitated through a vibrant drug trade, which takes advantage of the region’s location between Latin America and the United States. Simultaneously, extreme poverty is shockingly juxtaposed in many nations with extreme wealth, brought on largely through the tourist industry, which has fostered multimillion- and billion-dollar resort complexes as well as the construction of private holiday homes for the wealthy. At the same time, many nations take advantage of migrating workers to support the tourist industry, as with the Bahamas’ notorious use of Haitian migrant workers, whose children are born in the country but remain stateless because of the vagaries of Bahamian and Haitian citizenship law.
Of critical importance to any attempts to define the Caribbean, in sum, is the observation that a stunningly wide variety of national, linguistic, cultural, and economic heritages, as well as contemporary realities, have affected and continue to affect this small space through colonialism, and, more recently, immigration and cross-migration. So, to answer the question “Who are the people of the Caribbean?” necessitates not only investigating the complex history, geographical variation, and cultural diversity of these lands but also thinking about how these pieces fit together, especially in the contemporary time, where it is not so much unique or particular histories that are at issue but how people constituted by these histories might define themselves, either collectively or piece by piece. Thinking through how the pieces fit would not be to homogenize but to create a platform of identity that is based on relationality—a strategic move that might attempt to articulate identity in the face of past colonialism and to guard against the dangers of contemporary neocolonial forces (Glissant, 1997).
It is in this way that, perhaps, a better phrasing for what we seek might be a question that employs a term used by contemporary scholars of the region: What is “Caribbeanness”? The latter indicates ideology, worldview, lived experience, and shared history, privileging relation over against geographical and economic boundaries, with a view to its replicating nature and its defiance of firm definition. A number of themes, therefore, could be mentioned here: migration, colonialism, slavery, tourism, dance, poverty, language, development, and so on. But more than this, Caribbeanness is, as Antonio Benítez-Rojo has it, turbulent, chaotic, multiply contested, and performative. It is “a system, full of noise and opacity, a nonlinear system, an unpredictable system, in short a chaotic system beyond the total reach of any specific kind of knowledge” (Benítez-Rojo, 1996, p. 295).
Religion and the Bible in the Caribbean.
Swami Vivekananda declared at the World’s First Parliament of Religions in Chicago (1893): “You came with the Bible in one hand and the conqueror’s sword in the other” (Sugirtharajah, 1998a, p. 15). This oft-quoted declaration reveals the difficulty and potential irony of colonization, though doubtless its dimensions need to be made more complex through further analysis (see Sherwood, 2013). The contemporary religious picture of the Caribbean, however, does reflect Vivekananda’s truism to some degree. As elsewhere, biblically based Christianity was used in the Caribbean to press the colonized into conversion, after which compliance with the social and legal structures of the land was a logical and expected outcome. What predominates largely in the region after European settlement, through emancipation and beyond into independence, therefore, is Christianity, though naturally various denominational forms exist and dominate in different regions.
One complicating factor to this myth of homogeneity, however, is the presence of other traditions, brought largely to the region through the system of indenture that arose after emancipation. Of these, Hinduism and Islam are the most noticeable, being limited to certain regions, such as Guyana, Suriname, Trinidad, and, to a lesser degree, Jamaica, where there was concentrated migration from South Asia. Muslims were generally lesser in number and in the early days were perceived as a sect of Hinduism (Bisnauth, 2006, p. 163). Migrants did not generally come in family or caste groups (p. 161) but made connections and communities in each country among those who had already made the journey. In time, there developed a particularly “Caribbean” Hinduism and Islam, and sometimes ritual observances especially took on a syncretic nature between the two. Overall, however, as the Caribbean adjusted to abolition and indentured and emancipated workers lived together in these islands, it was still Christianity that predominated; now, though, it became associated with “civilized” or upper-class society (p. 163). That said, contemporary scholars view the presence of Hinduism and Islam today as markers of an incredibly plural, symbiotic panorama of religion in the region.
In the religious picture of the Caribbean, one other extremely important but variably visible factor is the persistence of African traditions. These are present through a creolized or syncretized dimension—Taylor argues that “symbiosis” is a better term, since it does not imply the erasure of either tradition (2001, p. 3). They are also present in isolated communities of practitioners who seek to continue or recapture their ancestral religious roots. It is, of course, problematic to bundle these traditions together under the one homogenizing title of “African,” but the term is used as a convenience to refer to those Caribbean systems that have their roots in African traditional religion. The list is long and includes Santería, Obeah, Vodou, Myal, Candomblé, and Pukkumina. Rastafari is often added to this list, though its place here is somewhat of an ill fit. Other traditions, which seem better described as denominations of Christianity, are often classed along with these, such as Zion Revivalism, or Spiritism, because they appear to be reminiscent of or based on African styles of worship, if not content (see Murrell, 2009; Fernández Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert, 2003).
A few general observations about the Bible in the Afro-Caribbean religious context might be made here, since it is not possible to discuss each tradition separately. First, with the exception of Rastafari, it would be difficult to identify any of these wholly as biblical or Bible-based in their practice or theology. Nevertheless, and as one might expect, as part of the Christian, colonial culture of the Caribbean, the Bible has certainly influenced these traditions. As a result, one often sees a piecemeal incorporation of biblical texts into the practices of some traditions, as for example, with the use of Psalms 109 and 110 as imprecations in the context of Obeah in the Bahamas (McCartney, 1976). Second, and more often, it is the pervasive themes of biblical stories or biblical characters, especially those that have had particular resonance with slaves, that are used and transformed. An example might be the adoption in Vodou or Santería of traditions around biblical characters, such as the saints, with interesting changes in iconography—as with the depiction of the magi in Puerto Rican culture. Third, sometimes the traditions find themselves at odds with the Bible, especially as mediated through Christian societies and governments. They are often forced underground because of threat of punishment, and biblical text is appealed to as evidence of their “evil.”
Rastafari is an interesting exception in its unique, biblically focused, and Afrocentric orientation. “Afrocentric” does not indicate that this indigenous, New Age spiritual movement (Murrell, 2009, p. 286) is syncretic with African traditional faiths but that it is focused on a return to and a reconstitution of the people of God (Zion) in Africa, particularly Ethiopia. Beginning as a political response to poverty and crisis in 1930s Jamaica, the descendants of slaves, steeped in the revivalist folk Christianity of their heritage, recognized the Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia (crowned Ras Tafari in 1930) as the expected Messiah. This Ethiopian, messianic expectation was not, however, a modern invention, but had its roots in early slave culture (Murrell, 2009, p. 288).
Most interesting for our purposes here, Rastafari incorporates a wealth of biblical themes and texts as part of its ideology—as does the music associated with it—but it does not universally recognize the legitimacy of traditional biblical interpretation in Christianity or Judaism. Usually, Rastafarians read the Bible allegorically (Fernández Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert, 2003, p. 164) and operate a “canon within a canon.” They privilege black experience, seek ways to interpret the historical presence of Selassie, and “blacken” biblical peoples and existing theology (Murrell and Williams, 1998, pp. 328, 333). Moreover, Rastafari uses a unique method of reading known as “citing up,” which can be described as an Africa-centered, freestyle mode of interpretation, which relies on proof-texting, running commentaries (oral and written), the association of traditional myths and stories with contemporary parallels, symbols given double meanings, and very loose interpretations of the text (Murrell and Williams, 1998, p. 328).
Being Looked At: Art and the European Gaze.
In the harsh contexts of the Caribbean plantations, important seeds of the contemporary arts were formed; many of these have been returned to in recent decades as essential sources for national identities. Of course, the “arts” undoubtedly were present before European contact, as we can appreciate through various artifacts of the aboriginal populations of the eleventh through fifteenth centuries. These include the dohu or carved seat of the Taíno, or the woven grass blankets included in sites such as the burial at Preacher’s Cave, Eleuthera, Bahamas (Schaffer et al., 2012). Though much of the ethnographic work must be conjectural, it is speculated that various grave goods reflect the pantheon associated with the Taíno, in particular the creator god Yaya (Schaffer et al., 2012, pp. 3, 13, 15). It happened, subsequently, that such practices were syncretized with the funerary practices and arts of African slaves. For example, Veerle Poupeye refers to the Jamaican pottery funerary tradition that combines Taíno, West African, Spanish, and English influences (1998, p. 29); or one might also look to the pottery identified at the Clifton Plantation in Nassau, Bahamas (Wilkie and Farnsworth, 2005).
What we lack so far in the scholarship, however, is an untangling of these cultural parts—aboriginal, African, and European (biblical)—in order to develop a fuller picture of the earliest arts in the region. It is not so much that the “Bible” or the “European” can or should be isolated and appreciated independently, but that greater attention to the parts may for a time allow us to appreciate how they help to create the Caribbean’s earliest frameworks.
However, much of the pictorial and literary record of the early Caribbean comes to us through the eyes of the European colonizer and, later, the intrepid European traveler—the colonizer in a new form. This fact is important in any history of Caribbean art and culture, since it means that the pictorial imagery we have of plantocracy-era Caribbean and any literary evaluation of the land and its contents—human or otherwise—is interpreted in terms of several criteria: economic value for the plantation/sugar industry, moral appraisal of conduct and appearance, and a Christian mandate to “civilize” slaves. This European lens (which we use as a general term for convenience here, but of course must include regional differences) also means, in particular, that the artistic style and technique of Caribbean art, as it was later to be developed by Caribbean-born artists, was frequently in a state of mimicry. Hence, what was produced was interpreted in light of the “masters” from the great cultures of Europe. It also indicates that an essential part of the artistic heritage of the Caribbean creates, maintains, or responds to the idea that these lands and its peoples are objects to be consumed for the pleasure or purpose of others.
There were “minor” European painters who came to the Caribbean to practice their skills and to benefit from the patronage of plantation owners. In a style that was widely accepted as conforming to European tastes and sensibility, they engaged in the creation of the “Caribbean pastoral,” which aimed to depict the taming and grooming of the land, its flora, fauna, and transported workers, in order to civilize and make them highly productive (Mohammed, 2010, pp. 172, 174). These images also fed the growing European desire to document the region generally. To a great extent, this imaging of Caribbean islands obscured “real life,” even when these artistic observers were interested, for example, in studying and artistically moralizing the real-life “negro worker.” These images, too, were idealized “scientific” or taxonomic renderings of human inhabitants, whose aim was to gaze on difference and, perhaps more practically, to understand slaves so as to make them more compliant. It was not until the invention of the daguerreotype that we begin to see some more realistic representation of plantation life (Mohammed, 2010, pp. 186–189); even this genre, though, influenced as it was by painting, must still be understood as stylized and staged.
There were, however, also creole artists, that is, Caribbean-born artists of African and European parentage, such as José Nicolás de Escalera (1734–1804), Vicente Escobar (1762–1834), and José Campeche (1751–1809). Their work is modeled on that of European painters, but Poupeye sees in it a unique inventiveness around European prototypes and argues that what might appear as naïveté could reflect developing styles or conventions for the region (1998, p. 30). Poupeye also encourages attention to the racial background of these painters, since their work and subject matter indicate a color caste system that was developing as the Caribbean grew more settled. Finally, one should mention European artists, such as Camille Pissarro and Paul Gauguin, who, either from birth and early childhood in the Caribbean, or from significant visits to it, brought a “tropical influence” through their painting to the rest of Europe. If nothing else, they served to increase curiosity about the Caribbean and the desire to visit or perhaps possess it.
There is nothing explicitly biblical about this tradition of painting. What is interesting, though, is that exposure to African peoples gained through European contact with the slave trade certainly did influence European (biblical) art elsewhere. For instance, the subject of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Beloved (1865), the bride in the Song of Songs, has in attendance an African female slave.
Constructing the Caribbean through the traveler’s gaze.
It was, interestingly and somewhat ironically, the use of photographs that helped to ease the transition in many places from the plantocracy to the Caribbean’s new manifestation as tourist destination. Photography, then, quickly became about familiarizing these exotic lands and, more importantly, about the creation of “paradise.” A considerable case had to be made for this new profile: postslavery economic slumps, disease, and potentially unruly African-Caribbean populations made the Caribbean a challenging destination for prospective travelers and investors. Unease persisted well into the twentieth century, when civil rights issues in the United States caused prospective travelers to speculate about similar unrest among “people of color” elsewhere in the world. The postcard and the traveler’s journal, however, are both genres that were instrumental in creating a Caribbean that was internationally oriented, open for development, and focused on growth. Of course, they were also signs of the neocolonization of the region, which began an almost universal practice that was, once a dependency on tourism had been established, plastic enough to shift easily through independence and self-government into neocolonial relations with the United States and other nations. Most importantly, the journals and postcards pictorially and literarily created a Caribbean created by others and for others.
In these texts (pictorial and literary), the unpredictable difference of the Caribbean land and its peoples was able to be translated to something more palatable. Through the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century travel journal, readers could be part of the author’s “discovery” of the land, just like the intrepid explorers of an earlier age. The “folk practices” of the “natives”—dancing, simple songs, and carnival—were described in curious, sometimes slightly disapproving, but frequently affectionate terms. This was a place to fall in love with (see Powles, 1888). And the tourist materials provided a vista into the hardworking, simple, and quaint lives of the inhabitants. Frequently, the land and the people were essentialized: the ubiquitous palm tree or the woman going to market echoed nineteenth-century paintings but also reminded the viewer that, planted right beside the charming architecture in the colonies, native life such as this was there for visual enjoyment. This was a place that was different, beautiful and exotic, but also familiar enough to be safe.
Seeking “African presence” and the transnational.
How, though, might it be possible to escape these configurations, or to “unlearn the European gaze of the past” (Mohammed, 2010, p. 189)? Patricia Mohammed suggests that this is not a dilemma that needs to be resolved (2010, p. 189): the European gaze does have value for its provision of a visual record—as biased as that may be—and also as a polemic against which subsequent art developed. She suggests looking instead for connections between various schools, allowing them to coexist and mutually influence each other.
It is this connectedness that Leon Wainwright explores in his study of the transnational Caribbean and art, suggesting that it has been the failure to recognize such connections among Caribbean artists and their lands that has resulted in the international neglect of Caribbean art for so long (2011, p. 5). However, though the recognition of such connections and alliances is critical for appreciating Caribbeanness, in so doing, one should not ignore the impact of particular artistic works for their unique contexts. Multiple and intermittent as they may be, they are readable as a form of resistance against the impact of specific colonial experiences. As such, they are a critical part of the development of Caribbean artistic voices and are essential to the ongoing exploration of national identities.
The risk in navigating these two polarities, of course, is that one must not assume that postcolonial artists and nations always and only ever understand themselves as being in a state of response to colonialism (Sugirtharajah, 1998a, p. 112).
A Case Study: Bahamian Art.
Detailed explorations of art in Haiti and Cuba are available for an inquiry such as ours (e.g., Cullen and Fuentes, 2012; Poupeye, 1998), though no explicit work on the intersection of religion and art is yet available. Other parts of the Caribbean, however, have not benefited from such sustained interest by art historians. Unsurprisingly, through piecemeal study of particular works and particular nations, one may observe that religious life is frequently represented throughout Caribbean art. The Jamaican Errol MacKenzie’s work, for example, often begins with a tree, the turns and twists of which he links to Christ the “precious vine.” Mallica (Kapo) Reynolds (also Jamaican) has painted such subjects as Satan, or Heaven and Earth (1976), and Allan “Zion” Johnson (Jamaican) is known for his revivalist work of religious/biblical themes, for example, 4 and 20 Angels Saying Aman Aman (1989). These artists are part of a group labeled “Intuitives” (over against the potentially more derogatorily used labels of “primitive” or “naïve”), whose work is highly symbolic and allusive.
The Bahamas has a vibrant and interesting history of art, but this remains largely unanalyzed, especially for international audiences, though groups such as BACUS (Bahamas Association for Cultural Studies) and the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas have made excellent beginnings in this direction. Like the rest of the Caribbean, as described above, European painters cast this land in their image. Winslow Homer, for instance, famously spent a lot of time in the Bahamas, bequeathing enduring, romantic images of men battling the forces of the sea or of tranquil breezes brushing native flora against ancient, crumbling walls (A Wall, Nassau, 1898). Part of the Bahamian art story has been a response to such images, as with Dionne Benjamin-Smith’s rendering of Homer’s A Wall, in her series Real Bahamian Art 1–4. Her slogan printed on the Homer canvas reads “Requires No Explanation.” This response, along with comments on some older Bahamian artists who mimic Homer’s romanticism (“No Abstract Art Here,” “What You See Is What You Get”) is a poignant commentary on the attempted pinning down of Bahamian identity by outsiders, whose images have become emblematic of the land, or have inspired artistic conventions that she feels no longer fully represent art in the country.
Equally significant, in terms of exploring Bahamian identity, are attempts to render culture and history in a way that honors both but also responds critically to it, as with Jackson Burnside’s Toxic Waste (2010) and Antonius Roberts’s The Sacred Space (2006). Where the former appears, on first glance, as a joyful and chaotic celebration in tropical palette of the signs and symbols of Bahamian life, as the viewer looks down the canvas, all melds into a toxic sludge. The comment is perhaps that what lies below the surface of Bahamian culture is waste, a decaying ground; or one might read it positively, that there is still an exuberance and lightness to aspire to. Note that “religion,” if it is at all present, is hidden in such pieces behind mythical signs, Junkanoo, or African masks. There is no crucifix or biblical figure evident. In Roberts’s piece, a series of wooden figures faces the sea, harking back to those who once looked out from these shores at Africa. But in the use of the ubiquitous and sometimes troublesome casuarina trees in this way, ones sees a symbolic spirituality that connects the land with past and present.
Contemporary Bahamian artists also powerfully treat and demand an ethical response to pervasive challenges in society, such as the stifling presence of crime or poverty, and the challenge of Haitian illegal immigration, the tragic loss of boatpeople, and a stateless generation (see John Beadle’s Prayer for a Safe Crossing and Paravisini-Gebert on botpippel art and literature ). One can read, in such works, a sophisticated recognition of the complexities of personal histories and the multiply contested identities that exist in the country. Beadle's Prayer is not a co-option of the Haitian story, or even a romanticization of a current cause, a panacea prescribed for a given situation. It is a recognition of danger and loss but also the complex and competing desires (tourism, wealth, work) that create the complex state of Bahamian society. Beadle’s piece locates the subject with the land, with wood, with the sea. It also locates him intertextually with other pieces in the series and similar pieces outside of it, where the machete, with its multiple meanings of labor, violence, and uprising, resides.
It is Amos Ferguson’s work that brings us squarely into the realms of the religious and the biblical. Known as an outsider or intuitive artist, Ferguson’s work was executed on cardboard or plywood, primarily with house paints. Each of his paintings tells a story from his childhood, or from the Bible, or both. Ferguson’s biblical work has narrative retelling as its main intent. For instance, over the course of his life he represented various events in the life of Jesus, as with Jesu Was Tempted by the Devil (1991) and Jesus, 12 Years Old among Doctory and Lawyer (1978).
The desire to retell these foundational biblical stories and others, such as Adam and Eve and Moses, however, did not mean that Ferguson did not think about their applicability to his contemporary context. For example, in Jesus Is Riding through Jerusalem (1995), the caption at the bottom of the painting reads: “What are we doing for Jesus Bahamas?” And sometimes, Ferguson would treat the life of Jesus thematically and cross-culturally, as in If You Sick and Need Healin Just See Jesus (1988), which depicts Jesus beside a modern-day doctor, complete with stethoscope.
In all, Ferguson seemed to see the Bible as a frequent source for expertise in painting. He remarked: “To paint, the Lord gives you a vision, a sight that you go by. But don’t forget that you have to see and check that Bible and don’t forget God. And the more you keep up with your Bible, and get the understanding, the better you paint” (Coulson and Cox, 2012, p. 20). This underlying reliance on, and the overt depiction of the Bible need further exploration in Ferguson’s work. It is particularly provocative to think of these matters in terms of the “primitive” or “intuitive” label usually applied to Ferguson’s oeuvre and the correlating value—alternately positive and negative—that is applied to it.
Costumes, Dance, and the Carnival.
The category of Bahamian visual art—as well as that from other nations—might usefully be extended to include costuming. In the Bahamas, Jamaica, Belize, St. Kitts, Guyana, and Bermuda, for example, a Christmastime celebration called Junkanoo/Jonkonnu is observed, which is thought to have its origins in the plantation period as a licensed celebration for slaves. Extremely elaborate, colorful costumes are constructed throughout the course of the year, often in connection with particular historical or cultural themes. A legacy from the colonial government, teams compete against one another, each year upping the ante in terms of materials and scope of execution of the costumes. Music, too, once using simple goatskin drums and cowbells, has developed over time.
In the Bahamas, Junkanoo has had an interesting history in relation to the white establishment, being at times licensed, sponsored, prohibited, manipulated, and finally at least partially co-opted for tourism in the present day (as most recently with the newly created Junkanoo-Carnival for summer). Such a course of events has led many to ask whether this is truly a source for locating national identity or whether such conversations should be had elsewhere (e.g., Rommen, 2011). There is no question that Bahamians value Junkanoo, seeing it as emblematic of their history and present lives; there is also no question that, in the vacuum of a robust material culture, governments and tourist boards alike promote Junkanoo as quintessentially Bahamian, stretching and squeezing it to fit all contexts and audiences.
Junkanoo and its costumes are not expressly religious, but the Bible and Christian teachings make an occasional appearance, as with an Exodus or a Noah’s ark theme, or even the presence of Jesus. Historically, the ability of its participants to mask themselves (literally and figuratively) has allowed the kind of opacity in the face of slavery and colonization that the cultural theorist Édouard Glissant (1997) has described. Even so, today the liberation of the carnival may not be required as a release from oppression, but its context allows for community building, identity formation, and the expression of creativity. This is where the Bible most understandably makes an appearance, as one of a range of cultural tools with which Bahamians and other Caribbeans are extremely familiar. The Bible’s occasional presence in Junkanoo costuming does not change the overall tenor of the celebration and give it new (religious) significance but instead signals the multiple influences that make up the carnival and Caribbean culture.
And yet the Bible does not seem to be just one of many themes that might be included. If not directly visible in Junkanoo, as a robust part of Bahamian culture, biblical faith may well be behind it. Sometimes this ideological alliance with biblical faith is commonplace enough that it hardly bears comment. For example, in a recent exhibition at the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas (2014) on Junkanoo and the work of Gus Cooper (“Ace of Spades”), the visitor was met on entry with a large painted mural celebrating Junkanoo. The central figure, in company with many other, nonbiblical ones, was Moses. Furthermore, in tributes to and comments made about Junkanoo on the walls of the exhibition, one could read, variously: “Make a joyful noise. … ‘Praise Him with instruments and dance!’ … A Bahamian people celebrate a ‘time to dance’ (cf. Eccl 3:4)” and “The stone that the builder rejected, the complete and comprehensive liberation of our collective mind, body, and soul… .” These biblical references indicate to any viewer not only how important biblical faith might be in the contemporary Bahamas but also how easily and pervasively biblical ideas and tropes might be envisioned as part of the Bahamian cultural picture. They are a powerful resource that, despite their colonial origins, continues to be meaningful for Caribbean participants in the carnival.
What, then, about the national significance of Junkanoo? There has also been some discussion in the literature as to whether the purpose or overall theme of Junkanoo is a religious one. Certainly the music has been traced to African rhythm and dance, and there is some speculation that African mythologies are behind the celebration—in other words that the tradition originally had a religious meaning as much as a social one. Others have commented on the liturgical nature of the proceedings and have attempted to read Christian theological significance into them (Minnis, 2003). Also, there is still more to be said about the potential spiritual—but not necessarily Christian—significance of Junkanoo as it is linked to explorations of Bahamian identity (see Rommen, 1999, 2011).
Even if one could prove religio-historical significance, however, it will always be the case that, as part of culture, continuously influenced by countless factors, the meaning of Junkanoo shifts continually. In other carnival celebrations in other places, for instance, Mardi Gras or Rara in Haiti and Carnival in Trinidad, historical connections are made to Lent and the Easter period. But even these more “obvious” religious cases should no longer be perceived to be uniquely religious celebrations. For both nations, there are so many plural voices and influences that the festivals no longer have a homogeneous meaning.
Neither should we confuse carnival with total exuberance. Not only does it continually inflect the plantation past, it also has a multivalent present. Supriya Nair’s (2013) investigation of the carnival, the grotesque, and murder are a case in point. Her elaboration of the dark side of the Caribbean illustrates that, at least for some literary artists, mass murders like Jonestown are performative, provocative, and carnivalesque.
Spirituals, Reggae, and Other Musical Forms.
The Caribbean boasts a strong and diverse musical tradition; carnival is, of course, a small part of this. Here, two other aspects are fruitful for our brief inquiry, since they are perhaps the most obvious in their use of biblical themes and texts: spirituals (also known as “negro spirituals”) and reggae music. That said, any serious inquiry of musical culture in the Caribbean should not ignore the other forms with which the region is associated, namely, calypso, soca, mento, bouyon, punta, zouk, spouge, ska, rocksteady, and so on. Nor, however, should one assume that even this brief list is culturally homogeneous; these forms are multiply influenced and continue to change as they spread throughout the region. Whereas that picture is typical of a lot of musical styles and genres in the Caribbean, however, both spirituals and reggae are clearly associated with biblical traditions and do not really reflect the hybridity that other forms do.
Spirituals are recognized as a formal genre and are linked to American slavery in terms of their point of origin and their particular mixture of American hymnody and African songs. Interestingly, the statement is often made that no similar genre developed in the Caribbean at all (Erskine, 2010, p. 167). The American spiritual is characterized by its polished style, by its developed theological themes, and eventually by its absorption of Protestant hymns and hymnic styles. Biblical themes and figures abound in these songs, often within the context of the discourse of sin and redemption, a doctrine with which Caribbean slaves were initially unfamiliar until missionaries were sent from the United States. This may be one reason why Caribbean spirituals did not develop (Erskine, 2010, p. 168). One might consider, for example, the lyrics of “Amazing Grace,” which are so well known that they do not need to be elaborated here. Similar sentiments appear in “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” and “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” But important figures, such as Ezekiel, Daniel, and of course Jesus, the primary focus of many songs, also appear in these texts. And all is not about sin and redemption. Sometimes liberation had a more this-worldly focus, and the Bible was a useful resource for seeking comfort in the world or hope for a better future. It has also been suggested by some that codes developed whereby the biblical themes and figures in these songs might cover practical instructions for escape, or passage to the Underground Railway, or the like.
And yet, one does not want to be too hasty to elevate the spiritual and thereby neglect the other types of singing—religious singing—that were taking place on the Caribbean plantations. One should also not assume that the locations of slaves remained static; in fact we know that slaves were moved all around the Caribbean and from the Caribbean to the United States and back again. This leaves open the possibility for all kinds of musical cross-fertilization.
In the Bahamas, there is an elaborate mixture of singing practices in historical and contemporary contexts, from ring songs, to plantation songs, to intercessory watches (for someone who is dying), to funerals, to seafaring songs (see Kuss, 2007). Many of these use biblical themes and figures; many also are borrowed from liturgical settings (which would be American or European transplants) but modified somewhat. For Craton and Saunders, this mixture speaks to an authentic oral folk tradition, which, though lacking the “exquisite poetry” of the American spirituals, displayed “metrical vigour, showed fluid invention” and expressed longing and hope via Christian teachings (2000, p. 120). Their orality makes them difficult to capture and reproduce, but they are still in evidence today, even if practice is diminishing. It is doubtful, too, that such observations of Craton and Saunders need to be limited to the Bahamas, and highly likely therefore that similar musical expressions and practices are manifest throughout the Caribbean.
The point of origins for reggae, by contrast, is firmly locatable in 1950s poor and working-class, newly urbanized Jamaica (Aljoe, 2012, p. 57). It has close ties with Rastafari (though is not always contiguous with it) and is associated most popularly with the work of Bob Marley. In connection with this, one might also mention Nyabhingi chants, which have influenced, and are often incorporated into, reggae. These have a specific liturgical purpose for Rastafari worship. Reggae’s use of the biblical text—whether or not explicitly filtered through Rastafari—is, like the latter, selective of key themes and ideas (e.g., Babylon, Zion), mixing them with contemporary and historical issues (slavery, exile, poverty). It, too, has an allusive or allegorical mode of reading, seeing the Bible as a sourcebook for the musical genre’s main aim: the decrying of the contemporary ills of Babylon and a hope for a better future in Africa.
Two possible avenues of investigation are available to the investigator of Caribbean culture and the Bible in conjunction with reggae. The first might be to pursue a thorough analysis of the lyrics in light of the specific hermeneutical strategy of citing-up outlined briefly above. For instance, one could take the song “Exodus,” by Bob Marley and explore its use of historical and contemporary contexts and ideologies, or “Armagideon” by Bunny Wailer, and look into its use of familiar biblical ideas of light, darkness, sin, creation, and, of course, the Apocalypse. The second avenue of investigation is to read the music more thematically and theologically. This is evident, for example, in J. Richard Middleton’s discussion of the imago dei and creation (2000) and Noel Erskine’s exploration of liberation and social change through the revolution of love (2010).
Sayings and Storytelling.
While analysis of literature (primarily fiction) seems an obvious avenue for explorations of the Bible’s impact on Caribbean culture, space must also be given for the spoken word, which comes in many forms, such as proverbs, spells or fixes, and storytelling. It is especially important to consider these with respect to Caribbean peoples, given the development of oral traditions during slavery and the continued manifestation of these traditions in some countries today. The latter is, for example, true of the Bahamas: Nicolette Bethel has noted the difficulty in investigating national identity without the presence of a “readily observable symbolic product,” such as literary narratives. Again, as we have been seeing with so many other forms of cultural expression, a biblical presence in oral traditions is allusive, fleeting, and sometimes has to be inferred, surely a reflection of the fluid nature of oral traditions themselves. At best, one might suggest a hybridity of forms, a creolization of African and European practices and ideas.
One could begin with proverbs, which are ubiquitously used throughout the Caribbean—as Chinua Achebe once remarked of African proverbial traditions, “the palm oil with which words are eaten.” Proverbs bear witness to the colorful and inventive nature of many Caribbean verbal cultures, namely: “When hand full, him hab plenty company” or “hog know where to rub he skin.” Some show clear relations among different nations, suggesting they were moved around in the same way that songs and stories might have been, from island to island. Others directly echo African sayings.
There is a danger in jumping to the conclusion that the Bible is the source for this practice. To be sure, the biblical proverb tradition is well known throughout the region and used widely; as indicated, many Caribbean peoples are taught the Bible and use it freely in daily life. However, creole proverbs seem to be a clear mix of biblical wisdom and African traditions; it seems better to point to the shared interest in proverbial speech, rather than posit a causative relationship between Bible and proverb culture.
Creole proverbs are not often religious, but they do share a similar worldview with the biblical and Christian traditions. For example, such principles as the golden rule, or various ideas expressed in the book of Proverbs, such as honoring one’s parents, respecting social order, being verbally circumspect, and so on, appear in these Bahamian examples:
- • What sweeten yuh mout gon bitter yuh tail.
- • Fisherman never smell he own basket.
- • If you lay with dogs you gon catch fleas.
The true breadth of the Caribbean proverbial tradition is, unfortunately, lost to us. This is partly because proverbs are transmitted orally, falling in and out of use. In addition, as Craton and Saunders remark, what has been preserved has often been only that which Europeans/colonizers heard, understood, and did not find offensive (2000, p. 121).
Similarly, the contemporary practice of storytelling may be associated with slave culture in Caribbean and American plantations, again believed to be a transplantation of African life and culture. The types of stories that were and are circulated around the Caribbean vary considerably, and, as with the proverbs, it is difficult to gauge their dimensions. The Anansi and Brer Rabbit stories, with their particular variations (Anancy, Nancy, B’Rabby, Rabbi, etc.), are perhaps the best known regionally. These share a common trickster figure motif. Anansi is a spider who gets the better of his opponents, and Brer Rabbit is a clever animal who, though not always successful, becomes a hero through his antics and his undermining of those more powerful than he. These particular tales entered into popular culture thanks to their encapsulation in the Uncle Remus stories of Joel Chandler Harris. Other figures are associated more closely with African deities or mythologies and seem to have little Christian crossover (e.g., La Diablesse, Papa Bois, or Loup Garou).
Biblical texts and themes sometimes appear in Caribbean storytelling. In the Bahamas, to “talk ol’ story” means to pass on family histories and tales, but also to gather as a community and to celebrate shared culture and tradition. In some examples, such as in “Why the Serpent Has a Cleft Tongue and Crawls on His Belly” (Glinton-Meicholas, 1994), the biblical text is loudly present. This etiological tale is a midrashic expansion on the character of the serpent and on God’s punishment. It has a clear moral message, which presumably the hearer would be only too able to connect to the greater message of the Christian Fall narrative. There are also other elaborations on the garden of Eden story, such as the etiological tale concerning Cain and Abel’s relationship: Cain was fathered by Satan, with whom Eve had relations under the apple tree (Thompson, 2015). Other Caribbean stories, though, are concerned with African-Caribbean religions, such as Obeah or Vodou. In many cases, in a story where a Christian and an African tradition are brought into conflict, it is the Christian ideology that either prevails or tempers the African traditional one. Such is the case in the Bahamian stories “The Legend of Sammie Swain” and “Obeah!” An audience may be able to tolerate Obeah until something truly important, such as eternal life, hangs in the balance (Dahl, 1995); at this point, favor swings to the Christian position. In this way, such stories appear to act out the colonial tussle of religious traditions brought into contact with each other: in the Bahamas, Christianity prevailed. In other countries, such as Trinidad or Haiti, however, the non-Christian mythical figures are not so easily rationalized and absorbed.
Brer Rabbit and Anansi are, like the stories just described, not so much biblical as they might be responding to a biblically inspired culture and morality—often providing a subversive alternative. They also clearly have a more focused and practical issue to hammer out, which is social inequity and injustice, brought on by the relationship between slave and white owner. The trickster—the underdog, or the smaller animal in many stories—always bests, or almost bests, the powerful. Now, one might bring these stories usefully into conversation with biblical tricksters and folktales involving animals, but the response would surely be quite different. In the biblical cases, writers and redactors contextualize these figures in the prevailing culture of law and tradition (even if readers might be able to read against the grain). In the Anansi and Brer Rabbit stories, however, the tricksters have not become subsumed into the dominant Christian ideology. Some scholars suggest that this results in an ideological crisis in audiences, who might identify as Christian but who explore decidedly un-Christian means to escape their present reality (even if figuratively).
The slave narrative may not be an obvious inclusion in this section. Indeed, scholars observe that slave narratives have an interesting and arguably liminal position in relation to oral tradition, autobiography, and literary text. Unlike their American counterparts, Caribbean slave narratives do not take a typical autobiographical form (The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass  is often, though not without controversy, held up as the paradigm for this genre). Instead, they are mediated by white writers and can take the form of fragments, embedded anecdotes, unsigned and undated texts, parts of legal proceedings, and medical and religious records (Aljoe, 2012, pp. 13–15). Nicole Aljoe argues that they are probably of earlier origin than American narratives and should be investigated not despite but for their multivocity and hybridity. These, after all, are factors that well reflect Caribbean experience and culture.
Authors of both American and Caribbean manifestations of slave witness (in whatever formal aspect they appear) pepper their texts with signs of their faith and hope for a better world to come. In this way, the Bible makes an occasional appearance, as in the memoirs of Mary Prince or Salone Cuthbert (Aljoe, 2012). Note that knowledge and use of the biblical text is not detailed in these instances; it was customary for slaves to be taught the tenets of Christian faith but not the details in text or theology. It is also evident that the Bible, filtered through the slave narratives, made an appearance in abolitionist discourse. There, though, the slave would be cast as the hapless victim, dependent on the prayers and Christian morals of the slavers and their governments. It would also be important, finally, to include the work of figures such as Olaudah Equiano as part of this discussion (The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, 1789); although considered an African American slave, he spent much of his time in Caribbean plantations. (In this way, his story, like many others, further shows that the differentiation between African and Caribbean slavery is not always useful, or accurate.) His discussion of various biblical figures such as Moses, Joseph, and Elijah, whose stories have special relevance for him, certainly merits consideration in investigations of the Bible and the Caribbean (see Richards, 2000; Wimbush, 2014).
The pursuit of the Bible and biblical faith is, perhaps, more easily accomplished in the novels and poetry of Caribbean writers. Surprisingly, though the literature is often deeply religious, spirituality and the sacred remain largely unaddressed. As Michael Jagessar (2008) observes, there is need to connect the literature with emerging Caribbean theology and “Black God-talk”; there is also, however, the need for a sustained cultural-critical reading of the biblical text and Jewish-Christian religion in them. We might briefly take the oft-quoted poem by Derek Walcott, “The Sea Is History” (2014, p. 253), as an example:
First, there was the heaving oil,heavy as chaos;then, like a light at the end of a tunnel,
the lantern of a caravel,and that was Genesis.Then there were the packed cries,The shit, the moaning:
Jagessar points us to the profound questions asked about the nature of the divine and theodicy in this text. This is apt. However, we might also see here a literary rearticulation (and critique) of the biblical narrative, and, intriguingly, it is not just the mainstream myth and its components (the Ark of the Covenant, the Exodus) that merit Walcott’s attention but also the interstitial spaces/texts such as the Song of Songs. Fiona Darroch urges us to look more closely, to see Walcott’s rearticulation of a spirituality that is based on a new sacred site, the sea, which reveals the tensions, much as its tides, pulling back and forth between history and identity (2011, pp. 105–106). Truth and a confrontation with the violence of the past (and the scriptures?) are all essential parts of Walcott’s location of sacredness.
There are important spiritual or theological themes to be pursued in the study of Caribbean poets and fiction writers, too. Theodicy is a prevalent one and is explored in profound ways in works by Roger Mais (The Hills Were Joyful Together  and Brother Man ) and by Earl Lovelace (While Gods Are Falling  and The Wine of Astonishment ). Jagessar (2008) also points us to texts that posit alternative understandings of the cross (Ismith Khan’s The Crucifixion  and Gérard Étienne’s Crucified in Haiti ) and such biblical and traditional themes as sin and the Fall (Olive Senior’s Arrival of Snake-Woman and Other Stories ). So far, however, the scholarship seems to be thematic and theological in nature; literary-cultural studies of the Bible as intertext in Caribbean fiction have not yet been undertaken in any focused way.
At least one caveat might be raised in all of these possibilities. The idea of the sacred and such terms as “religious” or “spiritual” are the products of an imperialist essentialism that reveals European anxieties about the different (superstitious) forms of spirituality that the colonizers encountered. Moreover, the continued use of the idea of the sacred reinforces the marginalization of Caribbean peoples, continuing to render their space and cultures “exotic” and sacredness ultimately unattainable. One should also extend such observations to the received notions of “Bible” and “Christian.” For Darroch, then, the more advisable course is to avoid replicating the “exoticist production of otherness” and work to “focu[s] on the literatures’ recuperative and reconstructive dimensions …” and thereby “dismantl[e] Western modes of vision and thought” (2011, pp. 102, 104).
Conclusions: Other Directions.
Darroch’s ideas might not simply be applied to literature and the sacred, but perhaps to all that we have been considering here. As with any kind of postcolonial analysis of religion and culture, one needs to think carefully about the received notions of “Caribbean,” “Christian,” “Bible,” and so on, that are being used in such studies. It is vital that we contextualize the works being considered within the history of the region, but also avoid seeing contemporary work only as looking back, and instead consider it as creating forward or creating anew. More than this, we would benefit from a more in-depth, ideological analysis of exactly how the Bible is received, constructed, and disseminated in the Caribbean—historically and contemporarily.
And, of course, there is so much more to be said. One might look to sermons, to advertising, to political speeches, and more. Indeed, where should the lines around “the arts” be drawn? And what of the intersecting lines and passages of the Caribbean itself? Doubtless a similar exercise, focusing this time on the Hispanic Caribbean and its relation to Latin America, would yield a different set of impressions and challenges. The same would have to be said if diaspora Caribbeanness was brought as an equal partner into the conversation. A step like this would further focus questions about the impact that immigration, migration, and the experience of diaspora has had on the arts, locally or externally produced. These intersecting lines, the transnational connections (Wainwright, 2011), the multiple and chaotic voices (Benítez-Rojo, 1996) must enter into our conversations as we take them to more sophisticated levels. What has been begun here is a sampling of possibilities; the next step is to allow them to speak to each other, not to subject them to a “specific kind of knowledge” (Benítez-Rojo, 1996), but to allow them to confuse and collide, to recuperate and reconstruct.
[See also REGGAE MUSIC.]
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Fiona C. Black