High marks for sheer impact

I was in the midst of writing this review on the Dany Pen exhibition when my efforts were interrupted by Hurricane Igor. When I finally got back to working on it I realised that I was, by then, too late to get it published before the end of the show.

Nevertheless, the exhibition raised such important issues, I thought it important to continue with it.

The Dany Pen exhibition was concerned with issues of identity. For her it was a personal quest to discover her Cambodian roots, as best she could, given their rupture by the Khmer Rouge. This show triggered my thinking about other aspects of identity, especially our Bermudian identity. I also looked for other artists who have used their art as a means of dealing with identity. One such was the Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin.


I was in the midst of writing this review on the Dany Pen exhibition when my efforts were interrupted by Hurricane Igor. When I finally got back to working on it I realised that I was, by then, too late to get it published before the end of the show.

Nevertheless, the exhibition raised such important issues, I thought it important to continue with it.

The Dany Pen exhibition was concerned with issues of identity. For her it was a personal quest to discover her Cambodian roots, as best she could, given their rupture by the Khmer Rouge. This show triggered my thinking about other aspects of identity, especially our Bermudian identity. I also looked for other artists who have used their art as a means of dealing with identity. One such was the Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin.

In 1897, Gauguin, who by then was living in Tahiti, painted his masterpiece entitled: 'Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?'. These three fundamental questions are ones we all want answered. Basically they deal with identity and in order to find answers we often look to our past to our ancestors. In researching family genealogies, we might find names and some basic information, such as who married who and who their children were, but beyond that, not much else. Mostly our ancestors are unknown to us other than names, if that. What were they like? What did they look like? We have little way of knowing.

Beyond our own particular links with our ancestors, however, there is the impact of our community's history, which is also part of our identity. Additionally, personal achievements are a consideration.

But what if your family's genealogy is only piecemeal, what then? Such was the case with Gauguin. Although his father was French, his mother was Peruvian, through whom Gauguin claimed Inca ancestry. In growing up, he spent time in both France and Peru. His roots were multicultural. His move to Tahiti in 1891 was part of his search for the noble savage, as exemplified in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but to a certain extent it was a search for his own identity, the non-European aspect of his past.

As a member of the International Association of Art Critics, I occasionally attend meetings in the Caribbean and there the issue of identity, it seems, is almost an obsession. Some years ago, the Brooklyn Museum hosted a show of Caribbean art called Infinite Island. (Incidentally, the curator of that exhibition was Tumelo Mosaka, who was one of the jurors for this year's Bermuda National Gallery Biennial). The exhibition made much of such Caribbean issues as identity, diversity and hybridity, however, one critic writing for the New York Times said that such concerns are considered "uncool" in Manhattan.

Perhaps that says more about the state of art in Chelsea, than anything constructive regarding this exhibition in Brooklyn.

Bermudians, at least on the surface, seem less concerned about identity. I have said, half facetiously, that we Bermudians these days are mostly obsessed with money and materialism. Yet, we too are concerned with identity even though we seldom talk about it. An important part of maturing is gaining an understanding of who we are, individually and as a community. We Bermudians have, over the centuries, developed a unique culture that is unlike any other. It is important for us to know about it and respect it. We as a community, however, are at risk of losing our cultural distinctiveness through the ever pervading influences of foreign television programmes and other media.

I noted a few days ago the request made to Government by Berkeley Institute student, Kiaaron Minks, for more Bermuda history in the school curriculum. This resonates with my thinking. We cannot now control the influences from outside the community, nor would I want to, but we can teach Bermuda history including our cultural history. While teaching at Bermuda College I found that many of my students had little knowledge of local history or were able to identify aspects of our uniqueness. Instilling in our students a knowledge of who we are and how we got that way, therefore, is of critical importance in combating the loss of personal and collective identity. We need to be proud of our uniqueness and the only way to gain this pride is knowing about it. Knowing who we are is important in developing a positive self-image.

These thoughts have been going around in my head ever since visiting the Dani Pen exhibition which, until recently, was on show at the Bermuda Society of Arts. Entitled Deja Vu, this exhibition was about the artist's search for identity and the loss of knowledge of her Cambodian roots, through her exile from her homeland and the loss of relatives through mass killings on the part of the Khmer Rouge. She is also concerned about the current loss of Cambodian cultural identity through the impact of western media. She sees the latter as a kind of neocolonialism.

Upon entering the show I was confronted by three large photographs which appeared notably blurred. These pictures of unknown relatives were, originally, background pictures in larger family photographs. The large photographs on show are the result of her attempt to reconstruct the appearance and bring into focus these unknown individuals. In the end her achievements are completely out-of-focus portraits. These unknown relatives are as mysterious as the names we find on genealogical charts. She was told that these individuals had helped her family escape the genocide that took place in Cambodia a few decades ago, but beyond that, she has little knowledge of who they were. Yet, she recognises an indebtedness to them, of her very existence.

We too owe our existence to our ancestors, who, are likewise, largely unknown to us. For some, this lack of information may be due to the loss or difficulty in accessing records. For those of African descent, there is also the massive disruption caused by slavery, which leaves a large part of our community with truncated roots; that is, they are cut off from knowing their African ancestry from beyond the period of enslavement.

I was fascinated, a score or more years ago. by the novel 'Roots' by Alex Haley which tells about the author's attempt to reconstruct his African roots, first through researching certain words that had been passed down through family members resulting in the discovery, supposedly, of the author's actual African tribe. I understand that, although this theme makes a good story his quest to actually find his roots was, in reality, less successful.

As for the visual artists here in Bermuda: Should we deal artistically with issues of identity, and if so, how? We Bermudians come from a variety of backgrounds, which makes for an interesting community, but how can we appropriately showcase these differences? These are provocative questions that are worth thinking about.

Over the past 18 years that the Bermuda National Gallery has been in existence, the BNG has sought to highlight and celebrate our diverse population with such shows as the Window On the Azores, Secrecy, (African Art) and Carib Art. That is only a beginning, however. Other similar exhibition are currently under consideration, which will continue to build bridges across the diversity divide within our community.

The Dany Pen exhibition is unfortunately finished. I can tell you, however, that through her skillful use of photography, engravings and video, she created a show that gets high marks for sheer impact. It was a strong show that, hopefully, will once again be shown in the foreseeable future. It is that important.

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