A beautiful exhibition you will want to revisit
Until now, Jacqueline Alma has been known primarily as a portrait artist. Her current exhibition at the Bermuda National Gallery is, however, not about portraiture at all — that is, in the traditional sense.
Uniquely, the show is a self-portrait; perhaps better thought of as an autobiography.
The title of the exhibition, Like a Tree Let the Dead Leaves Drop, was taken from the 13th-century Sufi mystic poet, Mawlana Jalal-al-Din Rumi.
It suggests a reflective process, a probing into one’s life, however the artist has been discrete in “putting it out there”. It is certainly possible to enjoy the show at the mere physical level and come away impressed by the artist’s incredible skill in depicting the physical world with paint and graphite. Still, many are attuned to the deeper levels of the exhibition as well. This is certainly evident in the remarks written in the BNG’s guestbook and one viewer told me that the show brought her to tears.
It will take time to fully process this exhibition and, as one visitor suggested, multiple, short-term visits may be needed. Maybe that is what it takes to come to some kind of understanding.
Although the artist — mostly by metaphorical means — has processed her life, there is a commonality that she shares with many others. Possibly the red thread that intertwines throughout some of the paintings reflects this common connection.
The title also suggests a discarding of that which has died in one’s life — be it negative emotions, unrealised ambitions, whatever. I was reminded in that respect by something I read in the life of Nelson Mandela and keep in mind that Alma is from South Africa. While Mandela was president of South Africa, he had a visit from Bill Clinton, then US president.
On a visit to Robben Island, the location of the prison where Mandela had been incarcerated for so many years, he showed Clinton his tiny cell, According to the story, Clinton responded by saying: “Doesn’t this make you angry?” Mandela supposedly said that of course it had, but that was one emotion he had to drop, as the only person being hurt was he, himself. Dropping negative emotions and unfulfilled ambitions can be incredibly freeing. We all have our limitations.
In the BNG’s main gallery, there are two paintings and a large graphite drawing of trees. Underneath is that which has fallen, be it fossils, feathers, shells, bones, discarded toys etc. They probably all have meaning and the idea of a fossil as metaphor indicates something one has clung to so long as to be ossified. In the trees themselves there is also evidence of heavy pruning and grafting.
I think of the growing of fruit trees. Take, for example, peaches. To get quality fruit, heavy pruning is essential. Additionally, it is also important to limit the number of peaches. If the crop is abundant, it is necessary to discard many while they are still very small, allowing fruit only about every four inches. By this means, you get large, juicy peaches. I suppose this is true of other crops as well. I’m reminded of a quote by Goethe, the German polymath, who said that limitations bring out the master: “In life it is necessary to not only prune or drop certain aspects of our experiences, it is also important to limit ourselves.”
In addition to the tree, Alma uses numerous other items, mostly from nature, as metaphors for certain aspects of her life experiences. These include the moth, the sphenoid bone, bird’s wings, deer antlers and a birdcage.
This is a thoughtful, complex, highly detailed and artistically impressive and beautiful exhibition. It opened to the public some weeks ago and will continue at least until the end of the summer but if you have not yet seen it, I recommend you do so sooner than later, as you may want to see it multiple times.
In conjunction with the exhibition, a beautifully illustrated book of Alma’s art is also available.