Artist furious with CoH over Gombey mural
An artist told yesterday how she was “livid” as her project to celebrate Gombeys with a mural in Hamilton fell apart.
April Branco was close to completing her work on a wall by the City Hall car park when it was painted over.
The Corporation of Hamilton removed the mural, claiming it had deviated from the original submission and represented only one specific Gombey troupe.
However, Ms Branco hit back at the municipality and said she alerted a project administrator on discovering the wall space was too small for the proposed design and was told she had “creative freedom”.
She has been shadowing the H&H Gombeys for four years as part of a book project she is working on and it is the only troupe she has painted.
Ms Branco was chosen to produce a mural near the taxi stand on Church Street as part of the City Art Festival.
The artist told The Royal Gazette she submitted sample images for consideration and eventually put together a sketch based on H&H members and regalia including drummers, dancers and a child’s portrait, which was approved.
She continued: “When I got to the wall and I measured it, it was almost a foot shorter, instead of being five feet it was four feet high, that’s a huge difference.”
Ms Branco said she was told by a festival administrator: “Use your best artistic judgment; it’s your project. You have creative freedom; do what you feel is best.”
The artist sketched out the work that had been approved but felt it was not going to have the desired impact in the space available so returned to sample images the team had liked and came up with a new plan to show the captains of the troupe unmasked.
Ms Branco said: “They are real people, they have names, they are identifiable so they deserve respect and public recognition.
“I’m trying to help push the conversation about our appreciation of Gombeys further from just the dancer to the man.”
She said the change of layout was relayed to the same City employee without question.
As the mural started to take shape, an article printed in the Gazette stated Ms Branco was painting H&H Gombey captains and had altered the original design of the work. An image of the first “man behind the mask” was also shared on the City’s Instagram account.
With three out of four portraits on the wall, and days before she was due to move to London, Ms Branco was informed there was a problem.
In a meeting with festival co-ordinators, the artist said it appeared her intention to alter the mural had not been made apparent to all concerned. She said: “I was livid, I was crying in the meeting. I was so angry and upset.
“I said, I’m a social artist and social commentator, I’m trying to achieve a social and cultural design here by appreciating our black history and black culture.”
The City has since said it is not policy to “practice favouritism and Ms Branco’s decision to paint only members of a particular local Gombey troupe did just that”.
A spokeswoman added: “She was offered the opportunity to paint the captains of each active Gombey troupe in Bermuda that would have still met the criteria and would have been seen to be more inclusive but she declined.”
However, Ms Branco said the idea to show captains of several troupes was hers. She explained: “I put every ounce of myself in the heat of summer on to that wall. I said, how can I make this work? That other layout is not going to work in that space.
“The only thing I can think of, and I made the suggestion, was to paint the head captain of every troupe on the island instead of four captains from my troupe.
She added: “I caveated the entire thing with this: I will paint all the Gombey troupes pending my H&H captain’s approval.
“I asked the head captain and the captain said no.”
Ms Branco has been left “weary” by the affair, which sparked a social media row over the weekend.
She said: “What was supposed to be a great celebration of Bermudian culture has been destroyed. For the first time in eight years as a professional artist I packed up my studio and got a full-time job.”
The City was contacted yesterday but did not provide a response before press time.
In a statement issued on Friday, the municipality said it was “with deep regret” it had decided to remove the mural.
A spokeswoman said: “Painting over the mural was the last and least desired result of this unfortunate dispute and Ms Branco was offered the chance to revert to her original submission. She declined.”
The statement continued: “There was no consultation with the City on the change and the City is of the opinion that the second image violates the criteria of the City Art Festival that follows the City’s policy.”
This morning, a banner had been installed at the spot stating: “Creative freedom does not exist in a sanitized paradise.”
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