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Former air terminal artwork inspires BNG show

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Edwin Smith with Robert Bassett’s work, Gombeys in the Hood (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)

For years, Robert Bassett’s Gombey paintings entertained, soothed and distracted passengers at the old L.F. Wade International Airport.

The paintings were life-size – large enough that people passing through arrivals, or collecting suitcases in baggage, could appreciate them without squinting.

When the terminal closed in December 2020 the paintings fell into darkness. There was no air conditioning to preserve them in the now-empty building and no eyes to appreciate them. They were difficult to rehome because of their size.

The Department of Culture asked the Bermuda National Gallery for help, either with storage, or relocation ideas.

BNG acquisitions committee member Edwin Smith said: “The BNG had its own problems with storage so it could not do that.”

However, the City Hall-based art gallery suggested they put the works on show again so people could appreciate them.

“It would be a reintroduction of sorts,” said BNG acquisition committee member Edwin Smith.

Dr Smith, an artist and long-time Bermuda College art professor, was asked to curate a show around the paintings. The result was A Sense of Belonging – Connection and Community running from now until March. It includes paintings, a quilt, photographs and sculpture by pivotal local artists such as Graham Foster, Robert Barritt, Bill Ming, Charles Lloyd Tucker, Sharon Muhammad and others.

BNG patrons admiring Robert Barritt’s painting Two Weeks Before Christmas and Government House (Photograph supplied)

“I felt honoured to curate it,” Dr Smith said. “When they mentioned the pieces by Bassett I knew them, and had a good feeling associated with them.”

However, he did not know exactly why he felt so positive. He pondered the question for two weeks in order to construct a theme for the exhibition.

“The paintings were brought here to the gallery and put into a little room,” Dr Smith said. “I got to spend time with the pieces, which I loved.”

He realised Mr Bassett’s Here Come the Gombeys and Gombeys in the Hood, were not about the Gombeys or about the drummers.

“They were about the total experience and the circle of people around the dancers and how the people felt,” Dr Smith said.

He saw a community within a community in the paintings, and a sense of belonging.

“Sometimes the community seems to match the energy of the dance troupe, and at other times they appear mesmerised,” Dr Smith said. “What remains consistent is the sense of togetherness. People in the paintings are seen imitating and their presence is supporting.”

Dr Smith wanted to build a show that dealt with relationships.

Many of the pieces in A Sense of Belonging come from the BNG’s collection, but others were specially selected by Dr Smith from outside sources.

Topping the list of images he wanted to include was Bill Ming’s wood sculpture, Family Circle. The series of seven figures stood in the City Hall foyer until 2020, when they were moved to the Bermuda National Museum in Dockyard.

Dr Smith was gleeful that in his role as curator he did not have to worry about the logistics of transporting Family Circle back from the West End.

“The beauty of being the curator was that I could give my vision and say what I wanted and give the connections I saw,” Dr Smith said. “I did not have to figure out the logistics to get the work. To have a wish list is one thing, but to actually see it realised here in the place was so good!”

Peter Lapsley’s painting Crowd of One (Photograph supplied)

Dr Smith also wanted to include Crowd of One, a small painting by Peter Lapsley that he saw years ago in a Bermuda Society of Arts show.

“It is basically a white painting with a black line,” he said.

That line seems to represent a line of small figures.

“It is ambiguous,” Dr Smith said. “Are they really small figures? If they are people, are they leaving me or coming towards me? What is their relationship?”

Some of the works in the show, such as Graham Foster’s Seas of Europa, have been out of the public eye for several years. The piece is a mobile that depicts men in a boat chasing a whale who is part of a circle of fish. It is hung in such a way that the silhouette on the wall behind it tells as much of a story as the work itself.

“When I first saw it hung in the gallery the lights were not on yet,” Dr Smith said. “When I came to opening night and saw that shadow I said perhaps I love that better than the work. That was an unexpected treat.”

It had been in storage at Masterworks Museum of Art in Paget for 12 years.

“It feels fresh,” Dr Smith. “It does not feel like it is two decades old. I’m sure that if Graham said I made this last year, a lot of people would believe him.”

While choosing works for the show, he kept in mind the words of Bermudian artist, the late Robert Barritt, who once complained that not many local artists were painting how people felt.

Graham Foster’s Seas of Europa (Photograph supplied)

“He also said that you should be able to tell something about a country’s history from its art,” Dr Smith said.

When Dr Smith is teaching he often reminds his students that they do not always know the things that are influencing their art.

“We may look back at something we have created, years later, and then realise that something was influencing us that we were not aware of,” he said.

Staff at the BNG were unsure what the future held for Here Come the Gombeys and Gombeys in the Hood.

For more information, seebng.bm/exhibition/a-sense-of-belonging

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Published December 12, 2023 at 8:00 am (Updated December 13, 2023 at 8:12 am)

Former air terminal artwork inspires BNG show

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