Gombeys: a symbol of black male empowerment
The exhibit at Gallery One Seventeen is called A National Treasure. For April Dawn Branco, it was a way of honouring the island's Gombeys and the men underneath the colourful costumes. The artist spoke to Lifestyle about her partnership with H&H Gombeys and why she's fundraising on their behalf.
Q: What's your relationship with H&H Gombeys/your interest in Gombeys generally?
A: Initially I started painting them because I loved their costumes and enjoyed the movement in the paintings.
I paid two dancers to model for me and did some paintings of them in costume as well as unmasked; I liked the idea of the gombey as a human instead of an object. In 2013 I attended the Bermuda Day Parade with a view to painting a few scenes from it and I saw the H&H troupe sitting on Palmetto Road in between floats with their hats propped on the ground and chatting. I got some lovely shots of them, with the mothers making adjustments and the babies skylarking and I realised I wanted to know more about them as people and what they do behind the scenes.
After much thought and discussion about a show or book on the subject I decided to just go for it and in April of 2015 I looked them up in the phone book and called the captain to ask if I could shadow the troupe for the lead-up to the 2015 parade. They said yes and I started attending their training sessions at Pig's Field. I fell in love with them and we've been working together ever since.
Q: You mentioned that part of the show's intent is to explore black male empowerment. Possible to expand?
A: I feel firmly that locally and globally we are discussing the black male incorrectly. He is said to be problematic, lazy and unproductive. This is in fact not a blanket truth and I am committed to discussing what it is that I personally see.
I see black men as artists and musicians. They are creators and role models, they are leaders and supportive fathers. They are a necessary and beautiful part of our society. This entire gombey troupe is made up of black men.
I think the greater part of our society forgets that underneath that fabulous costume is a black man, a descendant of slaves, and if we honour their bright colours [in costume] we must also admire their dark skin in plain clothes.
We follow them in the streets when they come out to dance but do we speak to them with respect when they are delivering water, driving a truck, laying tile? These men are praiseworthy, loveable and worthy at ALL times.
Q: How many paintings do you have? Are they all of Gombeys? Done over what period?
A: There are 20 paintings. All Gombeys. Done over a period of four months. Part of the proceeds go to sponsor the troupe to travel to Barbados to represent Bermuda at the Grand Kadooment, a Caribbean dance festival taking place in August. The Gombeys are also offering potlucks and dances to help raise funds.
Q: You've said that this is the first in a series to help the group. What else have you planned?
A: There will be additional gallery shows. I have a book which I am writing and illustrating on the H&H troupe that documents their inner workings: how the young boys are trained, how their costumes and weapons made.
The book culminates in a long chapter on the Bermuda Day Parade. There will be close to 200 illustrations in the book including large street scenes of the parade route with Gombeys interacting with majorettes, floats and Portuguese dancers from Bernard Park through Cedar Avenue and down Front Street. I want to show them in the context of national celebration and a comprehensive representation of Bermuda culture.
We also have mock-ups for a line of fabric items and clothing. There will be a 2018 calendar available soon, with my images and some fun/historical facts. [The Department of] Community & Cultural Affairs provided a large grant towards the book and we are still fundraising for studio space, the production costs for an additional 1,500 books, and the calendar which totals $35,000. We welcome any contribution towards the expenditures and if anyone would like to make a donation or discuss sponsorship please visit my website, www.aprilbranco.com, and send me an e-mail to discuss.
Q: Why do you think Gombeys are so important?
A: Gombeys are important because they are the last vestiges of our ancient history as Africans. They are a beautiful combination of spiritual, historic and creative expression.
Gombey culture provides community, connection and a sense of tribe for young black men, which is so often missing these days in our society. It also provides these young men with creative expression as well as role models and father figures, which are vital.
Q: Do you think we, as a community, appreciate their role in our heritage?
A: I've addressed this a bit before but I feel we do honour /celebrate/ appreciate them and I am looking to expand that honour /celebration /appreciation of them as individuals. We also can show our appreciation with our pocketbooks. Gombey costumes total over $1,000. Many single parents are sponsoring these costs on their own. I would like to see them financially supported.
Q: The exhibit runs until what date?
A: May 27. There will be a meet and greet with myself and gombey captains at Gallery 117 tomorrow, from 5.30pm-7pm.
There will be prints available in June via Gallery One Seventeen, Brown & Co and www.aprilbranco.com. Part proceeds from all print sales go to sponsor the troupe.
•Gallery One Seventeen is located at 117 Front Street on the corner of Front and Court Streets, near Docksiders