The relationship between the Cayman Islands and the sea is well documented, including a proud history of Caymanian seamen.
The National Gallery of the Cayman Islands recently launched a new exhibition of works from the National Collection that explores Cayman’s maritime culture. Inspired by a quotation from Captain Edward Watson, discovered in the Cayman Islands National Archive, ‘Saltwater in Their Veins’ follows a loose chronological journey that highlights the enduring association that local artists and the community have with the marine environment.
“As an island nation located in the heart of the Caribbean Sea, our identity is intrinsically tied to the surrounding ocean,” the curatorial statement from the gallery declares. “Historically, the ocean provided us with sustenance and prosperity via seafaring, shipbuilding and turtling. Later, remittances sent home by seamen during the ‘Southwell Years’ helped lay the foundations of our modern economy. More recently, this has been eclipsed by marine tourism and a reliance on the maritime-based import and export of our goods and food.
“It is an ever-evolving relationship, and as we look forward, the question of environmental sustainability comes to the fore. How will the threat of global warming and concerns about rising sea levels shape our future?”
This legacy is examined in the exhibition by 45 artists and more than 80 works of art from the gallery’s collection, including loaned pieces from the Cayman Islands National Museum and Cayman National Cultural Foundation.
The first corridor in the gallery explores the Cayman Islands’ early maritime heritage, highlighting the traditions of shipbuilding, thatch-weaving and rope-making through work by ‘intuitive’ (self-taught) artists like Gladwyn ‘Miss Lassie’ Bush, along with an early pioneer of Cayman’s formal visual art history, Charles Long.
The exhibition continues in the second corridor with the shift in Cayman’s economy away from a direct reliance on the maritime activities of turtle fishing and merchant shipping, towards the emerging marine-based tourism and financial services industries that accelerated in the 1980s. The artists featured here work primarily in realism, and focus on capturing a part of Caymanian history that was rapidly disappearing at that time, reflecting on a sense of nostalgia for the ‘Islands Time Forgot’.
Moving on to the 1990s and the creation of groups like the Native Sons, the artists highlighted in this era begin to consciously re-establish their own personal connections to Caymanian history and cultural heritage. Drawing heavily on archival material as a source of inspiration, Cayman’s proud maritime history begins to re-emerge strongly in their work through the depiction of schooners and catboats, along with other iconic references such as nautical charts and maps.
2000 and beyond
After the millennium, Caymanian artists adopted a variety of new media and techniques to address the subject matter. From the use of canvas sailcloth as a painting support, to objects that evoke – or directly allude to – the material universe of maritime culture, along with pieces that merge the past and present through contemporary photographs, Caymanian artists continue to find new resonances in the revival of historical subjects. It all makes a compelling case for the persistent relevance of that history in the digital age of this modern era.
These final works reflect a growing sense of ecological awareness and raise questions about future sustainability.
Lessons from the past
“Loosely assembled by decade, the artists’ work traces a historical and stylistic journey to reflect a complex relationship from a variety of historical, cultural, economic and ecological perspectives,” said NGCI director and chief curator Natalie Urquhart. “Bridging past and present, they reflect Cayman’s constant, yet ever-changing relationship, to our marine environment and articulate new meanings for contemporary Cayman’s maritime identity – highlighting the responsibility we all share as stewards of our precious natural environment for future generations.”
The exhibition is one of three currently on display at the National Gallery, with viewings based on a timed entry system to ensure social-distancing measures are adhered to. Admission is free and can be booked via the gallery’s website at www.nationalgallery.org.ky or by phone at 945-8111. Visitors can book a tour of the exhibition or take a self-guided walk through, using the descriptive labels that elaborate the historical and cultural context of the artwork on display. For those wishing to view from home, the exhibition is also available online as a virtual experience, along with other exhbitions. Visit the gallery website for more information.