Painting Bermuda’s Past: Cy Gavin Shares the Stories Behind His Paintings

Cy Gavin’s paintings have been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art and Sargent’s Daughters in New York, the Rubell Family Collection in Miami, the VNH Gallery in Paris, and many other venues. He lives and works in New York, where his latest solo show opened at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise on 3 March and will run through 14 April. 

Prior to earning his MFA in painting from Columbia University, Gavin studied art and history as an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University, and his extensive archival research into his family’s history in Bermuda within the context of the trans-Atlantic slave trade has been a rich source of inspiration for his paintings. Here, Gavin discusses some of the ideas informing his work featured in a Winter 2018 portfolio in The Georgia Review. Gavin provided his annotations via email in November 2018.

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Hurricane

Hurricane (2018), acrylic and oil on denim, 80˝ × 55.5˝

At times I have felt the land of Bermuda itself to have had anti-colonial designs. Tempestuous weather phenomena and perilous reef systems kept empires at bay until the early seventeenth century.

 

Jeffrey’s Cave

Jeffrey’s Cave (2015), acrylic and oil on canvas, 60˝ × 132˝

This work was created from a series of drawings and photographs I made from within Jeffrey’s Cave, a grotto that is part of Bermuda’s Spittal Pond Nature Reserve. A young man named Jeffrey escaped slavery and took refuge here for months before his unfortunate recapture. His fate has been made unknown. I slept in this cave in 2016, where I took notes and drawings of that experience. The aperture, looking out to the offing, faces Africa. 

 

Indian John and Indian John Laughing at Gibbet Island

Indian John (2017), acrylic, ink, and oil on denim, 55˝ × 72

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Indian John Laughing at Gibbet Island (2016), acrylic and oil on denim, 90˝ × 68˝

In 1675 the British shipped a group of Pequot Indians to Bermuda as slaves. One man, noted only as Indian John, attempted to murder his ostensible master by setting fire to his family’s home. He was hanged publicly on Gibbet’s Island, an island designated for the express purpose of showcasing the executions of escaped slaves and criminals. A prevailing superstition of the time was that the ghosts of the condemned could only haunt the living if they were executed on the same land as the living—a tacit affirmation of personhood, however absurd.

 

Bather II

Bather II (2018), acrylic and oil on denim, 56˝ × 141˝

I think of this painting as being set at the cliffs of Clarence Cove, a site on Bermuda’s north shore where tourists once anchored their yachts. Here they would toss coins overboard. Local children, leaping off of the dangerous cliffs, would then dive and retrieve the coins as payment for the entertainment that risking their lives had provided.

 

Tucker’s Point Golf Club and Cemetery 

Tucker’s Point Golf Club and Cemetery (2015), acrylic, oil, chalk, and blood on canvas, 57˝ × 120˝

Tucker’s Town, a largely black community on Bermuda’s East, was home to a large population of the formerly enslaved. My great-grandparents’ marriage certificate shows that they grew up here in the 1910s. The Bermuda Development Company was formed in the early 1900s to seduce American tourism. This organization aimed to create an exclusive and prestigious enclave for wealthy tourists and was empowered to force residents to sell their land. The land was purchased for well below asking price and turned into resorts and golf courses. 

The last resident, Dinna Smith, refused to leave and was forcibly “dragged out kicking and screaming” from her property in 1923. Dinna Smith later would recite a poem, “Goodwin Gosling is a thief and everyone knows it. / He carries a whistle, and Stanley Spurling blows it,” calling out those from the Bermuda Development Company and the government who had organized this land grab. The language visible at turns underneath this painting is Ms. Smith’s poem. My great-grandparents were Smiths from this community, so it is likely that I am a relative of Dinna Smith’s.

While all traces of this community have been stricken from the land, a graveyard, Marsden Methodist Memorial Cemetery, was left in place. A golf course, Rosewood Hotels’ Tucker’s Point, was built around it, making the cemetery inconveniently in the center of the course. Bermuda Properties Ltd./Castle Harbour Ltd. and property managers of Rosewood Hotels & Resorts claimed that the tombs were not historical, but rather modern constructions by the descendants of the deceased, although historic photographs of the cemetery can readily be found. 

In October 2012, those managing Tucker’s Point furtively bulldozed the visible portions of the tombs, disregarding the cemetery’s status as an Historic Protection Area. For $4,500 annual dues and a $7,500 nonrefundable “family initiation” fee, visitors can get a golf membership and enjoy hitting golf balls atop my relatives.

 

Black, Black, Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair

Black, Black, Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair (2014), acrylic, oil, and chalk on brushed cotton, 55˝ × 50˝

All of the works in this portfolio except for Black, Black, Black are related to Bermuda. In a way it, too, is related—its title is taken from an Appalachian song (I’m from rural Pennsylvania) with musical origins in Elizabethan courtly ballads. I have been looking at the language of literature, poetry, and music that were around at the time of the founding of both Bermuda and Virginia, which coincide in the early seventeenth century. It correlates with the English encountering people of color in order to obtain pigments and make-up from the near east . . . so language around color and complexion enter poetry and music in a really particular way: attached to morals and a person’s character.

 

Nellie DeCosta Smith at Pembroke Cemetery

Nellie DeCosta Smith at Pembroke Cemetery (2016), acrylic and ink on denim, 119˝ × 95˝

Nellie DeCosta Smith is my great-grandmother. Pembroke Cemetery is where it seems she is buried, but her gravesite is still not found. I’ve been visiting the Bermuda archives in order to piece together my family’s genealogy. Even in the nineteenth century, post-emancipation, people of color who were born in Bermuda were often given baptismal records that merely say FCor MC, (Female, Coloured / Male, Coloured), rather than their first names. As a result, my great-grandmother is the last person I am able to trace.