Tavares Strachan: hidden figures | Closeup

The imaginative power of art meets the materials of science in the continuously innovative works of Bahamian Tavares Strachan, which meditate on history’s unsung heroes, writes Andre Bagoo

  • Tavares Strachan wearing one of his B.A.S.E.C. jackets. Photo by Brooke Didonato, courtesy the artist
  • The Distance Between What We Have and What We Want (Arctic Ice Project) (2004−8; ice, refrigeration unit, solar panels, battery system). Photo by Chris Hoover, courtesy the artist
  • Excavating the ice block from a frozen river in Alaska. Photo by Chris Hoover, courtesy the artist
  • Tavares Strachan on one of his expeditions to the North Pole. Photo courtesy the artist
  • The Encyclopedia of Invisibility (Mahogany #9) (2018; leather, gilding, archival paper, maple, felt, acrylic, book, with stand). Photo courtesy the artist
  • What Will Be Remembered in the Face of All that Is Forgotten (2014; neon sculpture, stainless steel, nine transformers, MDF). Photo courtesy Anthony Meier Fine Arts
  • Installation view of the Bahamas Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, 2013. Photo by Tom Powel Imaging, courtesy the artist

The giant ice block, cut from a frozen river in northern Alaska, weighs 4.5 tons. Its sides appear dip-dyed, like a Mark Rothko painting fading from white to blue. It is a translucent thing of beauty in its own right, glistening in the metallic mouth of a forklift. But artist and explorer Tavares Strachan (his surname is pronounced Strahn), the first Bahamian to visit the North Pole, has plans for it. In March 2005, Strachan ships this block of ice to his old primary school in Nassau. It is housed in a solar-powered refrigerator unit. Students are stunned and delighted. Fluctuations of temperature result in a delicate dance of fissures on the ice block’s surface.

Strachan calls this work The Distance Between What We Have and What We Want. In this deeply resonant piece, the Nassau setting underlines the inaccessibility of the Arctic — as both a remote, physical space and a space of scientific exploration. What, we ask, accounts for the fact that in countries like the Bahamas, the dream of pursuing a career as an explorer or an astronaut or a scientist might seem out of reach? Equally, what accounts for the fact that only certain utilitarian disciplines are venerated, and a career in the arts might as well be like going to the North Pole?

“That’s how I managed the question of expectation in a colony where the value of success is placed on law and medicine and science and engineering,” Strachan said of this work, in a profile last year. “If you weren’t one of those things, no one really paid attention.” But, he added, “It’s hard to dismiss four tons of ice in a MIT-built freezer system.” (Incidentally, one year later, fellow Bahamian artist Blue Curry would execute a kind of rejoinder, shipping a ton of sand from a beach in the Bahamas to a gallery in Germany).

Strachan has earned a reputation for projects that examine what happens when art and science collide. Yet he’s not necessarily exploring the margins between two seemingly disparate disciplines. He’s co-opting the guises of scientific enquiry to examine who makes it into the room and who does not. I see his work as being engaged with history: with what the Irish poet Eavan Boland might have described as “the secret histories of things”; with the people who do not make it into the official record. Who gets to lay claim to discovering the North Pole? Who gets to go into outer space? Who gets to discover DNA?

Strachan divides his time mainly between the Bahamas and New York City. He was born in Nassau in 1979, the second of six boys. His mother was a seamstress and his father worked with the police. Growing up on a small island, he’d roam the pages of the Encyclopedia Britannica, cultivate a habit of gardening, explore the flora and fauna of New Providence Island (where you can ride in horse-drawn carriages), and feast on the wonders of the sea, fishing for red snapper and spending hours adrift on cerulean waters.

“I think the sense of isolation, for me, created this kind of imaginary universe,” he’s said. That imaginary universe informed his sense of being boundless. Strachan grew up not feeling empowered by art. Yet he decided to study painting at the University of the Bahamas. Then he signed up for the demanding glassworks programme at the Rhode Island School of Design in the US in 2000. Mastering glass is a difficult task, a steep summit to surmount by any standards. This act alone anticipated Strachan’s future projects: it was a gesture that hinted at defiance and a kind of fragility. (Among the projects in which he subsequently put some of his skills to use is a project that reportedly involved a series of rockets built from glass that used sugarcane as fuel). He eventually settled in New York in 2008, two years after finishing a sculpture MFA at Yale, and now lives with his family in Harlem.

Despite his eagerness to discover the world beyond the Caribbean, the Bahamas is never far from Strachan’s consciousness. For his 2003 senior thesis, the artist sent a light metre to his mother’s house in Nassau, transmitted its readings online, and devised a plexiglass light box that radiated the lumens of his childhood bedroom. He’s also launched a fashion label, B.A.S.E.C., in collaboration with his mother Ella. The line’s pieces — which Strachan sees as no less important than the rest of his work — include bomber jackets designed to do precisely what the ice block he shipped from Alaska did: bring other worlds home. In addition to being a fashion line, B.A.S.E.C. stands for the Bahamas Air and Sea Exploration Centre, the entity founded by Strachan to increase young people’s access to science and technology, after his stint training as a cosmonaut at a Russian military facility in 2009. B.A.S.E.C. pieces, produced entirely in the Bahamas, are embroidered with the logo of the centre and also feature images of the Arctic and figures like Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr., the first African-American astronaut, who died in a supersonic jet crash before he could reach space in 1967.

“The jackets are all reversible, so the idea is that the person of the future will wear one thing in many ways, as opposed to many things in one way,” Strachan says. Last year, for his work entitled Enoch, he also launched an effigy commemorating Lawrence into orbit: a twenty-four-karat-gold urn featuring the astronaut’s likeness.

In addition to being the first Bahamian to visit the North Pole (he’s made at least four expeditions), Strachan helmed the first Bahamian pavilion at the Venice Biennale, in 2013. He has also shown work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, the MIT List Visual Arts Centre, and has been the recipient of awards such as the 2019–20 Artist in Residence at the Getty Research Institute. 

Strachan’s first major British solo exhibition, In Plain Sight, opened in September 2020 at the Marian Goodman Gallery in London, and involved an immersive, site-specific experience that incorporated new and existing work. Its main point of departure was the figure of Matthew Henson, an African-American explorer who was the first person to reach the North Pole in 1909 (Henson looms over much of Strachan’s work, including the ice block project). Henson’s story has long been overlooked, undoubtedly because of his race, and Strachan’s meditations on his life comprise part of a larger project called The Encyclopedia of Invisibility, inspired by his childhood, and by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. Whereas Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings seeks to catalogue folkloric inventions, Strachan’s Encyclopedia considers what real-life things might not have made it into the Encyclopedia Britannica.

“It’s interesting to look at this body of work — or all the work that I’ve been doing for the past two decades — as a kind of protest,” Strachan told The New York Times Magazine. The Encyclopedia is partly a sculptural work, a 2,416-page book with fifteen thousand entries describing people, places, objects, concepts, artworks, and scientific phenomena that are hard to see. Urban legends, invented languages, B-movies, and mythical creatures jostle alongside entries on Tara Grinstead (an American beauty queen who mysteriously disappeared in 2005), the Haenyeo (female deep-sea divers of South Korea, known for their iron will and determination), and a species of glass squid found in the Antarctic, Galiteuthis glacialis. Strachan also used pages from the text to wallpaper the gallery walls, inviting us to consider what the art world might be missing. 

But the show had a twist. Some of these forgotten figures jumped off the walls and came to life, actors singing of the forgotten and downcast, of war, race, and freedom. Henson and Lawrence emerged, backlit by art and arias. “The gallery turns out to contain hidden spaces, through which this promenade performance weaves its stirring way,” reported the critic Elizabeth Price in the UK Guardian.

This performative turn is a natural development for an artist whose concepts and ideas have always had a playful yet epic feel. Apart from shipping an Arctic ice block to the Aubrey Sayle Primary School in Nassau, Strachan has had entire shows that ooze drama. There was the exhibition whose location was secret (2011’s seen/unseen), and his installations that spell out “I am,” “You belong here,” and “We are in this together” in huge neon displays (created between 2014 and 2020). He has also brought figures like Rosalind Franklin, an overlooked English chemist whose work was key in understanding DNA, hauntingly back to life, using intriguing materials like a cricket ball, mineral oil, and Plexiglas (2015’s Seeing is Forgetting the Thing that You Saw). His paintings, which place diverse figures like Queen Elizabeth II and James Baldwin together in collage-like arrangements, also feel like the work of an artist making new spaces in the theatre of life. Or, rather, an artist showing us the spaces we were never meant to go to.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
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