Graham Foster spent three-and-a-half years creating Bermuda’s equivalent of the Sistine Chapel ceiling — The Hall of History Mural.
The masterpiece, at Commissioner’s House in the National Museum of Bermuda, condenses 500 years of history into just 1,000 sq ft.
It is an understatement to say this was a challenge. Mr Foster took three-and-a-half years to complete the mural in a painstaking quest to portray Bermuda’s history and culture, society and its people.
This required intensive research before he even sat down at the drawing board to design his artwork.
Here, Mr Foster describes how he chose which areas of black history he focused on, and why they were so important to bring to life.
“Before I began the mural I knew that I wanted to represent an inclusive history of Bermuda,” said Mr Foster.
“Until quite recently black and Portuguese history has been largely marginalized, relegated to side notes or swept under the historical rug, with a stronger emphasis on the Anglo-Bermudian experience.”
His main reference and research books were Cyril Packwood’s Chained to the Rock, W Michael Brooke’s Blacks in Bermuda Historical Perspectives, and Bermuda: Five Centuries by Rosemary Jones.
Mr Foster said: “As I began my research I found many aspects of black history provided strong visual content.
“Much of this was oral history, but using my imagination I tried to recreate some of these events that happened long before the invention of the camera.
“I couldn’t find any paintings or drawings of black day-to-day experience until the late 19th century.”
The first representations of black Bermudians are depicted in the early 17th century, as indentured servants and apprentices, involved in fishing, housekeeping and blacksmithing. The artist also painted a West Indian and a Carib Indian, representing the peoples brought to Bermuda for pearl harvesting.
Mr Foster said: “Later in the 17th century the indentured servitude turned into outright slavery, and this is depicted by a slave auction, and a ship offloading a selection of black and American Indian slaves.
“I didn’t want to ‘sugar coat’ anything in the mural, but the brutality of the slave trade had to be handled in a sensitive way.
“As I wasn’t depicting the conditions inside a slave ship, I painted a female slave with her hands covering her face as a sailor threatens her with a knotted rope.
“Beside her is a male slave with tribal scarifications on his face, which I figured could have been fairly common within the first generation.”
The second wall of his mural depicts an era of history from 1700 onwards.
Black Bermudians are depicted in most of the scenes, joining wreckers sailing out to strip a ship, sawing logs, shipbuilding, tending a fish keep, and also whaling.
Mr Foster said: “One whaling scene depicts an injured white whaler being helped by a slave, to show that there was a certain level of camaraderie between the races, especially on the water.
“I wanted to show domestic life as well — a marriage celebration is shown, with the bride and groom jumping over a broom.
“A typical household has a woman buying a turtle and sea beef (whale meat). Another woman milks a goat. A slave owner is shown with a roach on his shoulder, suggesting his dubious character.
“His wife looks on as he woos a slave girl, and as his grip tightens on the knife she feels helpless to do anything, knowing the possible unpleasant consequences.”
He continued: “One of the most graphic events in Bermuda history was the burning of Sally Bassett. This is shown alongside an old man with an ‘R’ branded into his forehead for ‘rogue’, one of the brutal punishments doled out, alongside nose splitting and ear amputation.”
The artist also depicted salt raking in the Turks and Caicos Islands.
“Salt raking was a lucrative 18th century enterprise,” he said.
“Blacks and poor whites would travel to the Turks and Caicos islands and spend from dawn until dusk raking, under the blazing sun.
“Mary Prince’s accounts of her brutal experiences helped pave the road to Emancipation.
“To show the harsh conditions, the ankle of one of the rakers has flies buzzing around his salt water ulcers, a common ailment, and to the left, a man has been flogged.
“This wall culminates with Emancipation celebrations, with newly-freed slaves spilling out of Cobb’s Hill chapel (which was built by slaves).
“A street celebration is led by Gombeys, overlooked by some worried-looking whites.”
Mr Foster said: “Early Gombeys wore stilts until the 1920s — a great visual. They also wore paper mache headdresses lit from inside, depicting houses, biblical scenes, lighthouses and so on.
“I couldn’t find much information on this so used a lot of imagination.
“In the centre of the third wall is a seated black fisherman blowing a conch, advertising his catch.
“As I began depicting more modern history I found out some useful information from people’s recollections.
“One man remembered fishermen wheeling an old steel wheelbarrow around the neighbourhood, blowing on their conches.
“If I ever did another mural, I’d probably interview more of the older generation to gain an accurate insight and find out the minor details that still translate well visually.”
Mr Foster added: “One area I would have liked to have expanded on would have been the back of town ‘pond dog’ experience, highlighting games kids would play, cricket, soap cars, etc.
“The mural shows part of Court Street with an Odd Fellow procession, preceeded by a group of 1940’s Gombeys and the first black-owned taxi.
“The West Indian influx of the early 20th century is shown by workers on the Dockyard extension and wooden houses. Travel, largely by sloop, shows a black family travelling through a cut.
“Black Bermudians are integrated into almost every aspect of Bermuda life that segregation will allow.
“To highlight segregation, I have a black boy walking down the street with his catch of pompanos caught within a ‘whites only’ establishment.
“One of his fish lies inside the gate alongside a sign he has paid no attention to. It reads ‘Welcome, Beach Rules, Swim at own risk, No diving, No dogs, Whites only’.
“Below are a black couple waiting for the train under a second class sign while a white woman with a bike waits under a first class sign. ‘Second-class Citizens, First-class Men’, as Eva Hodgson’s book states.
“Apparently there was no segregation on the train, but this once again would need to be verified by older Bermudians.”
The fourth wall of The Hall of History Mural illustrates the modern era of Bermuda, from post-World War Two to the year 2,000.
This includes scenes from major events in black history: The Theatre Boycott; Dr EF Gordon campaigning for workers’ rights; and the beginnings of racial equality, with civil unrest, street protests and strikes.
Mr Foster said: “This mural was more events-orientated as opposed to characters.
“There are some people I’ve included (with recognizable faces), but I’ve kept it to a minimum as it can snowball.
“Local characters such as Weatherbird, Tommy Tucker and Alabama would be mostly forgotten in 50 years’ time, so I thought I’d include them.
“Also T for 2 Trott (the last oyster dredger in Harrington Sound), Blackie Talbot (I used to help him pull in his nets in Flatts when I was a kid), the Talbot brothers, EF Gordon, Johnny Barnes, Jim Woolridge, and — central to the PLP victory celebration — (Dame) Jennifer Smith.”
He added: “A gang member’s pit bull going for an expat worker is an allegory of the sometimes-rocky expat/Bermudian relationship, and there is also a Crown and Anchor dealer.
“There are humorous parts scattered throughout the mural to keep it from getting too dry and historical.
“There were also lots of things I couldn’t fit in and which I’m making lists of in case I ever do another mural — things like rastas with their helmets protecting a pile of dreads.”
The Hall of History mural is situated at Commissioner’s House, the National Museum of Bermuda. Each inch of Graham Foster’s mural can also be seen up close in the book ‘Hall of History: Bermuda’s Story in Art’, priced $65 from bookstores.