This mid-20th century oil painting, titled “Fishermen Mending Nets” by the artist Charles Poyer, depicts an elderly man repairing fishing nets by hand with tools located in a basket. The young boy watches with intrigue and appears ready to learn. This customary activity is occurring by the beach, imparting a sense of calm and peace to the painting.

As a social studies teacher traveling in Barbados, I was struck by the complicated relationship Barbadians have with their history. One of our tour guides stated that Bardadians “don’t value our built environment and history as much as they should.” School children, she explained, are required to take few history classes. Plantation tour guides also noted the difficulty in discussing race relations and the challenge of presenting the horrors of slavery with the island’s current image as a sunny, carefree tourist destination. In fact, this painting can be viewed as a microcosm for the representation of race on the island. Many emancipated slaves turned to fishing to escape working on sugar cane plantations. Yet the artist Charles Poyer decided not to depict a black man sharing fishing skills with a black boy, but rather a white man and white boy. This painting raises interesting questions about the transmission of knowledge and race on an island dominated by people of African ancestry.

Despite reluctance and challenges in presenting a nuanced narrative of the island’s history, Barbadians still have pride in their country’s culture. Fishing in Barbados is viewed as a sign of self-sufficiency and an integral part of their identity. The man in the painting is not only imparting a specific skill set to the boy, but also sharing values like the importance of thrift and hard work. Today fishing towns like Oistins deck their street with neon images of fish and locals urge tourists to try the national dish of flying fish and cou cou. Their pride in this dish shows their reverence for the island’s African ancestry, as cou cou was a common meal for slaves. Other important places like Independence Arch in Bridgetown feature the flying fish on its pillars. Thus, fish continue to be embedded in the art and cultural landscape of the island, and remains integral to the country’s identity.

– Frances Coffey (High School Teacher)