Art on the rocks? - A decade of art in Guyana Arts On Sunday
by Alim A. Hosein
Stabroek News
January 20, 2002

Without re-opening the debate on whether the new millennium began in 2000 or 2001, the present time seems a good opportunity to take a glance back over the last ten years of art in Guyana while noting the events of 2001. Not only are periods of time such as decades regarded as convenient milestones for historical reflection, but in the particular case of fine art, the last century saw the beginning and development of what is called Guyanese art. What is the state of this Guyanese development at the end of this century? Obviously, in this limited space, one can only take a glance back to point out some of the landmarks.

Compared to the remarkable parade of artists including Moshett, Anthrobus, Moore, Phang and others of the 1930's, Greaves, Savory, et al in the 50's and 60's, and later still others such as Dudley Charles and Omowale in the 70's and 80's, the last ten years seem to have produced no outstanding talent. But in fact, significant work was produced, and significant artists have come to public view. These ten years have seen the emergence of strong talents such as Winslow Craig, the Amerindian (Lokono) artists especially Oswald Hussein and Linus Clenkien, and a number of impressive women artists including Maylene Duncan, Merlene Ellis, and Josefa Tamayo and Morag Williams. The work of artists such as Bernadette Persaud, George Simon and Desmond Ali matured in the 1990's. The work of the Amerindian artists alone could make the 90's a significant decade, since it has added a whole new dimension to our visual imagination. In fact, this is not only perhaps the best development in art in the 1990's, but in our art as a whole.

But the character of the art has changed over the-decade. The sense of exploration of the new, the elements of fantasy and magic, and the formal experiments noted up to the 1980's in the works of Dudley Charles, Angold Thompson, Omowale Lumumba and Gary Thomas have been returned to more traditional approaches. It is not surprising that the veteran artists Stanley Greaves and Philip Moore continue to be our most exciting artists. While Moore lives and works at home, Greaves, who lives in Barbados, showed his award-winning trilogies "There is a Meeting here Tonight" in Guyana in 2001. Greaves also held a retrospective of his work in Guyana in 1994.

In addition, art in Guyana now basically means painting. This is a retrogession from as late as the 1970's, when a vibrant school of sculpture developed under patronage, and when there were also developments in ceramics, graphics and textiles. Apart from a few sculptors, current local artists show little inclination to pursue other media apart from paint. In the same way, some show little adventurism, and are content to keep to the traditional pictorial approach with limited experimentation. Attempts by Castellani House to promote the arts of drawing and watercolour have also so far not succeeded in inspiring experimentation in these media. Fine but not widespread work is being done in ceramics, while there is not much being produced nationally in textiles and graphics.

At the end of the century, fine art remains the main art - the most consistently active, the most visible - in Guyana. Yet, it is also the most conservative in painting, while the innovative sculpture has become only decorative. Indeed, our art is less vigorous than it was in the early 1900's. Despite increased opportunity and improved technology, the intervening years have not seen development in other arts such as architecture, photography, and design. Bobby Fernandes has emerged as a photographer of note and has published his work in book form (including a publication in 2001). Castellani has mounted an exhibition of 100 cartoons by Hawley Harris which was the innovative exhibition for 2001. In the meanwhile, Guyana has perhaps taken the prize for having the most distorted architectural taste in the Caribbean, with monstrous storied concrete bunkers beginning to replace the harmonious colonial buildings and even the simple elegance of the local one-box houses.

But Guyanese art retains its thematic and stylistic diversity and difficulty to characterize. It includes the folksy, genre paintings of Merlene Ellis, Munisar's hard-edged landscapes, Hussein's powerful sculpture, Persaud's modernist flag installations, Desmond Ali's blocky reliefs, Craig's finely chiseled sculpture, and the various styles and interpretations of the artists who appear from time to time. In the 90's, however, one saw attempts by local artists to articulate a theme of unity and togetherness, as in the "Togetherness in Guyana" exhibition mounted by 14 artists - veterans such as Philip Moore and younger ones such as Winslow Craig - in May 2001. This, as much as the quiet state of the fine arts, is a reflection of political instability in the country. However, while sending a hopeful message, Guyanese artists seem to shun vigorous examination of the impact of politics on the nation, unlike the case in the emerging Guyanese literature, in which political themes are clearly manifested.

Arguably, the situation of the contemporary artists is more difficult than that of those of the past. The earlier artists were inspired and sustained by the possibilities of the new, of creating Guyana in visual form, and by the new modern international trends. Contemporary artists do not have this motivation. Yet there are, other stimuli - electronic media, a more open press, greater exposure to international art etc. - which the current artists have not responded to. Although only in small numbers, and an irregular manner, exhibitions of art from foreign countries have been seen locally. In 2001, these included Indian folk art from Bihar - The Art of Madhubani - and art from Suriname (at least the third exhibition of Surinamese art in the 90's). Some local artists have responded to a sense of internationalism - eg. Terrence Roberts who exhibited work on this theme in 2001.

But the best of the current artists seem to be able to give new impetus to our art. The work of the Amerindian artists, in particular, have the magical element which makes their work excellent art while at the same time connecting it to their particular rhythms of life. To these later artists fall the difficult task of keeping the young local art alive and fresh after the past masters had exploited the possibilities of the new. One of the major developments in the 90's was the official recognition that there existed a body of art which constituted a national legacy, and following this, the establishment of Castellani House as a national art gallery and a home for the national collection. This move could be regarded as the most important institutional development in Guyanese art, since it gives recognition to the entire history of art in Guyana. What has been the impact of Castellani, which was established in 1993? Certainly, it hasn't had the influence that was (perhaps too hopefully) envisaged, but this is not largely the gallery's fault. Castellani has been a forum for useful discussion on artistic and literary matters, and has done important work stabilizing and exhibiting the National Collection while promoting current art. The national art gallery has been keeping a programme of annual and biennial activities which provide some structure and focus during the year. These include competitions in drawing and watercolours, among others, and special exhibitions during the year. Yet, despite the establishment of Castellani, activity in fine art for the ten years could best be described as roller- coaster in nature. In 1991 - before Castellani - there were 18 major exhibitions, apart from other shows of work. In the following year, this number had dropped to about 8, and in 1993, 6. While there is no direct correlation between the number of exhibitions and the state of health of art in Guyana, art activity has been fluctuating, and in many years of the decade, special exhibitions, retrospectives, etc. carried the year rather than the exhibition of new work or the emergence of new talent.

On the other hand, one of the major downsides in local art concretised in the 90's. The National Exhibition of Visual Art which had been ailing during the end of the 1980's finally staggered to a halt in 1994. This exhibition was the major art event of decades, and had become even a national event. The promises to resuscitate it never materialised. The continued absence of the National Exhibition of the Visual Arts has left the year without a landmark activity in the arts, and contemporary artists are left without the kind of recognition that the artists up the end of the 1990's had by being able to claim being a winner of the National Exhibition.

The last decade also saw the loss of a number of significant artists: Stephanie Correia, Marjorie Broodhagen, Omowale Lumumba, Aubrey Williams, Leila Locke, Denis Williams. Each of these was a major force in his/her field, and had gained sustained national acclaim. On the other hand, two veteran artists were recognized in 2001. Castellani House mounted special exhibitions in honour of Hubert Moshett, who celebrated his 100th birthday in 2001, and Philip Moore, who celebrated his 80th year. Moore and Moshett, each in his own way, helped establish Guyanese art. Moshett was a part of the emerging local movement in the city, while Moore added his unique contribution far away from this influence in Berbice.

Despite the difficulties, it is of note that a number of annual exhibitions were sustained, and some in fact initiated, during the 1990's: the Guyana Women Artists Association Exhibition, The Burrowes School of Art Exhibition, UG's Division of Creative Arts' Aspects of Perception (all three of these exhibitions both started in the latter pan of the 1980's and developed strength in the 90's), an Exhibition for Amerindian Heritage month, a watercolour exhibition and a drawing exhibition (Castellani House) developed in the 1990's among others. In these exhibitions, one sees work which is sometimes inspiring, sometimes hopeful and sometimes mediocre. But what is always humbling is the effort taken by Guyanese to produce art in these difficult times.

Perhaps our situation does not allow our art to soar (some would argue the opposite: that situations such as ours are ripe for the creation of art). However, the material fact that art work is being produced (with little hope of material gain) in a society which gives little support to art must be acknowledged and encouraged. The maintenance of art in Guyana is a collective effort by many institutions, but such support is, in our context, almost naturally sporadic. Patronage from private people and businesses which was never robust, suffered from the political and economic difficulties of the 90's. However, businesses such as GA 2000, Banks DIH, NBIC, Le Meridien and Courts supported art and artists. Of note also is the role of international organizations and foreign missions such as the Venezuelan Cultural Center, the Brazilian Embassy and the Indian High Commission which supported art by hosting some focal artists, assisting the exhibition of Guyanese art abroad, and also by bringing their own art to the local public. Purchase of work by private citizens has also slowed down, and private galleries such as the Hadfield Foundation are not as active at the end of the 90's as they were at the beginning.

A significant feature at the end of the decade and especially in 2001 is the prominence achieved by women artists. Indeed, the year could be said to have belonged to them since many of the major exhibitions featured the work of women. The artwork of women was seen not only in the annual exhibition of work by the Guyana Women Artists Association, but also in other shows. Three women who have come of age as artists in the last decade are Josefa Tamayo, Maylene Duncan and Merlene Ellis. Apart from these women, others such as Morag Williams, Irene Gonsalves, Bernadette Persaud and others have also produced notable work during the year. This emergence of the female artists is very welcome, especially since two leading and long-standing women artists, Stephanie Correia and Marjorie Broodhagen passed away in quick succession not too long ago. Also, women were leading lights in the emergence of a local school of artists in the 1930's, and in fact, it was a woman, Golde White, who organized a seminal exhibition in that time. The major difference is that unlike most of the women of the 1930's, the contemporary women are working as full-fledged artists. Indeed, work by women formed the bulk of Guyana's contribution to the proposed Museum of Caribbean Culture in Venezuela in 2001 an initiative launched at the recent meeting of Heads of Government of the Association of Caribbean States.

The works submitted by Guyana are by Philip Moore, Oswald Hussein, Merlene Ellis, Maylene Duncan, Morag Williams, and Irene Gonsalves. The overall picture shows Guyanese art enduring in its own quiet way, and producing occasional flashes of brilliance. For the current generation of artists, the depiction of Guyana in visual form is now an accepted fact, not, as it would have been in the earlier part o[ the last century, an exciting new goal. But the current artists do not seem to have the same context of work as did previous artists, since the absence of major artists creams a vacuum of ideas. There has been, for the longest while (long before the 1990's} no organized group of local artists such as the Working People's Art Class and others of the 1930's and thereon, although attempts were made to establish such. Yet there is much promise. What are the lessons from this period? That art does not exist in a vacuum. In many ways, the situation of the arts in Guyana at the end of the century cannot be divorced from that of the rest of the country. Patronage is sorely needed - from government initiatives (not handouts for the artists but in the pursuit of economic and developmental policies which stimulate artists and open space for their talent - (the establishment of Sanata Textiles, for example, opened the whole area of textile design), from businesses, and from private citizens. There must also be the sense that art is important, and worth pursuing. All of this, however, supposes a healthy economy. But above all, there must be a spirit of imagination, and while this is bolstered by the currents of national life, it is something for artists to find within themselves.