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He was born at St Cuthbert’s Mission on the Mahaica River and studied for his BA at Portsmouth Polytechnic (1975-78) and MA at University College, London. His most recent travels outside of Guyana took him first to the African republic of Chad in December 1998, where he worked with the United States Embassy Public Affairs Department’s Language Centre. Following this, Simon went to Lyons,
France in 2001, where he was Artist in Residence at the Arts and Spices Gallery.
He had an exhibition there in December 2001. Since then, most of his time was spent in Montreal, Canada. While there, he was asked to organize a group of Amerindian dancers and musicians for performance at ‘Guyana Festival’ in Toronto, to celebrate Guyana’s Independence in May, 2002. From July to mid-August he was in Haiti working with a programme for the fight against AIDS. He returned home to St Cuthbert’s Mission in August. His major project there has been the construction of a building, which will be the beginning of an art centre where the Mission’s artists can exhibit their work. This was opened on September 10, 2002.
Simon has returned to exhibiting in Guyana with a fresh new eye. The work is strikingly different from the way it was known in the 1990s, reflecting his most recent experiments with texture and techniques. Many of his paintings now on show have a distinct relief effect. But while this emerged from the totality of a four-year sojourn through three continents and at least five countries, very little was produced in Chad.
“I found it very difficult to paint there.” That period did produce two pieces now on show in ‘Moving Circle’, The Tree and Smiling Deer, influenced by his flight over the desert when he could see the waves in the vast acreage of sand.
He was impressed by the view from above revealing trees and neat blocks of residential structures, which informed The Tree. But Smiling Deer took a very long time to be completed.
In one respect, Simon is like Stanley Greaves. Despite his high formal training, he declares: “I work intuitively. I believe a lot in the sub-conscious. What comes from deep inside is amazing. In Chad, I confronted a different landscape, a total transformation from what I was accustomed to. I was in shock. But I was comfortable with the music because I could find a familiar link in the music of Africa, Brazil and the Caribbean. These links are particularly strong in Haiti and Latin America.
“Chad is caught up with a conflict between Christianity and Islam. While the Christians’ dress is western, it is the Muslims who wear the traditional African dress. I saw the work in wood and ceramics in Chad and in the Cameroon. It had so much of its own power and presence, you do not dare think you will reproduce it. It’s intimidating. I could not do any art that was religious in that part of the world. I saw the mosques, the painters dealing with landscape and with religion in a highly distorted fashion, not realistically. They shun clear images, preferring exaggerated, elongated representations; camels look like flying birds with their elongated necks. Their studies are predominantly abstract. It disturbed my equilibrium; I was unbalanced. One could only admire.”
However, Simon also found art difficult in Chad because there was not much of an interest and artists struggled to sell their work. “I worked with five artists, who I mostly trained, and we did a show in 1999. We started the only art gallery in the country, called ‘The House of African Art.’ I also worked with musicians. I was manager of a group called H’Sao, who won a bronze medal in music at the Francophone Games in Quebec.”
Shamanism and energy
It was not until his residency at the Art and Spices Gallery in Lyons that Simon’s interest in his new techniques deepened. In France he worked with a non-commercial artists’ co-operative museum managed by the artists themselves, and he was invited to study the management of a gallery. “I started to paint, to do paintings reflecting parts of the human skeleton, principally the backbone. For a long time I had been reading up on shamanism as related to archaeology. I read theories pertaining to shamanism and the way the shamans invoked spirits of animals. At the same time I had been visiting a Chinese acupuncturist because I was suffering severe pains in my back and head. I had also spent several years reading about Taoism: the forces moving around. This energy moves from the earth, from the lower regions of the body through the spine to the head. This was subconsciously reflected in the paintings at the time - shamanism, body energy and spiritual energy.
“The root of these experiments started years ago in Paramakatoi, where I discovered an urn, which had, carved around its mouth, a snake eating its tail.
In shamanism the serpent represents the energy passing through from the lower part of the body to the head. Among the Aztecs the serpent energy is powerful, as exhibited in the winged serpent. For the Chinese, the equivalent is the flying dragon. Those became my preoccupations in Lyons.”
Texture and techniques
“I experimented with thick gesso paint.” Many of these pieces have a distinct relief effect. The paint is applied in layers, sometimes washed with water so that parts of the lower layers would be exposed. Sometimes he would draw into the wet paint. “I would also experiment with finishing acrylic paintings with oil. Oils do not respond very well on paper. Acrylic and oil on canvas will work better. [An example of this is Serpent Energy in the exhibition]. The most recent works finished with acrylic gel on paper were done in Haiti. With this technique, you get a freshness.”
The work in Haiti came alive because “Haiti is full of vibrations; full of replicas of Amerindian heritage with museums dedicated to artefacts. It is buzzing with art displayed on the streets. I work very intuitively, experimenting with working flat on the floor to create imagery principally on paper, which gets hard and leathery.”
Among the exhibits in ‘Moving Circle’ is a suite of very small paintings by Simon with markings etched into damp gesso. “I have been very interested in texture. You could almost take prints from these pieces. My first training was as a printmaker. In earlier years I was interested in impasto, using sand and paint.
“Now I use very thick paint, draw in the paint, allow it to harden and apply another colour. I then impose another colour, then wash it so that the first colour comes through. Gesso on cartridge paper is very good for this because you get a relief finish. There is also a finish with incisions - cuts into the paint.”
Simon believes that the Heritage Month is a good occasion to get the Amerindian artists together. “There is no group, no theme. Their work is very individualistic.” He feels it is good and necessary for them to exhibit together so they can see each other’s work. The recent craft exhibition showed the way Amerindian craftsmen repeat the traditional pattern, but the fine art is different. “It is more the psyche of the Amerindian.”