The Guyana women artists 14th exhibition
Arts on Sunday
by Al Creighton
By Alim A. Hosein
November 17, 2002
Guyanese women have a long history in art. Among all our artists, names such as Marjorie Broodhagen, Stephanie Correia, BernadettePersaud and Leila Locke are well known. Then there are the up-and-coming artists such as Maylene Duncan, Josefa Tamayo, Merlene Ellis and Margaret Dookhan who have been establishing themselves over the last few years. But beyond these, a number of women have sustained art in Guyana, and have been part of the recorded history of Guyanese art from at least as far back as the first decade of the 1900s. Women were certainly present at the first local exhibition in 1930. When the Guyana Women Artists Association (GWAA) was launched in April 1988, it quite correctly linked itself with this honourable if hidden history, and gave it its overdue recognition. In fact, in the book Sixty Years of Women Artists in Guyana, which accompanied the GWAA launching, Nesha Haniff records the history of these women artists from the exhibitions of the Women's Self Help Association started around 1912-13.
The GWAA exhibitions are in keeping with the trend of the first exhibitions by local artists. Haniff reports in Sixty Years of Women Artists in Guyana that the exhibition in 1930 featured a number of women. In the 1931 exhibition, of the 25 entries by Guyanese artists, 10 were from women. In 1942, an amazing 80 of the 156 pieces were done by women. Haniff also points out that these women won prizes in different categories - oils, watercolours, pen and ink and craftwork; as well as in landscape, still life and figure.
Even though the concept of 'art' seems to have solidified over the years in Guyana to mean painting and sculpture, the GWAA exhibitions showcase a wide variety of work including 'craft work' of various kinds. Its most recent exhibition - the 14th since the modern association was established in 1988 - continued the history. As usual, the exhibition was chock-full of work, and also as has been the case in the past, its variety was noteworthy. Over the years, the display of work ebbs and flows in both quality and quantity, but there is no other exhibition in Guyana which offers the viewer the range of work that the GWAA exhibition does.
What is also a notable is that different arts hold the fort in different years. The area of strength this year was painting, although Irene Gonsalves and Anna Correia hold the fort with superb work in ceramics. In recent times the emergence of strong women artists in two and three-dimensional work has lent tremendously to the exhibition. This was underscored at this year's exhibition. The paintings on display included a very good suite by Maylene Duncan whose Hands of a Woman series depicted some of the many roles of women - as mother, artist, labourer. Duncan had previously exhibited work in this theme at last year's exhibition. But Duncan also exhibited another suite of works which shows a new slant - the depiction of Guyanese proverbs in paint. In these, she interprets the psychological and moral implications of proverbs such as Night a run till day ketch am and Na see ting a day an wait fuh night fuh look fu am.
Margaret Dookhun's landscapes and other paintings provided the visual satisfaction and soulfulness, and demonstrated the painterly and drawing skills, which have been the hallmarks of her work. O'Donna Alsopp's paintings also maintained the high standards of her past work. In this exhibition, she moved away from her interior landscapes and focused on the coast - but it is the coast of at least 50 years ago. Alsopp displayed paintings of rural cottages and houses with all their intricate fretwork, and their neat, clean yard settings. The sense created is one of a world that is carefully maintained, where the surroundings reflect mental attitudes of care, hard work, honesty, gentility - a life and attitudes that are now slipping away. Her Rock Formations on Summit of Mount Roraima are more in keeping with her past work, as is the technique she uses of creating actual three dimensionality in her work.
There were also two paintings on a rural theme from Merlene Ellis, and interesting paintings from up-and-coming artists, Susan Sue-Chee, Kathlene Thompson, Akima McPherson and newcomers Petal Surujpaul and Jynell Osbourne. Interestingly, many of the women artists - Duncan, Dookhun, Sue-Chee, Thompson - display an inclination for chiaroscuro effects - paintings showing light and shade effects involving deep dark tones and areas of light and half-tones.
Ceramics especially has been a strong art at these exhibitions, what with the work of Stephanie Correia being a mainstay of the shows over the years. The ceramics this year, as usual, span the range from the decorative to the utilitarian, and combinations of the two, but all well done. The ceramics of Irene Gonsalves - a long-time contributor to the exhibition - are superb. Each piece is finely made, and she has excelled in her finishes. Also this year, her work showed a greater range of creativity since it included not only the usual pots, but also wall tiles, ceramic sculpture and wall pieces. Similarly, Anna Correia's work continues to stand out for its inventiveness and creativity and innovation in the use of colour. She also once again displayed her different sense in this area of ceramics by using fresh colour combinations such as blue and white. Milisa Sawak is new to the exhibition, and her work in ceramics included many decorative and functional pieces, as does the work of Norma Woolford.
Some artists displayed work in different genres. Akima McPherson showed some creative ceramics, using vase forms to create pieces which reflected womanist themes, and also displayed a series of paintings which depicted states of mind. Shawnton King's exhibits included watercolours and ceramics, and Susan Sue-Chee also displayed textile design. This year, the textile offerings were not as abundant as in some past years, but this is all part of the vicissitudes of the exhibition. Waveney Daly is another artist who worked in this area, displaying crocheted work and throw pillows.
Of particular note at this year's show was the retrospective of works by Edna Cadogan. Cadogan had displayed work in previous exhibitions, but this is the first time that her work has been a major focus of the exhibition. Of great interest were her paintings from 1964, which show Cadogan's talent as a painter and draughtsman. They also showed her interest in modern European art not only in composition and execution, but also in theme.
These paintings help to fill in some spaces in the early history of art in Guyana by underscoring the influences on local art. Another veteran artist whose work was on show was Agnes Jones, former head of the Burrowes School of Art.
Also as has been the case for a number of years, jewellery made up a relatively small part of the show, but Marcelle Yhip and Marilyn Correia carried this sector this year with their display of jewellery made of Guyana gemstones. In another small section of the exhibition, Josefa Tamayo carried sculpture, displaying small wooden pieces and other work made from materials such as calabash. These latter pieces, and her masks, especially one made of fibre, mark departure in her work.
Another feature of the GWAA exhibitions is the exposure of new talent. This happened again this year in such artists as Milisa Sawak (ceramics), Petal Surujpaul, Jynell Osbourne and Anna Perreira (painting and drawing).
In these fractious times, the GWAA must be congratulated for sticking together and consistently offering an exhibition each year for the past 14 years. But it is not just cohesion and tenacity that the GWAA must be congratulated for. Although the exhibitions vary from year to year, there is always something good to see. The consistently good ceramics, the showcasing of less-popular arts such as jewellery and textiles, the strong paintings and the exposure of new talent all make the exhibition worthwhile.