Reflections in trembling waters
Arts on Sunday
by Alim A. Hosein
June 15, 2003
‘Reflections in Trembling Waters’ (at the National Library in the first half of May) presented the viewer with some important questions to consider. This exhibition was largely the same one which was mounted at the Tain Campus of the University of Guyana as ‘Under the Seventh Sun’ at this same time of year in 2002.
First and most obviously, the exhibition raises the considerations related to the East Indian presence in Guyana. This is not surprising, since raising precisely such a reaction was one of the main planks of the exhibition. In last year’s exhibition, Ameena Gafoor, Coordinator of The Arts Forum (organizers of the exhibition) argued in her Foreword to the exhibition that “the subtleties of the unique stream of art produced by East Indians have been largely ignored and subsumed in the general art statement of Guyana and the Caribbean.” Further, Curator of the exhibition, Bernadette Persaud, sharpened this argument when she noted in her Curatorial Statement that the work on show “not only reflects a rich ancestral legacy, but also engages current issues of race, identity, politics and the existential dilemmas and pain of our present situation.”
Although the intensity of this cultural polemic seems to be somewhat mitigated in this year’s exhibition, ‘Reflections’ is definitely planted on the same politico-cultural ground as ‘Seventh Sun.’ For this alone the exhibition is important, since the question about the place of East Indian culture, far from being a narrow interrogation, ought to open discussion on issues such as cultural pluralism, nationalism, marginalisation, and the politics of culture and governance, all of which are as important as, if not more fundamental to than, discussions on economics in understanding ourselves as a nation.
The developmental possibilities of exhibitions such as ‘Reflections,’ the exhibitions of contemporary Amerindian art, and the Afro-Guyanese sculpture of the 1980s, are tremendous, and hold vital importance for us in Guyana. But the argument of ‘Seventh Sun’ and ‘Reflections’ is that far from giving equal attention to all these artistic currents, the local art establishment has so far failed to acknowledge the East Indian stream in our art, and it also suggested that this has been a part of a wider suppression and submerging of Guyanese East Indian identity under a blanket ‘all awe a waan’ culture. For the artists and organizers of this exhibition, the suggestion of cultural threat was very real.
However, the argument is crucially relevant not only to the recognition and continuation of East Indian culture, but to other cultures as well in Guyana. For a long time, the high ground of cultural expression in the Caribbean has been held by a middle class gentility which ignored the ruder expressions of the street. In the 1970s and onwards in Guyana, the late Denis Williams nurtured a fantastic expression in wooden sculpture among ordinary Afro-Guyanese youths, in what he called “the Village Movement,” thus distinguishing it from the Georgetown-based, middle class, tutored art expressions that could trace their roots back to the art classes of the famous E.R. Burrowes in the 1940s and 1950s and through that, back to twentieth-century European art. This movement made a significant contribution to defining a uniquely Guyanese art.
But the nature of the time in Guyana during the 1970s and onwards also created its own marginalizing tendencies, and the direction that art took in a centralized, politicized society also pushed other expressions aside. In this context, ‘Seventh Sun’ and ‘Reflections’ are another part - and a good and welcome part - of the cycle of continual evolution of our sense of art and our cultural awareness, since they call attention to forms of expression and states of being which were previously unimagined or pushed aside.
Another set of questions raised by these exhibitions is one which is grounded in aesthetics: apart from the ideological content, what are the formal definitions of ‘East Indian art’ in a new country and 160 years after departure from the original land? Curator of the exhibition Bernadette Persaud begins her Curatorial Statement by noting the dynamic location of Guyanese East Indian art between the western and eastern traditions.
It would be fair to say that the work on show draws its formal expression from the western tradition, but that its vitality comes from the artists’ sense of their position in the Guyanese and wider world around them, and that the eastern metaphysics of being gives them the spiritual centre to respond to these conditions. It is clear that Guyanese East Indian art is not atavistic but is totally contemporary. Also, it is not reactionary, but it has the power to be illuminating. It is not an art of memory or longing, but an art which makes ancestry relevant in the current age and place.
Indeed, contexts are important in this exhibition, as it was for ‘Seventh Sun.’ While that exhibition was contextualised by being a part of an international conference on the Indian Diaspora, and also by its Berbice location, ‘Reflections’ is defined by the physical setting in the exhibition space as a number of rangoli’s and other references to Indian culture are used to create an appropriate setting for the pieces.
This brings another dimension of East Indian art in Guyana to bear. Although there is a feeling that East Indian visual art is new in Guyana, this is not truly the case when one looks not only at the history of artists of East Indian heritage in Guyana, but also at artistic forms which have been around us for decades: mosques, temples, rangoli’s, murti’s, other Hindu religious sculpture, etc. These could form another exhibition showing another dimension - one that is closer to the original physical forms and uses - of Indian visual art in Guyana.
‘Reflections’ features the same core of artists (Bernadette Persaud, Philbert Gajadhar, Betsy Karim) as the Tain show, and introduces two new ones - Walter Gobin, a Guyanese artist living in the Bahamas, and Ravindra Doodnauth, a recent distinction graduate of the University of Guyana Fine Art programme. Desmond Ali, who exhibited in the Tain exhibition, was not present in the Georgetown version.
The work on show spans a stunning range for such a small group of artists. At one extreme is Karim’s work, which is firmly located in the aesthetics of the East. Karim draws both her themes and much of her formal means from traditional Indian and Persian miniatures. To these she adds contemporary colour and application. She displayed some rich tapestry work and painted pots.
At the other end of the spectrum is the modernist work of Walter Gobin and to a greater extent, Bernadette Persaud’s installations. Gobin addresses wider concerns of place and imagination in his sometimes surrealistic paintings, while Persaud addresses more localized concerns in setting up a dialogue of values which scathingly interrogates imperialism.
In between these extremes are the paintings of Philbert Gajadhar which rework traditional painting techniques in the search for a style to express fracture, dislocation and continuing links with traditions. The work of Ravindra Doodnauth is similarly within the more traditional vein, and in his paintings, he expresses the beauty of gods.
The review of ‘Under the Seventh Sun’ published in these pages last year commented that the exhibition should also be mounted in Georgetown “since its statements and arguments, and vital connections and imageries, deserve attention not only by wider audience, but also by an audience which is accustomed, through the exhibitions at Castellani House and other exhibition venues, to a reigning sense of what Guyanese art is.” It went on to observe that “Under The Seventh Sun has greater urgency because it brings ancestral iconography alive to address issues of vital concern to Guyana, and to comment on wider, international issues from a Guyanese perspective.” These comments still hold true, and are enhanced in ‘Reflections in Trembling Waters.’
Exhibitions such as these, and the others mentioned earlier, are exactly what are needed to help establish a local art, and Guyanese identity.