Art and ethnicity
Akima's view By Ruel Johnson
Guyana Chronicle
December 28, 2003

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It may be possible that - through all our ethnic differences, our cultural traditions, both superficial and substantial - we can all lay claim to all our heritages, regardless of what we may look like on the outside.
WHAT is art? How many times have you heard this question asked? And what can you recall of the answers being given? One of the most popular definitions of art, given by artists, is that it is simply the creative expression of self.

For many people "self" implies an amalgamation of some more or less absolute values: height, gender, sexuality, body type, and perhaps what we like to think of as the most concrete of all, race or ethnicity.

Here in Guyana, our concept of our racial self/selves has historically undergone some traumatic changes. First, there was the colonial labelling of the vast majority of our people as inferior or second class and the consequent labelling of a majority as superior: both were labels in some way or the other harmful to the people they were applied to.
With the struggle for political independence came the genesis of the racial rift that has engulfed our nation for more than a generation. Most of us have come to define ourselves in terms that distinguish us against a contrasting racial other, a fact that is perhaps illustrated more clearly at the ballot box than it is anywhere else.

Racial insecurity and a generationally transmitted neurosis have been what one might call our national inheritance through the ages. Thankfully, not all of Guyana's Generation Now has been infected.

Introducing Akima
Akima McPherson is one such "anomaly". An artist and art teacher, Akima possesses a peculiar outlook when it comes to what she views as her ethnic inheritances.

According to her mother, scientist Lorna McPherson, Akima was conceived while she and her husband were stationed at Ebini for two years during the mid-1970s. She spent most of her pregnancy at Ebini, only travelling to Georgetown briefly for the delivery, then returning to Ebini for a few more months.

Akima attended St. Margaret's Primary up until after her SSEE examinations. Her family then left for the U.S. in 1986, just as she was about to enter the first form at President's College.

Lorna McPherson had been given a job as a Fulbright and Humphrey Fellow at Cornell University, an Ivy League College located in the college-town of Ithaca in upstate New York.
Now attached to NCERD, the Mrs. McPherson says that Ithaca was home to some 45, 000 people, from between 90 and 100 nations, speaking around 50 different languages. Each year in Ithaca, there is the Ithaca Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity of the town. Lorna McPherson says that it is the only place she has ever been where she has seen a Jewish person offering to write names in Hebrew on one side of the street, while on the other side there was a Palestinian offering to write names in Arabic.

"In fact," she adds, "[Ithaca] is the first place that I've ever seen a Tibetan monk."

Akima says that they were the only Guyanese family there in Ithaca. There were a few West Indians living in the college community, but her only classmates were a Jamaican and a Crucian (that's someone from St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands).

While at high-school, Akima worked at her lifelong dream of becoming an architect. She says that since she was a child, she had been fascinated with the way people house themselves, something her mother verified with the Sunday Chronicle.

"Architecture was a hobby of mine during my pregnancy with Akima, so some of it must have been subliminally passed on to her," she surmises.

Ever since Akima was three years old, she had been playing at constructing cardboard houses for her dolls and for herself and younger sister Tsitsi. Years later, the sixteen year-old Akima, as a Cornell University Young Scholar, spent six weeks at the University undergoing an intense architectural course.

At seventeen, she applied to both Pratt and Cornell Universities and was accepted by both. However, as the tuition costs for both institutions were way too high, and as an international student, she was not eligible for financial aid, she decided to use some scholarship money she had been awarded during high school to enroll in the Liberal Arts Programme at Queens College (New York) and later on at City College.

Although she wasn't able to go to Pratt or Cornell, the mere application process provided her first opportunity to produce art since for each university, a drawing portfolio was required.

Akima McPherson with sister Tsitsi and mother Lorna at the Sidewalk Cafe.

It was at this time that Lorna McPherson got a hint of her daughter's artistic skills. She didn't make too much of a fuss, however, since she didn't want her daughter to even consider a career change based on her opinion.

Akima spent only one year at City College before her family remigrated to Guyana in 1995. She enrolled in the University of Guyana's architecture programme, but deciding that it wasn't "design-oriented" enough, she left shortly after signing up.

That was when she decided to go to the Burrowes School of Art and to try her hand at what she then thought of as "this art thing." She spent her first year there, 1996, as a part-time student studying painting, drawing and sculpture. In 1997, she enrolled as full-time student and two years later, she graduated with a diploma in painting.

In 1999, she went back to the University of Guyana, this time enrolling in the Art programme and in 2001, she graduated with a distinction.

She had started teaching art at St. Roses High in 2000 and when she left U.G., she continued her teaching career at the senior secondary school, a job she holds right now.

Art and Identity
Earlier this year, at a leadership symposium hosted by a Canadian-based non-governmental organisation, Akima was one of the persons asked to present a paper on the role of the artist in society. The young artist, after giving a brief history of art, put forward to the audience gathered there the essence of what may come to be a seminal thesis on the creation of local works of art, literary or visual. The only justice that can be done to the presentation is to offer the following excerpt:

"Let us consider our identity-focused art. This art is largely concerned with our ethnic identity. Why is this so? I would like to suggest that this is symbolic of the schism we still feel [as a result of] the severed link with our ethnic and cultural past. In these images ones sees a revisiting and re-presenting of ancestral memories which are, in my opinion, really efforts to connect with Self. Looking at these images, one also sees an interesting and sad reality being reflected; as a society, we have not yet met the challenge to integrate our diverse parts into a harmonious whole. Almost always one sees East-Indian-experience based art being produced by East Indian artists and images concerning themselves with African identity being produced by persons of African descent; and the same holds for `Amerindian' art. Were we able as a society to embrace each other and celebrate our differences, I think that the art, which at this time is mostly reflective, would emerge differently.

Halfway to Pakuri

I remember while in my final year at the E.R. Burrowes School of Art, I undertook to do as my final year project, production of images and objects derived from my research into the different tribal creation stories of our indigenous people. Because of who I am on the exterior ethnically, someone commented 'Why she painting Amerindian pictures...she think she Amerindian now?'

I found myself justifying my actions claiming that this "Amerindian" thing is as much my legacy as the African thing because I am Guyanese. That comment, seemingly innocent, speaks volumes about our narrowness in thinking regarding identity; similarly, so does the production of work which reflects only the exterior identity of the artist. Maybe this also reflects the latent contempt we feel for each other in our inability to celebrate each other [...] when different."

Akima says that she has always had a great affinity towards Amerindian culture because of her Amerindian ancestry.

Her mother provided a bit of genealogical information for us. She said that both of her paternal grandparents were of Amerindian and African descent, while her maternal grandparents were of African, European and Chinese heritage. She says that her father was extremely proud of his African roots, tracing his lineage back to Cameroon. But he also placed an equal amount of importance on his Amerindian ancestry.

"You couldn't talk 30 minutes to him without him telling you that he had Amerindian blood," she said.

Akima's father was of African and Indian parentage. Lorna McPherson believes that it is this element of metissage which has spiritually imbued itself into her daughter's work. She said that even in the U.S. - unconsciously echoing what Akima told us - Akima always possessed a spiritual connection with her indigenous ancestors. She recalls that there was one time when Akima was under intense stress; nothing worked to alleviate it, until the then teenaged artist had a conversation with a Native American shaman.

Since returning to Guyana, Akima has strived to get in touch with what she refers to as her Amerindian self. She possesses an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Amerindian tribal costumes, history and mythology. Whenever she enters the 'bush', she feels spiritually at home. And as a very spiritually aware person, this is what she reflects in a lot of her artwork.

"I consider painting as an expansion of meditation. At home, I prepare my room with the right music...some days I do visualisation association writing...I'm allowing all the primary stuff in my thoughts to be vented."

There is no doubt about Akima's talent. There is a sort of latent spiritual energy in a lot of her work, something intense lurking just under the surface. For example, in her Halfway to Pakuri, two blue lines meander and intersect like rivers across an eclectic background in the centre of which there is what seems like a faded old photograph of a lush savannah landscape. A hand-molded clay vase depicts animals from various Patamona legends.

There is no doubt that Akima's artistic output validates, and buttresses her artistic philosophy. After seeing her work, one cannot argue that she has not fully attuned with what she refers to as her "Amerindian" self. There can be no denial that there is one particular cultural space where this artist genuinely feels most at home. Whether it is by virtue of her particular ancestral heritage; or her inter-cultural maturation; or what she might consider her own "flaky" personality; Akima McPherson is the personification of a powerful message for our divided nation.

It may be possible that - through all our ethnic differences, our cultural traditions, both superficial and substantial - we can all lay claim to all our heritages, regardless of what we may look like on the outside.

Or as Lorna McPherson puts it, "I am a strong believer that we don't have many races, just one. We are who we choose to be."