The Arts Journal fills void Explores contemporary literature, art in Guyana, Caribbean
By Ruel Johnson
June 27, 2004
THOSE few who are au fait with the state of literature and literary criticism in Guyana would be well aware that for some time now - most notably with the decline if not demise of Kyk-over-al - there has been a considerable lacunae in the area of literary and artistic journalism.
While there has been in the newspapers the occasional book or film review, or a general report on an art exhibition or two, newspaper deadlines do not allow for the sort of in-depth probing, analysis and exhibition that the work of our more serious artists and writers demands.
Literary and artistic criticism serves an invaluable role in any society. Critics are often the filter or prism through which the imaginative works of our artistes are 'deciphered' for the general public; criticism, good criticism, also helps these 'creators' to see where they might have stumbled and push them towards the production of better work.
And since, ultimately, any work of art is concerned with the people within any particular society, criticism serves the function of broadening and strengthening the bridges, which artists attempt to build between people(s).
That function, interestingly enough, seems the mission statement of a new arts entitled The Arts Journal - edited by Ameena Gafoor - whose aim "is to work towards deepening the understanding of ourselves as products or inheritors of rich and diverse civilisations who share a complex history of struggle for selfhood and, above all, who share a common humanity."
More broadly the Journal seeks to explore the contemporary literature and art of Guyana and the Caribbean - a mammoth task considering the fragmented state of that nebulous union, in both the geographical and the psychic sense.
Which may be the reason that the first issue restricts itself thematically to the contribution of Indians or - to use a phrase currently en vogue - "people of Indian origin."
The Arts Journal is divided into three sections, Literature, History and Art - each focusing on the contributions Indian people have made to both the artistic and social life of the Caribbean.
In what must have been an incredible coup or just reward for Ms. Gafoor's strenuous efforts, the first article is a paper by Professor Kenneth Ramchand of Trinidad, arguably the most prominent living critic of Caribbean fiction. The paper, entitled `Literature and the Person of Indian Origin' explores the role of literature in the lives of Indians in the Caribbean and conversely the role of Indians in the production of Caribbean literature; written in the strong, elegant if at times plodding academic language that may be said to be typical of Ramchand.
Far more adventurous is (and this is not in any way prejudicial) Guyanese Clem Seecharan's very personal assessment of V.S. Naipaul's life and work within the context of their mutual Indo-Caribbean background. Seecharan, another notable Caribbean academic, is bold in his assessment of Naipaul - establishing, claiming a personal linkage of (ethnic not biological) ancestry that one imagines that the great writer, haughty and elitist as ever, might reject or simply ignore. Seecharan's treatment of Naipaul seems more psychoanalysis than literary criticism and though he stopped short of labeling the Nobel Prize winner as "anal retentive" or some such Freudian tag, his assessment of Naipaul's psychological quirks seems almost authoritative:
"I knew many years ago that the great mind was missing a lot; the basis of comprehension was flawed. The empathy, crafted by my childhood, does not belong in that great mind. His experience, beyond the 'fortress' [Naipaul's large enclosed childhood home, Hanuman House], was puny. The talent alone could not fill the void; the travels, later, could not escape the original darkness..."
Many of the other articles in the Journal, well written as they were, pale in comparison to this sort of critical analysis and this sort of disparity may be the publications only weak point, if it may be called that.
In the History section, the article that stands out, though not as strongly as Seecharan's, is written by Professor Brinsley Samaroo, Head of the Department of History at UWI, St. Augustine. To put a bit of perspective on Samaroo's piece, it may be noted that in recent times, there has been a conscious drive within Indo-Caribbean scholarship to re-explore the system of indentureship with a view to highlighting the brutalities and injustices of it, and a common technique is to allude to the system of slavery. In light of this, Samaroo's excellent article, `The 1862 'Mutiny' Aboard the Guyana-bound Clasmerden' may well be entitled `Amistad, Interrupted!'
Samaroo sets an incident of unrest among indentured labourers on board a ship headed for Guyana in 1862 against the background of the Indian Revolt of 1857. Much of Samaroo's historical evidence may be considered circumstantial, indeed much of it undoubtedly is, but so is much of paleontology. To be brief, Samaroo's piece makes for compelling reading, especially for those interested in examples of Indian resistance to the hardships of indentureship. Until someone decides to use Samaroo's research to write a novel or a script for a feature film, his article, available only in the Journal is a must-read.
The Art section of the Journal is based on an exhibition entitled Under the Seventh Sun, organised by the ARTS FORUM in collaboration with the University of Guyana and held at the Tain Campus during the May 20-25 International Conference of the Indian Diaspora, also held at Tain. The Curatorial Statement by one of Guyana's foremost artists, Bernadette Persaud, is published here as well as an overview of the exhibition by Ameena Gafoor and statements from the artists featured at the exhibition. A definite plus is the colour reproductions of the artwork, which are - though not of say Caribbean Beat quality - excellent in themselves and in light of the very limited funding that was available for the Journal's production.
In conclusion, the overall effort by Ameena Gafoor and the historians, artists and writers she pulled together to help her is ultimately a commendable one. The Arts Journal, unambitiously named has nevertheless been ambitiously put together and is going to go a long way in filling the hole left by the cessation of Kyk as well as carving out a new and particular niche for itself.
The only thing is that we're going to have to wait another year for the next issue.
Until then, The Arts Journal: Volume 1, Issue 1 is in bookstores now.