A new arts journal enters the market Arts on Sunday
by Al Creighton
Stabroek News
May 23, 2004

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A brand new journal of literature and the arts has appeared on the market. It is called The Arts Journal, edited by Ameena Gafoor, published by The Arts Forum Inc. and describes itself as providing "Critical perspectives on the contemporary literature, Art and Culture of Guyana and the Anglophone Caribbean." This publication is also interested in book reviews as well as "articles on history, archival material, and other cultural activities and artefacts that speak to the social and cultural reality of Guyana and the Caribbean."

From the outset, it seems to have taken a number of wise decisions, beginning with the fact that it is a refereed journal. There is an Editorial Board whose members include a few high-profile names with the kind of established stature that can do no less than recommend the journal to potential subscribers and contributors alike. Then, these authors have all contributed articles to start off the first issue, putting their reputations behind the venture while demonstrating to other authors that they need entertain no nervousness about the kind of company they might keep if they submit their work for publication in its pages.

Clearly, The Arts Journal is aware that being peer reviewed may allow it easier passage into the academy, but that's not all that it seems to know. It has chosen to be a yearly publication, perhaps with the knowledge that it is the newest in a long, long line of literary journals in the Caribbean, most of which have struggled to keep in print. Many of them have been forced to cease publication and some very distinguished quarterlies have failed to keep up with the promised four issues a year.

The waters of the Caribbean Sea have been rough and cruel to those magazines over the past century and many heroic titles have joined the wreckage. Among the most important are Trinidad, Beacon, Focus, Carib, Savacou, ASAWI Bulletin, the New World Fortnightly and Timehri. It is in these perilous currents that The Arts Journal has been launched, but it shows early promise of staying afloat.

The first volume looks quite impressive in a number of different ways. It is well produced, neatly put together by a knowledgeable editor and fortified by competent reproductions of paintings by Bernadette Persaud and Cyril Kanhai, whose works adorn the covers, and a number of other artists. Given all the art that surrounds it, it is a pity that the journal's front cover is almost unattractive in its design and colour blend.

Editor Ameena Gafoor has gathered around her, scholars from UWI, University of Guyana, London Metropolitan University and Colgate, Brinsley Samaroo, Verene Shepherd, Clem Seecharan, Tota Mangar, Kenneth Ramchand, Janice Lowe Shinebourne, Alim Hosein and Bernadette Persaud. They form her Editorial Board and are drawn from various fields, including history, literature and the fine arts.

In the section on Art, she introduces a selection of paintings that lends visual strength to the publication. She provides some background to the exhibition from which they come in addition to profiles of the artists. The exhibition was called Under the Seventh Sun, mounted by the Arts Forum as part of a conference on The Indian Diaspora held at the University of Guyana Berbice Campus at Tain in 2002. Without doubt, this was an excellent collection of work reflecting the recent development of suites of paintings based on research by UG artists/academics Professor Doris Rogers, Bernadette Persaud and Philbert Gajadhar. In this case, most of the work came out of their visit to India and Persaud and Gajadhar produced memorable work including themes out of religion and women of the "Untouchables" of India.

Gafoor's commentary, quite correctly, places the work within an expression of "the rich civilization" that is a part of the Guyanese heritage and the contribution to "our common humanity" by this aspect of Indian indentureship. But she interprets one of Persaud's paintings, A Flag on the Earth: Guyana 2001 in fairly contentious political terms while describing the artist as "indisputably Guyana's leading contemporary artist." Persaud is, indeed, a very sound academic and an outstanding painter, among Guyana's leading artists, but there are those who might just wish to query Gafoor's claims.

The controversial V.S.Naipaul is at the centre of articles by two of the most celebrated writers in this issue, Professor Ramchand of UWI and Colgate and Professor Seecharan of London Metropolitan. Of the two, Ramchand is more sympathetic. He claims that "Indo-Caribbean writing in English begins with Seepersad Naipaul because he was the Trinidadian person in the making" and provides a good analysis of that work. Seecharan's essay is nothing short of brilliant. He is harshly critical of Naipaul's contempt for his own country, people and roots. The many persons whose vehemence poured out when Naipaul won the Nobel need to go and read his Nobel Lecture or his interview in the Stabroek News (with Al Creighton, Dec. 1990) to get a better understanding of how he thinks. But Seecharan does not lack that understanding since he has read Naipaul, met him personally at Warwick and has, in fact, been inspired by him.

Seecharan modestly puts his own work in the category of "this rubbish kind of writing" that Sir Vidia eschews, but he does so in an interesting, far-reaching essay in which he compares his own research into his roots with Naipaul's similar quest. The result is a delightful, instructive paper which he ends thus: "[Naipaul] has indeed been a major influence on me. What would I not do for the clarity and elegance of his style? But I don't envy him the burden of his genius".

Controversy is also associated with Alim Hosein's subject. Hosein, linguist, artist, critic and former Head of English at UG, analyses Oonya Kempadoo's Buxton Spice, which raised many eyebrows when it first appeared in 1998, and Rooplall Monar's Jhanjat, exploring the struggle of a young Hindu wife for liberation and self-discovery. It is good critical analysis that can hold its own in any company. It also adds to the critical attention paid to Kempadoo's bold excursions into sexuality and gives well needed (and deserved) exposure to Monar's novel which rates with Backdam People as his two best works of fiction.

Gafoor's article on Jan Shinebourne's fiction rounds off the literature section while the section on "History" has obvious strength. Professor Shepherd, a leader in her field, continues a theme of East Indian women in the Caribbean already approached by the literary critics Hosein and Gafoor, examining them in the contexts of ethnicity, class and gender. Professor Brinsley Samaroo gives an account of "Mutiny aboard the Guyana-bound Clasmerden" a ship with Indians crossing the notorious kala paani in 1857. The contribution of the prolific Tota Mangar, a Deputy Dean at UG, is an account of "Governor Henry Turner Irving and his Role on Immigration, 1882 - 1887: Consolidation and Confrontation".

These give The Arts Journal all-round strength and makes it well worth reading. They also assist its launching as a very welcome addition to the critical academic publications of the Caribbean.

But the highway to literary establishment is littered with the shreds of defunct journals and several ambitious publications that never made it past volume one number one. We have to hope that this arts journal can stay on the road and become another important vehicle for the development of the arts

(The Arts Journal, ed. Ameena Gafoor, Georgetown : The Arts Forum, Vol.1 No.1, May 2004,115p.)