Impermanent colossus Arts On Sunday
By Al Creighton

Stabroek News
September 26, 2004

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Only last month the Olympiad returned to its roots in Athens, Greece, and the Greeks made capital of their ancient connections, turning the proceedings, through tradition, art, ritual and theatre, into a memorable, historic occasion. They made the most of the heritage from the original Olympic Games, which started in 776 BC, and continued during the glory of Hellas two-and-a-half thousand years ago, as well as the fact that the modern Olympics also began in Athens, close to the original site, when the games were reconstructed in 1896.

These games were built on a number of ideals, which are still of significance today. An outstanding example may be found in the marathon, a race which remains a symbol for the Olympics, and which was run in August, 2004, along a course as close as they could get to the original route taken by Phidipides when he ran 26 miles from Marathon to Athens to bring news of victory in a very important war. This course was used in 1896, close to the ruins of the ancient site. The marathon relives that spirit of triumph, glory and the achievement of effort mixed with patriotism, a sense of rivalry and political pride, which were (are ?) associated with war between nations. Sport became used as a gesture of peace between nations, shifting the rivalry from the battlefield to the track, and turning offensive weapons such as the javelin and the shot-put into Olympic events.

Out of this emerged an outstanding figure representing the ancient Greek ideal of art, beauty, prowess and perfection well known in 500 BC. This is the image of a naked athlete with perfect physical form about to hurl a discus. He is the representative Olympian in whom the ideals come together. The games were called Olympics because they originally took place at Olympia, and their association with Mount Olympus, home of the Greek gods, worshipped by the Hellenic people as sacred, perfect, immortal, powerful and beautiful. The champion athletes were deified and crowned with laurel wreaths. The Greeks saw immeasurable beauty, art and perfection in the well-built male body, which was a favourite subject for sculpture and statues.

Such an imposing symbol has recently emerged and is now towering above the horizon in the courtyard of the National Cultural Centre. It was erected and placed there as an icon for the 2004 Central American and Caribbean (CAC) Body Building Championships which are to be hosted by Guyana, October 1-5. It is the image of a bulky and well-proportioned body- builder, drinking from a large bottle of Tropical Mist water. The larger-than-life colossus stands at 28 feet, weighs 800 pounds and was created by artist Gerald Gittens assisted by a team of builders advised by an engineer. The CAC/Tropical Mist Monument, as it is called, was commissioned by the Guyana Amateur Body Builders Federation and Banks DIH, a sponsor of the CAC Championships.

The structure is to remain outside the Cultural Centre building until after the end of the event, when it will be moved to a more permanent location. However, how long it will remain there is not clear since it was not constructed to last forever. The idea was to have a temporary object and, while it might last longer than the average carnival costume, it was put together from very much the same material. It will certainly draw attention to the championships because of its dominant visual presence, and it was created as a meaningful and representative symbol of the event, expressing the familiar ideals of perfection that inspired both Hellenism and the Olympics.

Its significance is described by Donald Sinclair, Executive Director of the Tourism Authority and Chairman of the CAC Planning Committee.

The monument speaks to us about perseverance, about going the extra mile, about the importance of humour and camaraderie no matter how daunting and challenging the task. On another level the long and difficult work involved in designing this work of art is a reminder about the challenge of bodybuilding itself.

Yet at perhaps the most sublime and exalted level, this CAC Monument speaks to us about human creativity, about Guyanese artistic ingenuity, about exceptional Guyanese talent, and about our capacity to create beauty and shape from nothing. Give the average human being some lengths of steel, some rolls of mesh, some sawdust, some rolls of toilet paper, some masking tape, glue, chalk and some lengths of wood, and some nuts and bolts, and you get a result that is forgettable. Give those same ingredients to a genius and you get an object that is worthy of museums and history and display galleries. We gave those objects to Mr Gittens and we now have a classic work of art.

This work is not sculpture, and, as has already been said, lacks the durability and the polish of sculpture. It is public art in the realm of carnival art and graphic design, and Gerald Gittens is very well known for this kind of work. He is responsible for many decors and designs including the giant Santa Claus that welcomes you to Main Street at Christmas time, the equally huge outdoor designs that overlook the annual Main Big Lime on the same street, and much of what accompanies Guy-Expo and Town Days in Bartica and New Amsterdam.

His artistic career goes back to the years when he won first prize in the League of Coloured People's Exhibition in Sculpture in 1953 and again in 1954. He acknowledges Vivian Anthrobus as his mentor and tutor from whom he learnt much of his art. He did not go early into full-time or professional art, however, since he pursued a long career in the British Guyana Civil Service. Since then, he has been quite productive as a painter, sculptor, graphic artist, craftsman and designer. His paintings have covered varied subjects including many landscapes, but he never had a major exhibition because, as he explains, his works tend to get sold as soon as they are produced, and he has done several commissions.

This imposing monument of a body-builder may well be the crowning laurel wreath of his career as a public artist/graphic designer in Guyana, largely because of its visibility and impact as well as its role in the promotion of an international event. It draws its strength from bodybuilding and its ancient Greek heritage, embodying as it does, so much of the Greek and of the Olympic and the CAC ideals.

For now, it "doth bestride" the courtyard of the Cultural Centre "like a colossus" and, by its very presence there when the several competitors arrive in Guyana on October 1, 2004, will loudly pronounce the ritual utterance:

Let the games begin!

(Acknowledgement: H.A. Harris Sport in Greece and Rome, 1972)