Denis Williams : 1923 – 1998
Preserving our literary heritage
By Petamber Persaud
February 19, 2006
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ARTIST, art historian, archaeologist, anthropologist, biographer and novelist, Denis Williams was born on February 1, 1923, in Georgetown, the capital city of Guyana. He lived on three continents at crucial times - times of intellectual upsurge, times of political ferment and times of creativity in arts. Williams was caught up in the action wherever he went, sharpening his perception of the living and the past as reflected in the innovations found in his art, craft and writing.
His opinions were not always well-received, but he was respected nevertheless as he toiled to substantiate his theories with numerous publications and exhibitions. A few of his publications included `IMAGES AND IDEA IN THE ARTS OF GUYANA’ (1969), `GIGLIOLI IN GUYANA 1922-1972’ (1973), `HABITAT AND CULTURE IN ANCIENT GUYANA’ (1984).
Works also backed his talk as he founded a number of organisations like the Burrowes School of Art and the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology to preserve scholarship and promote the arts. Williams effectively merged science and art to this end.
Williams lived a full and fruitful life, enriched by the women who walked beside him and the 11 children he fathered.
In 1973, the Government of Guyana honoured him with Golden Arrow of Achievement. In 1989, he was awarded the Cacique Crown of Honour and in the same year awarded a DLitt (honoris causa) by the University of the West Indies. In 1994, the Organisation of American States presented him a Certificate of Recognition, the Gabriel Mistral award for culture. And in 1998, the Commonwealth Association of Museums honoured him with the ‘Cowrie Circle’.
Dennis Williams was born and educated in Georgetown, passing his Senior Cambridge School Certificate in 1941. Awarded the British Council’s first scholarship in the colony to study art in Britain, he became a fine arts student at the Camberwell School of Art between the years 1946 and 1948 – the post World War Two years.
In 1949, he returned to Guyana where he worked on a series of his paintings under the title, ‘Plantation Studies, Origins, Burden and Release’ which was not well-received in certain quarters. Unable to settle and unable to land a proper teaching job, he headed back to England where he enjoyed many years of success. Yet, he was unfulfilled. This state would manifest itself again and again in his life, urging him to dig deeper in his search and research, constraining him to move from land to land.
Wasting no time on his return to the UK, Williams was able, by December 1950, to put on and exhibition at Gimpel Fils, the success of which opened the way for him to become visiting tutor at Slade School of Fine Art, University College, London, and lecturer at the Central School of Art, Holborn.
Another turning point in his life came with the longing to find out ‘who am I’, leading him to the Sudan in Africa.
From 1957 to 1962, he lectured in Fine Arts and Art History at Technical Institute of African Studies, Khartoum.
These years provided his first experience in archaeology and provided material for his first novel, `OTHER LEOPARDS’, first published by New Author Limited, an imprint of Hutchinson, 1963.
Here’s something to note about this publishing house and about publishing on the whole: ‘there can be no complete answer to the problem facing the young creative writer and his potential publisher. The writer writes to be read; the publisher publishes to make – if he can – a reasonable return on a considerable financial investment. Between both aspirations there lies an ever-widening gulf. New Authors Limited was created to narrow this gulf and to give new writers a clear picture of the problems and costs involved in presenting their work to the public’. That situation hasn’t changed much since then.
`OTHER LEOPARDS’ was about estrangement and alienation. Incidentally, this book falls within the first wave of the Guyanese novel tradition.
Moving to Nigeria in 1962, he lectured in African Studies at the University of Ife and at the University of Lagos. At both universities, he edited journals in African Studies and started museum collections of African artefacts. This African sojourn was quite productive for Williams because it was during this time he published his monumental, if controversial work `ICON and IMAGE: A Study of Sacred and Secular Forms in African Classical Art’, published in1974. Williams also published his second novel, `THE THIRD TEMPTATION’ while in Nigeria, another innovative bit of writing, experimenting with the nouveau roman technique.
After his sojourn in the land of his ancestors, Williams returned, in the late 1960s, to Guyana, the land of his birth. He soon became the prime mover of art in this country especially by offering encouragement to Indigenous artists. He founded and became the first principal of the Burrowes School of Art, and also founded and was a director of the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology.
While he was in the primordial haven, the interior of Guyana, he started a third novel, `THE SPERM of GOD’, examining the ‘mongrel, polyglot society’ of the New World where there is no ‘purity of sperm’.
Dr. Denis Williams died on June 28, 1998, yet his legacy lives on; in 2004, his book `PREHISTORIC GUIANA’ was published by Ian Randal at the behest of the Ministry of Culture, Youth & Sport.
Williams, Toni. Denis Williams – A Biographical Note. `PREHISTORIC GUIANA’
Williams, Charlotte. `SUGAR AND SLATE’