An outstanding year for Castellani House Arts on Sunday

By Al Creighton
Stabroek News
December 31, 2006

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US Ambassador David Robinson and National Gallery Curator Elfrieda Bissember sign documents on October 6 this year, at the handing over of US$27,300 from the Ambassador's Fund for Cultural Preservation for upgrading the storage and preservation facilities

A focus on Castellani House is a very appropriate conclusion to any survey of the arts in Guyana for the year 2006. The home of the National Gallery was the single most outstanding institution for the arts during the year as it not only fulfilled its mandate as custodian and driving force for the fine arts but extended its interests to other areas as well. In 2006 it enhanced its reputation and continued to be a major centre for the arts in Guyana. It had been growing in this way for a number of years before and has exhibited the strong links between the fine arts and literature in addition to other disciplines such as film, the art of jewellery and national heritage.

Yet the building known as Castellani House was handed over to art by the government and dedicated to serve the fine arts after many years of agitation by artists for the establishment of a proper permanent home for the National Collection and for the ER Burrowes School of Art. The former was gathered together and accommodated in its present home, while the latter, after two decades of Homeric wanderings reminiscent of Odysseus, eventually found lodgings on Carifesta Avenue at the home of the former Department of Culture.

The elegant nineteenth century house was designed by the celebrated architect Cesar Castellani in 1879 and the building of it was completed in 1882. It began life as the home of another famous gentleman, George Samuel Jenman, Government Botanist and Superintendent of Gardens, formerly of Kew Gardens in England, for whom it was built. Later on it became the residence of the Director of Agriculture early in the twentieth century. Subsequently, it was made the official residence for the Prime Minister of Guyana in 1964, occupied for a while by Forbes Burnham, but largely remained unoccupied through the 1980s. Another house at the back of the Presidential property served on and off as accommodation for visiting dignitaries during this time. It was then decided in 1993 to place the house in the service of the arts and to name it very fittingly after its designer. The first Curator was Guyanese artist Everley Austin, who served from late 1994 until circa June 1996.

However, it was under the present Curator and the establishment's Board of Management headed by former President Janet Jagan that the great strides into its present stature were made. Elfrieda Bissember, a Guyanese painter, art critic and art historian trained in Britain, was first asked to undertake a comprehensive inventory of the National Collection in August 1996, and was then appointed Curator. She has, since then, been central to the institution's development, which has included extensive renovation and conservation projects.

Through a grant from Guyana's Office of the President with some assistance from the British High Commissioner Edward Glover in 2000, British conservationists Caroline Platt and Hugo Platt restored a number of paintings in the National Collection. This was substantive work including restoration, cleaning and repairs to several paintings which had been affected by the less than satisfactory conditions under which they had been previously stored. The most renowned work repaired was Denis Williams's Human World, the first piece bought to start the collection. After that, among the important activities in 2006 was the extensive Gallery Renovation Project, again funded by the Government of Guyana government and started on July 24. Added to that, an agreement was signed with the US Embassy for the preservation of archival material, renovation and documentation at Castellani House.

The major work in art during 2006 was led by three of the country's most outstanding painters and sculptors - Philip Moore, Stanley Greaves and George Simon. The activity on October 12 was the celebration of Moore's 85th birthday as well as his life's work. These were marked by tributes and an exhibition to recognize the contribution to Guyanese art of one of the nation's most dominant and original craftsmen. Painter George Simon returned with the exhibition of Shamanic Signs in February and March. This show contained some of the most interesting new work by Simon including a wide range of explorations into ritual and spiritual influences from Amerindian and other traditions. It was the most memorable of his exhibitions seen recently in Guyana.

Another important art exhibition was Green Land of Guyana - Landscape and Vision in Guyanese Art, the Independence exhibition that ran from May 18 to July 29. This show drew together a variety of work by many different artists representing some indication of the art of a nation over several years. It featured the valuable heritage of landscape painting that has become a tradition in Guyanese art. Other shows included Tropical Abstractions by Terrence Roberts in January; Ellis 2006, the recent paintings of Merlene Ellis between March and April; and Persisting Dream: The Abstract Art of Derrick Callender, which opened on December 14.

There was also the continuation of one of the country's important traditions, the National Biennial Drawing Competition sponsored by Republic Bank, Guyana Ltd, with its usual prize-giving for the winners followed by an exhibition in October and November. This year's winner was former Tutor at Burrowes School of Art Josefa Tamayo. In addition to that the National Gallery participated in a foreign exhibition Guyana - A Multicultural Caribbean Adventure which ran from June 1 to August 11 at the IDB Cultural Centre in Washington DC. This was a display of art and artifacts to which the gallery contributed an introduction and catalogue notes by Curator Elfrieda Bissember and sixteen works; thirteen from the National Collection and three from private collections.

As has already been mentioned in Arts on Sunday the interesting links between the fine arts and literature were made by Stanley Greaves, who featured in two events at the gallery at the very beginning and the very end of the year. The first was his exhibition New-Retro in January in which there was new and old familiar work. The second was where the inter-textual connections were made. This was an illustrated lecture Shadows Move Among Them in which Greaves spoke about his latest exhibition mounted recently in Barbados for which his title paid tribute to foremost Guyanese novelist Edgar Mittelholzer, author of Shadows Move Among Them. The contribution was more than the title as this collection of work draws strength form a central motif of shadows with meanings that relate to Mittelholzer's work.

Another of the major artists was involved in the event sponsored by the Guyana Heritage Society. This was a lecture on The Influence of Amerindian Culture on Guyana's Visual Arts by Research Fellow in the Amerindian Research Unit at the University of Guyana George Simon who, as a painter, has been to a great extent responsible for moving and shaping much of that influence. The further outreach into literature and film included Classic Tuesdays, a monthly event in which a feature film is selected and shown accompanied by commentary. A parallel series of evenings of literature also continued through The Journey Part VI and The Journey Part VII in which poetry is selected and read around themes chosen for each part. The last presented poems read by various persons taken from the work of writers who have won literary prizes. On December 13, tribute was paid to Martin Carter with selections of his poems introduced and read on the ninth anniversary of his death.

It is not that important events and developments in the arts did not take place elsewhere, and another centre, the Centre of Brazilian Studies, has been outstanding in this respect, but nowhere else has there been this sustained and significant focus on the arts. The run of activities at Castellani House was particularly dominant in 2006.