The Arts Journal: Exploring the Caribbean cultural identity
Arts on Sunday
By Al Creighton
February 11, 2007
(The Arts Journal, Vol 2, No.2, March 2006, Guest Editor Gemma Robinson, (General Editor, Ameena Gafoor), Georgetown : The Arts Forum, 142p)
The two most recent issues of The Arts Journal, together, make an emphatic statement about the motivating ambitions of this literary periodical and where it is today. They stand as testimony to the considerable achievements of the publication, confirming its place among the reputable line of scholarly and artistic magazines that may be found today.
In the context of the Caribbean, the attainment of this place is not to be taken lightly. Although The Arts Forum which publishes the Journal was only founded in 2004, it gains in importance given the unflattering track record of such learned periodicals in the region. They struggle to survive. Only the brave would launch and maintain one of these and only the foolhardy would expect immediate success, profitable sales, worldwide circulation and guaranteed longevity. The road to these achievements is paved with defunct or suspended publications and littered with the discarded pages of efforts that barely got beyond Volume One, Number One. So, young as it is, its existence and the accomplishment of its present strength are not to be taken for granted.
Edited by Ameena Gafoor and supported by a distinguished editorial board and advisors, The Arts Journal carries a sub-title that articulates what it provides: Critical Perspectives on Contemporary Literature, History, Art and Culture of Guyana and the Caribbean. Further defined, it "is devoted to the critical and scholarly study of the written literatures, the oral traditions, the visual culture and cultural expressions of Guyana, the wider Caribbean and their diasporas." In introducing Volume 2 Number 2 Gafoor explains the decision to invite guest editors (following a not uncommon practice). It flows from efforts, "To expand the critical space and offer readers and subscribers a wide range of critical perspectives on contemporary arts and culture. Colonialism has impacted on the lives of the peoples of the Caribbean region in untold ways, in untold sites resulting in multiple voices. We are still trying to come to terms with the notion of Independence, both political and cultural, and, without a doubt, we need to fill crucial gaps in our knowledge and understanding of our societies and ourselves."
The third and fourth editions of the Journal were guest-edited; Volume 2 No.1 by Victor Ramraj, Guyanese-born Professor of English in Canada, former editor of Ariel, who has judged the Guyana Prize (as Chairman of the Jury) and the Commonwealth Prize. Ramraj produced an important document of some of these multiple diasporal voices, giving readers a very useful "idea of the current research interests of upcoming and established scholars in Canada and the UK, whose articles and reviews would go some way to indicate what our writers with Caribbean attachments are producing and achieving."
Many of the "crucial gaps in our understanding of our societies" are filled by these writers who, having migrated to Canada or the UK, confront what Ramraj sees as "their hyphenated identities" and linguistically as "Saussurian differentiators." The works of the writers range from comfortable acceptance of hyphenation to rejection of it as a way of keeping them out of the mainstream. The volume showcases these multiple identities while illustrating the high standards of West Indian writing which Ramraj reminds us, regularly appears on literary prize lists and shortlists.
In a number of ways Volume 2 No 2 of the Journal complements this issue. Its guest editor is Gemma Robinson, English lecturer at a Scottish university, outstanding scholar and researcher on Caribbean literature, a leading authority on Martin Carter and judge of the 2004 Guyana Prize. She takes on the same diasporal writing analysed in Ramraj's collection, but enlarges it with a deep engagement of its history as well as the impacts of colonialism, the notion of independence and, most definitely, the complexities of the multiple voices and identities.
Robinson produces an outstanding document of the excellence of this writing. She has assembled examples of the finest scholarship and art of the Caribbean, including samples of the work of a few of its best writers who engage concepts of 'nation' in the region in the context of the way "the national, the regional and the global have come together in the Caribbean in divisive, unifying and celebratory ways." This issue of The Arts Journal "explores Caribbean cultural identity through creative writing, memoir and criticism. The contributors address publishing, film, fine art, fiction, photography, poetry and radio. Only one contributor explicitly names 'transnationalism' (Leon Wainwright), yet all the pieces consider, in the words of Nicholas Laughlin, "what 'Caribbean' can mean."
Robinson observes that "the contributors return to the essential topic of how journeys contribute to Caribbean identity." This preoccupation certainly informs the volume. For painter and University of Guyana Research Fellow George Simon it is both physical and metaphoric as he journeys in and out of self-loss to self discovery, from religious uncertainties to discoveries of spiritual belief and artistic fullfilment. These transmigrations accompanied his travels through various corners of Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. Simon's experience may be closely related to the similarly structured autobiographical journey of Anne Walmsley whose studies of the Guyanese Amerindian psyche through the art of Aubrey Williams complements his own work and identity. Walmsley's piece in this issue of the Journal gives valuable insights into her powerful contribution to the journeys of Caribbean art and letters themselves.
Those same 50 years are covered by Leon Wainwright's study of Williams. It is the same ground and the same time period over which West Indian literature developed, and these are the very same preoccupations of other contributors in this issue whose concerns link the history with journeys and themes of identity. Walmsley, a leading authority on CAM, the London-based Caribbean Artists Movement, takes us on the journey through 50 years of publishing, while Robinson returns to the times when this publishing began, and the role of radio in its development. Although Henry Swanzy's BBC radio series Caribbean Voices is very well known as vital outlet, sustenance and virtual launching pad for West Indian writers in England, Robinson's critical analysis of it brings new material to light from the times when the programme was produced by Una Marson, VS Naipaul and George Lamming. Looking back from the present might of contemporary Caribbean literature, she focuses "a much less certain time" in the 1940s and 1950s, looking back at radio, local Caribbean publishing and Guyanese writers.
Other areas such as photography and film are covered by Sandra Courtman's A Journey through the Imperial Gaze: Birmingham's Photographic Collections and its Caribbean Nexus and Projecting the Caribbean: Case Study of the Barbados Festival of African and Caribbean film by Jane Bryce. In Bryce's contribution, The Arts Journal keeps pace with a very important development of more recent times, viz the advance of film, well accelerated by the increasing electronic revolution. She uses the African and Caribbean film festival that she administers in Barbados as a case study of an attempt "to shift the ground" of "watching" films in the region "from passive consumerism to active participation in the creation of meaning."
Then, of equal importance as the critical attention to the arts, this memorable issue of the Journal, like its predecessor, provides a glimpse of new work by celebrated writers. The very best of Guyanese novelists is represented by Wilson Harris, David Dabydeen and Fred D'Aguiar, who join Trinidadian Vahni Capildeo in presenting new, unpublished work. Even above this is the added advantage of the provision of introductions by the authors who give background and context to their work. There is an extract from Harris's latest novel The Ghost of Memory, which continues this outstandingly original author's explorations into the "interplay of the unconscious and the conscious" and "states of mind."
Capildeo's extract is from a non-fiction prose piece, One Scattered Skeleton and Dabydeen continues his deep interest in Hogarth's Blacks through his creation of the slave boy Mungo with great ambitions of becoming a painter/"painterman." The Painterboy of Demerara is another journey to Guyana, bringing one of Hogarth's black servant boys from Britain to life and placing him there. D'Aguiar completes the multiple journeys with a revisit to the infamous site of the fanatic mass murders and suicides of Jonestown in Guyana's North West in 1978. It is yet another return by the author based on his trip to do a documentary for the BBC on the 25th anniversary of the event. This provided him with the inspiration and material for the novel Naming the Dead, and readers with yet another important insight into new West Indian writing in an outstanding edition of The Arts Journal that defines the heights of scholarship and art at which the publication aims.