February 11, 2007
As was reported in The Scene in our edition yesterday, two of Aubrey Williams's five murals which face the tarmac at the Cheddi Jagan International Airport, Timehri, have been mutilated in order to accommodate the design imperatives of the restructured terminal. The least that can be said about this act of vandalism is that it is nothing short of a national disgrace. For those who are unfamiliar with the name of one of this country's best known artists, the late Aubrey Williams occupies an important place in the evolution of a local visual arts tradition, and enjoys great stature beyond these shores. In Britain, where he lived for many years, he had a major influence on painting, and exhibited and lectured extensively both there and in the United States. One of the institutions with which Aubrey Williams maintained close relations was Sussex University, which also has one of his works on display. There would be a major outcry in the UK if that institution decided to damage the painting because the authorities there had decided to alter the shape of the premises in which it was housed.
Certainly no recourse appears to have been had to the local artistic authorities before the contractors moved in to the terminal building. Castellani House certainly does not seem to have been approached on the issue of the defacement, since Curator Elfrieda Bissember was reported yesterday as saying she was "very angry" about it. There is, of course, an unfortunate irony in all of this. It was, after all, this government which set up the National Gallery under the auspices of Mrs Janet Jagan to preserve and display the nation's art collection, and it is this institution which has worked so hard to sensitize the population to Guyana's artistic heritage. Quite clearly, their work has had no impact on some of the bureaucrats of this country.
Yesterday's report by John Mair also quoted Guyana's Ambassador to UNESCO, Professor David Dabydeen as commenting on the issue: "I was astonished at this act of vandalism. I just couldn't believe that we could allow Philistine contractors to pour concrete over a mural of national significance. It's the Guyanese equivalent of the destruction of the Elgin Marbles." What should be clarified is that while the view of most of the two murals facing the tarmac has been completely obscured, they have not actually been concreted over. It is true they have been seriously damaged, since holes have been drilled in them in order to fix in place a curtain wall (not of concrete), and what is even more extraordinary is that this screen was created simply in order to hide some steel girders. It is a matter for pure speculation as to which aesthete in the Ministry of Works dreamed up this abomination.
Surely it couldn't be the case that the Ministry of Works simply forgot about the murals, because this is hardly the first time they have been in the news. Artist Philbert Gajadhar had restored all five at the airport in 1992, one of which in the BWIA office area, had had 16 wooden plugs imbedded into its surface which he had managed to remove. In 1996, when the first rebuilding of the terminal was embarked on, the question arose as to what was to be done with the mural currently in the immigration area, since its situation was not compatible with the proposed design of the building. However, since it is still in existence one must presume that reason prevailed in the end.
So here we are eleven years later, trying to sell ourselves as a tourist destination by disfiguring the work of an internationally recognized Guyanese artist, so any visitors to this land will not see his murals, but instead the soulless contours of a barren airport terminal. That terminal, it might be noted, boasts architecture which is indistinguishable from similar structures in small-town USA, and which the well-travelled visitor will already be all too familiar with. So one can only ask again, which philistine genius among our bureaucrats decided to obliterate from view some of the only things which were unique and aesthetic at the CBJ, in order to highlight the unaesthetic and commonplace? Whoever it was is in desperate need of some artistic re-education.
The modus operandi in this instance is in stark contrast to that of the Ministry of Works under Minister Xavier, when Cesar Castellani's plaster ceiling had to be removed from the Parliament chamber because termites had eaten the wooden beams to which it was affixed. On that occasion the ministry sought expert advice before it proceeded, and the ceiling has now been restored in all its pristine glory. Quite clearly, the ministry is going to have to undo the damage it has done to the airport murals at some point, although quite clearly too, that is not going to happen before the World Cup, more's the pity. However, it should at this stage commit itself to rectifying the desecration, and giving the nation a time-frame in which that will be done. Furthermore, it had better acquaint itself with the protocols when works of art or historical structures are involved in its rehabilitation plans. In the case of the first it should consult Castellani House before moving, and in the case of the second, the National Trust. If it can't tell the difference between a historical or an art item, no matter. It can just apply to both institutions for advice, and let them sort out which is the relevant agency to offer guidance.
Lastly, there needs to be an internal inquiry at least in order to establish what the sequence of events was which allowed two works from one of Guyana's leading artists to be damaged, because this simply cannot be permitted to happen again.