This morning is new, but the sun
that made it is old.
New and Old
is the face of the world’s great grief
A green leaf
on the branch of a tree fingers
our time’s disgraceful space. We
are its measure.
The National gallery at Castellani House, as a 2014 Independence Anniversary and Arrival Day Exhibition has been celebrating one of Guyana’s outstanding contemporary artists – Bernadette Indira Persaud.
The exhibition ‘As New and As Old – selected works (1984 – 2014)’ is a strong and extensive one that shows the richness, power and phenomenal use of colour and imagery in the range of Persaud’s work throughout her career. As an Independence exhibition it is poignantly appropriate since Persaud as an artist speaks a great deal to nationhood in her artistic social and political commentary as well as in her philosophy. She makes statements about national identity, and the depths of the religious and multi-cultural substratum. At the same time she is a prominent national artist who represents Guyanese art and projects some of its most important post–independence developments.
She has advanced post-colonialism in Guyanese art as much as she has complemented the metaphysics of writers Wilson Harris and Martin Carter, and of artist-poet Stanley Greaves. Harris makes a point about the difference between multi-culturalism and cross-culturalism, and Persaud demonstrates that in her more recent work. Harris’ argument is that a society may be multi-cultural when it has several cultures existing within its borders; but there will only be cross-culturalism when these cultures do not merely exist side by side separately, but when there is some profound influence of one on the other to contribute to a national character. This, that is so much a part of Harris’ writings is paralleled in the recent paintings of both George Simon and Persaud. Moreover, the development of these preoccupations among these two leading artists represents one of the important movements in local post-independence contemporary Guyanese art.
As far as Arrival Day is concerned, there is further relevance. Persaud has developed the rare brand of what may be called Indian art in Guyana. Since the 1990s she has taken on Hinduism, and more recently Islam. She has advanced a complex treatment of the Indianness in Guyanese society in these recent preoccupations while remaining universal in her treatment of Guyanese issues. In the words of critic Alim Hosein, “Persaud is able to read the local landscape and life-scape through the lens of Hindu/Indian religious symbolism.” And, “Persaud’s work also takes Caribbean art another step along the road in its development.
“While never being narrowly ethnic, it affirms a largely overlooked culture, but more importantly, it brings that culture into dialogue with others in order to seek answers which will benefit all” (‘As New and As Old’, Exhibition Catalogue, May, 2014).
So-called East Indian art in Guyana has never been an area of major critical investigation, but it has been explored by painters. Notably Philbert Gajadhar has pursued it in at least two movements in his work (1990s, and again in the past seven years). Persaud has explored it in very specific ways with her series of jandhi flags, for instance, but has mostly approached it in the Harrisian way of cross-culturalism, while “affirming” and bringing to the attention of the audience “a largely overlooked culture.” In the context of Caribbean art one may recall James Isaiah Boodhoo of Trinidad and Tobago in his use of colours and thematic concerns.
The exalted place that Bernadette Persaud holds in Caribbean art today was demonstrated at Carifesta XI in Suriname 2013 in the way she dominated the visual arts exhibits. She was the artist in demand by the media and the audience as well as receiving the critical attention. Her work on show included some of her large canvases with the rainforest series and her deep treatment of landscape among them. Her imperial presence was equivalent to the throne on which Philip Moore was installed at Suriname’s Carifesta VIII in 2003. The other artist given similar status in 2003 was Trinidad and Tobago’s Le Roi Clarke who in some ways is that nation’s equivalent of Moore. Mentioning Persaud in the same company as these monarchs is to suggest her stature alongside the distinguished elder statesmen of Caribbean painting today.
Persaud is importantly noted for her intertextual engagements. She draws a lot on the poetry of Martin Carter for thematic enhancement in her works. Early paintings in the 1980s were accompanied by lines from the poems in which Carter addresses the colonial politics of 1953, the militarisation of the Guyanese society, and the tyranny of guns and political oppression. In the eighties Persaud was commenting on the state of the Guyanese society under an oppressive government given to the use of the military, guns and violence. Paintings accompanied by Carter’s lines appeared depicting landscape, pastoral settings of gardens, flowers and trees. But the placement of soldiers with rifles lurking on the edges of the canvases put a different meaning to the works. They suggested unnatural and even anti-natural discordance as in Carter’s “whose boots of steel tramp down the slender grass?” and reference to “the festival of guns” “the carnival of misery.”
Motifs have been used in Persaud’s paintings ever since, particularly in otherwise harmless looking landscapes.They are prevalent in the Gentleman in the Gardens series. After a long time these reappeared in the Rainforest series and the suite of The Wounded Canvas in new work between 2009 and 2014. In these she addresses her religious themes as well as what might be other forms of discordance as in Gentleman Under the Sky (Gulf War) in which such issues as war and international terrorism suggest themselves.
In the middle to late 1990s while Persaud was a lecturer at the University of Guyana she held a joint exhibition with colleagues Prof Doris Rogers and Philbert Gajadhar in which some of her expeditions into the Muslim paintings first appeared. This was work that was to be shown in India on a visit made by the three painters. Work was shown at 9th Triennale in New Delhi in 1997. After this Persaud’s interest in what we are calling her religious explorations deepened, as did the intensity and meaning of the art.
Around the same time there was an interesting and significant diversification of Persaud’s art in which she went into the “flag series”. She produced many pieces moving off from the conventional canvases to the use of a jhandi flag motif. Many works were done in the shape of these flags used in Hindu rituals which represented not only her interest in Hindu themes/subjects, but advanced her commentary of other topics such as A Flag on the Moon (2001) and A Flag on the Earth: Guyana 2001 (2001). A Flag on the Earth, however, takes us a very long way into this artist’s achievements. The work contains significant motifs – images/symbols taken from Hinduism. This underlines the probing into the depiction of this religion in Persaud’s painting while at the same time making statements about Guyanese society in 2001. Indian cultural (religious) practices are integral to local communities and allow the artist studies of identity in the society. Here is an example of Persaud’s art in the context of cross-culturalism.
Alim Hosein’s comment on this is, “In her new ‘flag’ series, the use of jhandi flags as the central design motif brought the matter to the fore without subsuming the force of her artistic and other concerns. . . the jhandi flags became the ground for cross-cultural contact, as though Persaud was underscoring the fundamental unity of all religions, in one sense ‘desecrating’ while in reality consecrating” (Exhibition Catalogue, 2014). To reinforce that notion one may cite the paintings with muslim elements. There are Islamic motifs etched in works such as in the Name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful 1995) and the imposing diptych Lotus in the Time of the Arab Spring (2011) and others from the series Readings from the Koran. The use of motifs in this way is reminiscent of the series in which the “gentlemen” with guns appear.
This goes even deeper in the several lotus and rainforest paintings in the suites Lotus (1992/93), The Wounded Canvas (2010/1011) and Rainforest (2009 – 2014). Yet again her treatment here draws parallels to Wilson Harris’ intense interrogation of the landscape and what is embedded in it. There are large images and symbols faded in like watermarks as well as smaller figures in the corners of the canvas drawn from the Hindu pantheon and mythology such as Shiva and Kali.
The lotus is ubiquitous in her paintings as it is in the trenches of Guyana, popularly providing ‘puri leaves’ for Hindu weddings. Closely related to that, the lotus plant and flower are sacred to the religion and its goddesses.
A part of her multiple uses of symbol and imagery are the skulls and skeletal figures half hidden in the trees in Persaud’s rainforest paintings. In some cases they are the same paintings with Hindu themes, but in all they conflict with superficial readings and subvert pastoralism. “As Old and As New” come back to mind here because these were preoccupations when Persaud started with her gun-toting “gentlemen” in the eighties. She has revisited them in diversified fashion and for making other statements.
In 2014 we confront a bold new Bernadette Persaud who uses a Martin Carter poem to articulate her pulling together of selected works from both her “old” and “new” collections. It is not far removed from her Carter-inspired art against the oppression of 30 years ago, yet it voyages into fresh depths of cultural and psychological interrogation. We confront a highly decorated major Guyanese painter, a master of metaphysics who employs a very finely crafted and realistic rendering of landscape to make surrealistic statements about a Guyanese being and consciousness. She turns flags and canvases, landscapes, leaves and flowers into expressions of religion, cross-culturality and identity. This work is psychological and political and stands for important factors in post-independence Guyanese art that includes, but is not exclusively, the yet unacknowledged East Indian Guyanese art that has been developing in the contemporary period.
The exhibition continues at Castellani House.