The new Management Committee should review the housing and care of the national art collection
I write in response to some of the issues which have come to the fore in the light of your reporter’s article of May 25, your editorial of May 29, and Ms Bissember’s lengthy diatribe in the letter columns (June 26) concerning my damaged paintings in the National Collection and, by extension, the critical state of the National Collection, in general.
According to the Curator of the National Gallery and the Chairman of the Management Committee, Mr Albert Rodrigues, (presuming your reporter has not erred in quoting Mr Rodrigues) it would appear that I, myself, have inflicted the damage to my paintings by using worm-infested plywood, 25 years ago, to make my stretchers and frames. This, to my mind, is not only ludicrous, it is also adding insult to injury.
The damaged oil-paintings (acquired by the late Denis Williams in 1985-1991) which are in the care and custody of The National Gallery, were displayed to the public during the course of my retrospective exhibition, ‘As new and as old’(May-June 2014). Any discerning eye would have seen the cracks and punctures which were still visible even after the careful repair and retouching done in the weeks preceding the opening of the exhibition.
Please permit me the space to outline the extent of the damage as well as the repairs which had to be done by Mr Philbert Gajadhar, artist and member of the new Management Committee of the National Gallery, in order to make the paintings presentable for my exhibition in May, 2014.
The Lotus of July (removed from State House after it fell from a wall, some time in 2009-10) was only repaired after consultation with me in March-April 2014. The termite-ridden stretchers were removed by Curator (ag) Mr Ohene Koama and the painting with its tattered, eaten-up canvas edges, was laid flat on a table in the acquisitions room for my viewing on March 27, 2014. Mr Gajadhar subsequently relined the termite-eaten edges with canvas that I provided, utilizing his own supply of fabric paste in the process. As a consequence, unfortunately, the painting lost almost half of an inch in length and height.
Is this, incidentally, a professional level of operation for a National Art Gallery? Surely the care and management of a 60-year-old collection, in a tropical environment, needs ongoing maintenance and a stock of conservation materials?
The photograph (provided) shows the ragged edges of this painting, lying in the Acquisitions Room on March 27, 2014, the date I visited Castellani House to examine my paintings and take photographs for my catalogue. Ms Bissember claims that the painting on its return to the Gallery was “sprayed to destroy the woodworm damage.” Presumably, this is proof that the painting was not neglected. Yet, four years from the date it fell from the wall at State House and when spread out on a table showed tattered, termite-eaten canvas edges. Did this ‘woodworm’ damage happen overnight? This glaring evidence of neglect is compounded by the Curator’s patent nonsense about “woodworm, inherent in the plywood” which I used to make my frames and stretchers. To further excuse this gross neglect she claims, “our framer then produced, to our specifications a stretcher and frame for this painting; the date of this (c 2011-12) can easily be provided from our records.” But perhaps I should be more charitable: the Curator may be unaware of the distinction between a ‘frame’ and a ‘stretcher’ and even the difference in woods – ‘plywood’ and ‘silverballi.’ For the record, I have always used silverballi – a bitter, light wood – for stretchers, and not plywood. Small triangular pieces of plywood or tentest are used by most framers (including the Gallery’s framer) to support the four corners of the stretcher.
The damage to my paintings, inflicted by termites/wood ants/woodworm, running amok in the damp stables situated in the flood-prone grounds of Castellani House – which, incidentally, had (please note tense) plywood constructions within – as well as obvious wood ant trails outside, was compounded, it appears, by poor housekeeping, a total lack of vigilance and little or no monitoring, over the years, of the wooden stretchers and frames.
My second lotus painting, The Lotus of Hundred Petals, was even more badly damaged by termites and filthy storage conditions, since it was housed – not at the well-kept State House – but in the Augean Stables of Castellani House for nearly two decades. Two ragged tears in the top corners of the painting appear to have been previously patched with cotton fabric, thoughtlessly glued on with Evo- stick. (Most conservators advise against the use of Evo-stick.) The painting which may have hosted a variety of insect dung and dirt for a sustained period, was obviously cleaned with harsh solvents and has now lost its vibrancy and original colours. The primed canvas, as a result of the cleaning, is also visible in two sections of the painting. The termite-ridden stretchers were removed by Mr Gajadhar who relined the canvas which was also termite-eaten at the edges. Consequently, 1.3 inches of the painting was lost in height. (I have in my possession a part of the rotten stretcher – and it is certainly not made of plywood, as Ms Bissember states.)
My third oil painting, A Gentleman under the Sky was dusty and dirty, with a fair amount of insect droppings. The ‘washing’ of this canvas in stages, with distilled water and alchohol has, naturally, resulted in some loss of its crisp, clean colours. A small slit in the canvas was patched.
My National Award painting, The End of a Season (acquired in 1985) is cracked in a regular pattern over the entire canvas. It would seem that this is due to its removal after many years, from the air-conditioned environment of the Office of the President to the hot-house of the stables/ storage rooms of the Gallery. Instead of sitting down with her Management Committee to reexamine the old policy of loaning works of art to government agencies and the incapacity of the Gallery to monitor such works, Ms Bissember prefers to make malicious allusions to the ‘cracks’ in my oil-painting, Gentleman at the Gate. Conveniently, she fails to see the pristine condition of another prize-winning lotus painting in the Beharry Collection, (The Lotus of a Thousand Desires, 1989) which was painted in the same period as the others. Instead, readers of Stabroek News are lectured, ad nauseam, on the rudiments of improper oil-painting techniques.
The precarious state of the National Collection can clearly be inferred from the state of my paintings in in the Gallery’s storage facilities. The sorry condition of the acclaimed Aubrey Williams’ Canvas, Guyana – 1965 ( a piece that resonates with the historical turbulence of that period) languishing on a table in the ‘temporary workshop’ of the Gallery, its canvas edges also eaten by termites, made me realize that my paintings were not the only pieces in decay. Perhaps the Curator may wish to comment on the years this historic piece has been on the radar for remedial action. When I saw it in March 2014, its imported pine stretchers, were still partially attached to the canvas.
The granny-sugar spilling out on the floor outside the Grandmaster, Philip Moore’s Exhibition, in the Third Floor gallery, the ingrained dust on some of his prized sculptures, the accumulated dust on the Tancredo collection of Balata sculptures in the attic, the rag hanging over the door announcing, Philip Moore’s sculptures and paintings, the open curtainless window allowing direct sunlight to hit paintings, daily, and the painting swaying in the wind, point to a shocking disregard for care and conservation of the National Collection, among other grievous evidence.
And yes, I did go on a literal tour of Castellani House. It is not a private enclave nor a KGB/CIA operation. It is funded by taxpayers and should be accessible and accountable to all. It should serve the art community: teachers, students, researchers and the general public – without discrimination.
And Editor, it is a pity that your reporter could not simply ask to see the art works in storage in order to verify the accuracy of my comments.
I understand that the new Management Committee under the direction of the Ministry of Culture is taking urgent action to rehabilitate existing storage in one of the stables; but is this not a typical case of locking the stable doors when the horses have long bolted? In the meantime Acting Curator Ohene Koama, is making strenuous efforts to quarantine the infested works, during his very limited spare time.
Hopefully, it is not too late for the new Management Committee to review the housing and the care of more than 1000 pieces in the Collection, which includes nationally and internationally acclaimed works of pre- and post-independent Guyana, paid for with millions of taxpayer funds.
Finally, I want to thank your editors for empathizing with my distress over the damage to my paintings and, equally important, highlighting what artists, including the late Philip Moore, have ceaselessly complained about: the neglect and deterioration of valuable historic works, which most certainly demonstrates a grave dereliction of duty and responsibility by those entrusted with the care and conservation of a part of our national patrimony.
Bernadette I Persaud