A major exhibition of his work has been on in London for two months at the October Gallery, yet in his homeland, Guyana, the work of world renowned artist Aubrey Williams has been vandalized.
His mural at Cheddi Jagan International Airport at Timehri, which was painted in 1970, has fallen victim to the airport rebuilding project with some if it covered in concrete and other parts destroyed. It is a scandal which has horrified those with an interest in their country’s artistic heritage.
Guyana’s Ambassador to UNESCO, Professor David Dabydeen of Warwick University, who recently left Guyana said: “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.”
He is livid about the degradation of what was the first native art that greeted visitors arriving in Guyana. “Apart from a blow to art, probably unparalleled in the Anglophone Caribbean, it is, of course, a huge insult to our Amerindian peoples, since Williams deliberately used indigenous symbolism in the art, so that visitors on arrival at the airport would be reminded of the living existence of our first peoples.”
Others have expressed equal dismay. Curator of the National Gallery at Castellani House, Elfreda Bissember is “sickened with disbelief and very angry. It pains me to talk, let alone write about it. As it is vandalised at Timehri, with a rich irony, Williams’s work is feted in London.”
The October Gallery is superlative in its praise. It describes him as “one of the UK’s most important and original artists. Today considered a key figure of post-war painting in Britain, Aubrey Williams brought together a spectrum of visual and cultural influences in his paintings that ranged from astronomy and ecology to pre-Columbian iconography and music.”
The October Gallery catalogue notes provide the best and fullest biography of one of Guyana’s best known sons. “Aubrey Williams was born in Georgetown in 1926, and began painting and drawing from the age of five. He joined the Working People’s Art Class whilst still at school, studying under E. R. Burrowes, a man he credited as ‘opening the Guyanese eyes to art’. A trained agronomist, his work took him to the north-west rainforest of Guyana, where he lived for two years amongst the indigenous Warrau people, a period which proved one of the most formative of his life and where, he said, ‘I started to understand what art really is.’
“By 1952, when he returned to Georgetown at the age of twenty-six, Williams sailed to London, initially on six months paid leave, to become a painter and began life drawing at St Martins School of Art. As a painter with detailed knowledge of flora and fauna, with personal experience of momentous political change, and with a growing interest in pre-Columbian cultures, he arrived in London with a unique visual and intellectual vocabulary.
“Over the following years he took the opportunity to travel extensively around Europe, returning to London and to opportunities to exhibit his work. He was also part of the spectacular explosion of creativity, optimism and productivity generated by the influx of Caribbean writers, artists and intellectuals to London at the time. This cultural ferment was exemplified in the Caribbean Artists Movement [CAM], founded in 1966 by Kamau Brathwaite, poet and historian, John La Rose, poet and activist, and Andrew Salkey, novelist and journalist.
“Aubrey Williams was a founder member and participated fully in CAM’s activities, as did Ronald Moody, sculptor. Within this mutually supportive network, Williams found, and contributed to, an enriching framework of ideas and discussion, including debates on visual sources, strategies for change, and the stifling effects of being categorised as either a quintessentially Caribbean or British artist.
“From the early 1960s, Williams exhibited widely, winning awards and garnering high acclaim from a London art circuit enchanted by what Guy Brett calls ‘the heady interface between artistic innovation and trans-nationalism’. When he had arrived, London was a city with few apparent signs of black presence, and as such, the visibility of Williams’s work represented one of the first challenges to the white dominance in the British art establishment. Over the years that followed however, Williams found himself increasingly confronted by ‘institutional indifference’, his work framed and discussed solely in terms of ‘otherness’.”
Williams’s work has been exhibited worldwide over four decades in locations from Oxford to Chicago, Kingston to Tokyo, Georgetown to Huddersfield in 40 individual shows and eight group shows. Before the Timehri desecration, he was honoured in his own country with the award of the Golden Arrow of Achievement in 1970 and then with the Cacique Crown of Honour in 1986.