Oswald Hussein staged a sensationally dramatic entry into the top echelons of Guyanese art when he achieved a memorable victory in the National Visual Arts Exhibition of 1989. His sculpture Massasekeree was adjudged the best work on exhibit in the annual assemblage of the best of Guyana’s painting and sculpture for that year. He had, therefore, early in his career, risen from his relatively unknown local centre in St Cuthbert’s Mission to carry off the major and most prestigious national prize for the visual arts in the premier fine arts exhibition in Guyana. It was a significant coming of age for Hussein, who thus caught the attention of the critical audience and never looked back.
The National Exhibition, during the years when it was staged, was piloted by legendary Guyanese icon in the fields of archaeology and art, Denis Williams, in his capacity as the nation’s Director of Art. All the artists in the country were usually invited to submit their work, in particular new work, and after a process of selection, the showpiece of local painting and sculpture was mounted for public exhibition. The entries were adjudicated and the prize given to the best piece. It had all the advantages that would be expected of such an exercise with overarching themes of sustaining quality, public awareness, motivation and acclaim for the artists, and historical documentation.
Hussein’s ascendancy in this environment was significant for a number of reasons. It drew attention to his work and brought him to prominence at the highest national level. It was a victory for sculpture in a national setting, an exhibition and a competition that many saw as traditionally dominated by painting. It signalled the rise of Guyanese Amerindian art, the Amerindian corpus, indigenous subjects and preoccupations, and Amerindian artists; themes written about by Alim Hosein in the Sunday Stabroek and researched by him in an academic context. It was great exposure for the artists of St Cuthbert’s. It opened the gate for many more artists from the village and led to the ground-breaking exhibition of Six Lokono Artists in 1998. It placed them on the map and followed the reputation of Hussein’s more famous brother George Simon, already established on the national scene, the guru/teacher and leader of the Lokono group.
This group was to announce itself in that important exhibition at the Venezuelan Cultural Centre in 1998 when six of its members showed work. The main members of this Arawak group are George Simon, Ossie Hussein, Linus Klenkian, Edwin Klenkian, Roaland Taylor, Telford Taylor and Foster Simon. It was an enlarged window opened into the amazing preoccupations of these artists, the haunting spiritual quality of their creations and of Amerindian art in general, as well as into the genuine El Dorado that is St Cuthbert’s Mission. Although George Simon had gone ahead of him, Hussein’s own rise to prominence did serve as the forward ride of the Yoruba king’s horseman paving the way to posterity for other Amerindian artists.
Yet another reason for the great significance of Oswald Hussein winning the National Prize was the outstanding quality of the work itself. This is, perhaps, the most important reason. Massasekeree has a remarkable power that made a resounding impact when it was first put on show. It presents an indication of the great mysterious depths of the Arawak spirit world and their organic associations with the art of that world. Hussein’s work has the capacity to frighten because of its visual impact that not only startles in a spectacular way, but also startles because of its immediate suggestion of what lurks behind it. It reaches out at you from those depths of the spiritual unknown with a disturbing stimulation of the imagination. The artist plays on these forces that inspire the imagination, but one is convinced that one is looking at work which genuinely expresses meaning that is to be found in an understanding of the magic that is a part of belief, a part of the Amerindian ethos. We learn about this in a very specific way from other artists – Pauline Melville, and Simon in his ventures into shamanism.
The power of this art is also very much there in other pieces such as Wepelly, which earned him the National Visual Arts Exhibition Prize for the second time in 1993, and Oriyu Banka (Bench of the Water Spirits ) 1995. These are some of the most exciting pieces to have emerged during that decade and, for ethnic spiritual art, resounded with reminiscences of the great Philip Moore. Hussein sustained this through to 2006, during which time he added to his achievements, a First (1996) and a Second Prize (2006) in the Brewmasters Art Competition.
It is this frightening quality and this high level of excitement that we have come to associate with Oswald Hussein. One, therefore, approached the most recent of his many exhibitions, White Wine White Roses at the Centre of Brazilian Studies (October 2007) with great expectations. They were not quite realised. The white wine and roses show was at first view characterised by a certain mildness and lacked the high-powered impact of previous ones.
Perhaps the feel of this apparent relative lightness was due to the absence of the major or familiar pieces, which is, of course, unfair to the artist to expect every time. But one wanted new ones of similar impact. There were two factors in answer to that.
Critic Elfrieda Bissember says Hussein has “an eye” and a recognised ability to transform what he sees into good and interesting art. And that seems to be very true, because it is to a large extent, this “eye” and the expression of what he sees that account for what was new and significant about this last exhibition. We learnt, with delight, that Hussein can draw and paint, and in the many drawings and paintings on show he gave a variety of ways of looking at models and objects. In a number of life drawings he interprets different views of the same nude model to illustrate his “eye” and a side of Hussein not often seen before. In many paintings he presented the way he sees the forest and the Amerindian habitat. Again, his interpretations make the landscape much more interesting and add value to many of the paintings. His techniques as a draughtsman and as a painter are accomplished.
Secondly, this way of seeing the forest in what was mistaken for fairly casual small paintings assumes more significance when one looks at the sculpture on show in White Wine White Roses. Some of these paintings already begin to reflect something of the artist’s spiritual association with the landscape that we have already been accustomed to see in his sculpture. Those many excellent major and familiar pieces were not on show, but above the many less spectacular selections, there were a few of real power.
The most interesting was one of those with the capacity to evoke the same brand of awe and excitement – Forest Change. Its most recognisable likeness is that of a bush hog, but Hussein charges it with his characteristic spiritual force that interrogates the imagination. It engages the grotesque and the Amerindian magical world of the hunter-ventriloquist. They are all there in this one piece that excellently illustrates Bissember’s observation about the Amerindian artist’s approach to the forest and the translation of what he sees into this work of art. Forest Change in some way in the imagination of the uninitiated conjures up the ventriloquist-hunter’s ability to become one with the forest and change himself to become one of its creatures; the bush hog, perhaps – which also happens to be one of the prey that he sometimes hunts.
The largest piece on show was the very imposing Kurukali (Thunder), which is of similar ilk. It also reminds its audience of the artist’s remarkable visual representation of ethos, as does Maya, another exhibit not far removed from Hussein’s major preoccupations.
These complement the several smaller and the less spectacular pieces to lend strength to the show and make White Wine White Roses an exhi
bition that startles in a different way. It displayed fresh new sides of Hussein as a quite versatile craftsman with a very perceptive vision. Hosting him was yet another contribution by the Brazilian Centre to Guyanese art.