(Akima McPherson is a painter and a member of the Division of Creative Arts in the Department of Language and Cultural Studies at the University of Guyana.)
On Saturday, November 3 at the Umana Yana an important exhibition was opened: The Guyana Women Artists’ Associa-tions’ (GWAA) Retro-spective 1987-2007 Exhibition. This year marked 20 years since the formation of the association but also 20 years of its nurturing and promoting women’s expression in the visual arts. Consequently, it was an important exhibition.
This Retrospective 1987-2007 Exhibition presented work done by some of GWAA’s past members alongside old and new work by its present body. Several works were on loan and amongst them were paintings and ceramics representative of work done by three historically pivotal women in Guyanese art: Marjorie Broodhagen (d. 2000), Stephanie Correia (d. 2000) and Leila Locke (d. 1992). Each counts as a significant artist with work in the National Collection. Each also was a teacher, and in this way especially, made even more profound contributions towards the development of art in Guyana. Their legacies are tremendous and beyond the scope of this article. We owe them much, and in some cases their vision continues to exert itself in the work of their students.
Marjorie Broodhagen was an artist whose pleasure appeared to have been to be experimental. Her Pots and Plants in acrylic shows her exploring layering and transparency within a composition of abstraction juxtaposed with naturalism. Her skillful experimentation and handling of the fluidity of her medium is seen in Fiesta, a playful acrylic which includes a literal imitation of a flower and symbolic imitation of many aspects of it such as lively colour and delicacy of form and movement. She employs several applicable techniques: drip, wet on wet, and wet on dry. Meanwhile, in Zola in the Garden she demonstrates her efficacy with the Chinese brush and ink to render very sensitively, Zola the cat in regal pose. It was a delight to see these latter two pictures especially. The seven pictures by Broodhagen span at least 20 years.
Meanwhile, Stephanie Correia was celebrated with the presence of four paintings and some of her pottery. Her two untitled acrylics remind of her ability to use the ‘Amerindian’ motifs in a manner that is strong in design and just as strong in its possession of a meaningful narrative. Thus she transcended their use from singularly decorative. Her visual legacy continues to be evident in varying degrees in the work of her daughter Anna Correia as well as that of potter Irene Gonsalves, both of whom exhibited at this year’s Women Artists exhibition.
Leila Locke, the last of the three aforementioned ladies, was represented by two paintings: Canal Study and The Path Way. Both show her preoccupation, as has been recorded, with capturing the sun-drenched Guyana landscape. This she did as she reduced the landscape to basic form and colour.
Loans were also made of a few of Maylene Duncan’s late-career paintings. These paintings in being present evoked a sense dismay for a bright star having been dimmed much too early. Maylene passed away in 2003. The only other posthumous exhibitor was Hazel Shury (d. 2007) and hers included two wooden sculptures, one in clay and an economically decorated ceramic pot.
Aside from the posthumous exhibitors, works by a few other past members were available to provide further delight. A duo of excellently embroidered compositions done by Valerie Cox were also on loan, as were two paintings done by Doris Rogers. Offering more variety to the fare of mostly paintings were four small well executed pyrography landscapes done by Desiree Fernandes.
The fact that the exhibition was composed of loans and sought to take a retrospective look was advantageous for both Merlene Ellis and Danuta Radzick. All work shown done by both these women was on loan. As separate presentations their explorations in varied art media and techniques were fairly well represented.
An exciting presence in this exhibition was noted not only in loans of work done by artist Josefa Tamayo, but also her presence as a guest exhibitor. She presented new work in acrylic but also sculptures in copper. Bust, although small, held significant presence. It was whimsical and refreshing and signals a direction which, if followed, should produce work that is exciting and dynamic. Her sculpture composed of two female forms in a challenging acrobatic pose is elegantly conceived and executed and illustrates very well the type of work which earned her her stature within the Guyanese art community.
Loans were also made from private collections and from those of current members’ collections of their earlier work. The cumulative effect of all this was that the exhibition did in fact succeed in evoking a sense of nostalgia, while also serving as visual support for students of Guyanese art and art history. In the absence of a comprehensive text (or any such attempt to be comprehensive) on Guyanese art, such gestures no matter how minimal are welcome and valuable.
However, meaningful contextualizing was woefully absent. For the student of Guyanese art, the journey to know about our female predecessors in this discipline (as this exhibition would have afforded) left them still in the position of having to piece parts of the grand puzzle together to realize the picture’s totality, beauty and importance. These pieces, one hopes, will continue to present themselves at disconnected instances – the occasional exhibition here and there, and possibly written words that may add new dimensions to knowing. The effort to educate not singularly about individual biographies but also about the artist’s progression and development in art-specific expression and their contributions was nil. Therefore, the opportunity for this exhibition to be profoundly significant and historical was lost.
Since 1987 GWAA has mounted regular exhibitions at home. At first annually, and recently in 2006 and 2007 they have been hosting exhibitions at the Centre for Brazilian Studies of the Brazilian Embassy. These have been to mark International Women’s Day and in response to invitations to exhibit within that space.
GWAA’s exhibiting has not been solely in Guyana. They have had shows in Canada, England and Barbados. While over the years members have presented at past CARIFESTA fora, this last year at CARIFESTA IX in Trinidad and Tobago, the group submitted work as a collective which constituted numerically a significant portion of Guyana’s visual art presentation. Their collective submission was juried by artist Carl Andersen and no doubt contributed to the favourable response Guyana’s visual art presentation was reported to have received.
In a social context where much more can happen in support of visual art, it is good to know that at least there is a forum for women in art to regularly present their work to the public and gain from that immensely valuable experience of presenting to an unanticipated audience as well as gain from the experience of juxtaposing their work to that of others. The dialogues can be hugely beneficial towards encouraging growth and development. It is saddening when such opportunity does not trigger evolution in form or enhanced articulation of content.
Sadly this is evident in some work; the quality and variety of the textiles are redundant and continue to exemplify art school production. More is required. More is possible.
Concerned with the growth and development of their member artists GWAA has on occasion held workshops for their members. In 2005, they hosted a design workshop facilitated by Volda Ramsammy, a tutor at the ER Burrowes School of Art, and this seems to have been a tremendous source of inspiration for the work of Anna Correia, especially. Mean-while some members have been participating in the watercolour and drawing courses offered at the National Gallery as well as the part-time evening courses at the ER Burrowes School of Art. The ben
efits of these undertakings are evident in their individual output.
Generally the Retrospective 1987-2007 Exhibition offered much to praise and savour. There was enough to evoke nostalgia and simultaneously to instruct. There was also an appreciable variety of media and techniques. Themati-cally, the Guyana landscape was variously explored by many with numerous picturesque and textured renderings of same by O’Donna Allsopp, and serene waterscapes by Margaret Dookun. Very differently, Elizabeth Deane-Hughes used the Guyana space as an inspiration for a few small design rich compositions.
Echoes of culture, especially indigenous culture, were also very strong and evident in the work of many. These varied from the decorative use of the ‘Amerindian’ motifs to realistic renderings such as Mari-Mari Dancers by Kathleen Thompson-Henriquo. Notably the two paintings by Doris Rogers explored an Indo-Guyanese aspect via noting the dress and costuming of traditional wear. A few small renderings dealt with Afro-Guyanese aspects.
In the work of Jynell Osborne the popular theme of ‘Mother and Child,’ was subtlety explored within her abstraction and more pointedly so in the work of June Ann Henry.
There were still-lifes and portraits, imitative works and abstractions.
Other exhibitors were Merlene Martin-Forde, Agnes Jones, Nyota Killikelly, Akima McPherson, Norma Niklasson-Persaud and Norma Woolford. The exhibition closed on November 14. A booklet featuring the current members of the association was produced to coincide with this significant exhibition.