AJ Seymour started the prestigious Edgar Mittelholzer Lecture Series in 1976 with a narrative of how he received a visit from the ghost of Mittelholzer which gave him much insight into the man and his work. Seymour’s public lecture set the pace some three decades ago for what became a very important series focusing on many studies in Guyanese literature, art and culture before it slowed down and then ceased altogether.
It was therefore a very significant re-beginning when the Department of Culture revived the series last August 26 with a lecture on Denis Williams. It was a welcome response to the most recent return of the spirit of Mittelholzer, who has been revisiting since the beginning of 2009. This is the year of the centenary of the writer’s birth and already there have been a few events to mark it. The Ministry of Culture, through the Department, took the opportunity to revive the initiative created by what used to be the History and Arts Council which launched the Mittelholzer Lectures all those years ago to highlight the arts and letters of the nation.
Over the years of its previous existence, the Series has generated some very important publications starting with Seymour’s presentation on the life and work of Mittelholzer, the distinguished literary icon to whose memory it is dedicated. Some of these presentations have included Martin Carter’s Man and Making, Victim and Vehicle, Michael Gilkes on the novels of Wilson Harris, and Joycelynne Loncke’s The Price of Victory on the plays of Norman E Cameron.
The spirit of Mittelholzer was a very appropriate force to invoke in an effort to highlight and keep alive an interest in Guyanese arts and culture because of that writer’s own energy, works and contributions. He remains one of the country’s most identifiable literary figures whose name gave Guyanese literature an impact. He was a pioneer in the nation’s fiction and his perseverance did as much to promote it as did his talent and major subjects. His insistence on being a professional writer helped to establish and fix in place a local literary community. And with the same constancy, his exploration of history, colonial Berbice society and meticulous study of language gave identity to a developing Guyanese fiction in the literary world. No other name, therefore, sits more comfortably upon a series of this nature than that of Mittelholzer.
The most recent lecture in this series was the event that actually relaunched it with an indication that it will resume the intellectual discourse and cultural documentation. The subject was the work of Denis Williams treated in a presentation by his daughter Evelyn Williams, who gave an elucidation of aspects of his art. Ms Williams’ main focus was the painting Memorabilia II painted in 1976 and is easily recognisable as an imposing mural on a prominent wall in the lobby of the National Cultural Centre. The programme, chaired by Dr James Rose, also involved curator of the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology Jenny Wishart, an authority on Williams’s work in Guyanese archaeology.
Dr Denis Williams was one of Guyana’s outstanding cultural personalities whose image “doth bestride” the archaeology and anthropology of the Guianas “like a colossus.” He has been the dominant figure, most prolific investigator and undisputed authority on the subject. He was also among the country’s most important artists, a painter and novelist, former Director of Art in the Department of Culture, founder and one time principal of the ER Burrowes School of Art, former Director of the Walter Roth Museum, founder and first editor of the journal Archaeology and Anthropology.
Williams completed a Master’s Degree at the University of Guyana and received an Honorary Doctorate from the UWI. He also studied and taught art in England where he worked and exhibited, then worked in universities in Nigeria, Uganda and Sudan. He published the novel Other Leopards as well as Icon and Image, a book on African classical art and the major statement, Prehistoric Guyana in addition to many articles. Dr Williams also made history by being the painter of the first work in Guyana’s National Collection, the painting Human World.
Evelyn Williams rekindled interest in her father’s work with the public lecture in which she concentrated on the themes of heritage and blood, among others. In articulating these she focused on the mural Memorabilia II.
In Williams’s own very detailed description of the painting: “The themes of Memorabilia II are taken from various events in the recent history of Guyana. At bottom left the martyrdom of the five sugar workers from Enmore Estate, on June 16, 1948. The martyrs are portrayed lying in state on a donkey cart, with their cutlasses held in their left hands across their chests. A procession of distraught relatives and village mourners with downturned spades forms the cortege. . . At far right of the mural young pioneers of the Guyana National Service are associated with a group of school children led by a girl carrying cochineal leaf – a symbol of healing. Thus, a sequence which commences at one end of the picture on a theme of martyrdom and sorrow, ends on the other on a note of life and hope.”
Blood and heritage are therefore appropriate themes and reference points with which to focus the artist’s concerns in the mural, particularly when it is placed in its context. It was painted at a high point of Guyanese nationhood, at a time when the country was consolidating its rise as an independent republic, still riding on a spirit of nationalism and building institutions. The National Cultural Centre had been built originally to coincide with the hosting of the first Carifesta in 1972, although it was not completed for that event. It was established as a national monument for the celebration of the performing arts. It was a national institution and the mural painted as a rite to accompany its establishment was conceived as a notable piece of public art.
It still remains among the nation’s most prominent public art. Other examples of this are the Timehri murals by Aubrey Williams, now severely diminished , obscured and partly destroyed as victims of construction work and airport expansion; the ironic price of progress. Additionally there is Philip Moore’s 1763 Monument, another imposing image that has been the subject/object of as much controversy, as it is an intricately designed and carved historical work. Among other things it has been popularly associated with obeah, perhaps because of some images etched at its base. But Moore has provided explanations of the work as detailed as Williams has provided for his mural.
Williams’s Memorabilia is concerned with themes, images and metaphors of nationhood, independence, history, development and the struggle of a people. Indeed, it is a document of “blood” and “heritage” as Evelyn Williams articulated in her lecture. Out of the struggles and tragic events such as the Enmore Martyrs and other sacrifices, the painting has many images of rising upwards, of growth, industry and production.
Masquerade bands celebrate independence with the national flag; there is “the spirit of agriculture bearing gifts of sugar cane and rice”; a representation of Emancipation, and of timber in the hinterland. Williams explains that there is also depicted, the emergence of “the New Guyana Man.”