By Alim Hosein
It might be a trite expression, but indeed, the passing of Philip Moore – the Immanuel Kweku Moorji – marks the end of an era in Guyanese art. Chronologically, Moore’s artistic career reached far back into the early part of the last century and coincided with that of many artists who have passed on – E R Burrowes, Denis Williams, Vivian Antrobus, Marjorie Broodhagen and so many others, although he came from different roots from them and pursued a different kind of art.
The era that has ended was one that he himself created, occupied and embodied, so different was his work from that of other Guyanese artists, and so completely integrated it was with every aspect of his being. Although he was designated by Denis Williams as the father of the “village movement” in Guyanese art, Moore far outstripped this context. The art he created was a singular expression.
Moore’s direct inheritors are the free-form sculptors – Roderick Bartrum, Colin Ward, Colin Paddy, Francis Ferreira, Andrew Light and others – of the 1980s onwards, for their revival of wood sculpture and also their faith in the intuitive, expressive sources of art, unlike their more tutored counterparts. His direct descendant is the late Omowale Lumumba, one of these sculptors from the 1980s, because of Lumumba’s grasp of the spiritual forces at work in the lives of people.
Moore was born in Manchester Village on the Corentyne, and in the 1940s when he was in his 20s in a dream he received the calling to become an artist. He had just joined the Jordanite faith and that was the perfect location for his religious and spiritual bent. His natural affinity for the mystical sustained him and his art. He said in 1995 “It’s mostly through dreams that I was educated or reinforced to be an artist and for over 50 years I have proved that through dreams and vision mankind can know a lot of things.”
He was a prolific sculptor and painter who created hundreds of pieces. In 1988, he sold the bulk of his work to the National Collection, and his greatest desire was to see them in what he called “Moore’s Methodical Meditation Museum” in which the pieces would be so displayed and associated with other elements to create an atmosphere for meditation and enlightenment, so as to “influence the eyes of the people and their appreciation and bring them to a state of normality.” Art for him always had this transformative purpose. Indeed, this is what he looked for in all art: “the first thing I look for in a piece of art is what it symbolises. If the symbolism or idea is something to inspire man to develop his inner spirituality and faith in his brother man to bring about a better and peaceful world.”
His art has been labelled as naïve, African, atavistic, primitive, religious, and so on, but these labels do not capture the all-encompassing concept of art that drives Moore: “whatever we think of ourselves – the brands, the labels – we still remain man and if we think and feel that there is a God we can feel and call ourselves Godmen. That is why I have coined the phrase ‘The Institute of Godmanliness’ because we are ever learning, ever evolving, ever achieving. Look at the piece of work… and you will see that we really need the other man and the wisdom of the other woman.”
With this kind of worldview, art is not just an activity or a talent or a job: “Art is part of religion or religion made practical. Art is expressions of man before creation to make the world. We have all the wonderful things coming out of the minds of men – music and forms and colour – and art in this sense can be viewed as religion. Religion at work.”
Moore was not only prolific, but he also worked hard bringing his art to people. From the early days, before he became well known, he took extraordinary pains to display his work: “in the early days I used to bring my work to the LCP [League of Coloured Peoples] fair and at the time I was not mindful for anything to be sold. I used to go around and push donkey carts in Corentyne and go from school to school in the early ’50s. I never used to sell work. If I don’t have enough money to pay a truck I would push my carvings in a cart from New Amsterdam to Crabwood Creek. I gave exhibitions and talked about art and sculpture.”
Another misconception about Philip Moore is that because his work is directly linked to his African ancestry, it is old fashioned and he is stuck in an old mode of art. This is far from the truth, because Moore was one of the most up-to-date artists in his time. He was ceaselessly creative and alive to his times. He had begun by carving small wooden pieces using knives, but he ceaselessly incorporated new material in his work. In the 1970s he combined painting and sculpture.
He also in the later 1970s began incorporating different objects into his sculpture pieces, creating what he called “construction sculpture.” In the early 1990s he began using the shipping barrels that had become well known in Guyana, as his canvases and also as sculpture. Later in the 1990s he held an exhibition which displayed work created from recycled materials. Calabashes were another element that found its way into his work: “First I used to carve faces on calabash. But when I came to town in the 1980s a Rastaman used to bring about 200 to 300 calabashes every day and I bought them from him. I used to make trays and arrange the calabashes in different forms and paint them.”
Calabashes, soda corks, wire mesh, seeds and shipping barrels among other things, were later used as the sole medium to create installations, making him the first Guyanese artist to pursue this modernistic form of sculpture.
His themes celebrated motherhood, royalty, sportsmen, bridges, mythology, local foods, great personages, natural forces, Guyanese pastimes, events in the news, but also focused on things such as the grillwork on Guyanese windows, the Omai cyanide spill, recycling, and so on.
I have a very unique and appropriate imaginative faculty. I am quick to see forms in things that are not found, and I’m quick to see harmony in things that are not harmonious. In my paintings I use a lot of repetitive patterns, and therefore in my construction sculpture, I use repetitive patterns.
On his work
Sometimes I sit down and make sketches and plan a work, but sometimes in execution a better idea comes and I change the piece. Sometimes I make notes. Like if I have to paint a mural. You might put number 1 – the name of the work, number 2 – the different elements of design you might want in it, and then the different forms like the strokes of paint to represent the wind, the sunshine, and all the invisible things like smells and taste and so. So you keep notes as a guide. But yet still, the work never appears finished to me, not until I sleep over it, and then in my mind’s eye I see the perfect form and colour that I want. And when I see that then I know the work is finished and must actually remain like that.
Iwork upon say six pieces at a time – when you work so many hours on this piece you leave it. You don’t copy nothing from no book or magazine or so. You work and you put in the ideas according to the thoughts in your subconscious. And while I produce so much work I sometimes don’t do no physical work on the canvas but I just study the colours I’m going to use – if I’m going to use red just like ornamentation, use red to represent courage or war or life or whatever the case may be – where you’re going to use red in all the six paintings. So the day when you’re going to use the red colour, you put in your reds in every painting, but in different dimensions. Sometimes I don’t use natural red or green or so, I use strokes of yellow and blue intersecting each other and when you look at it you get an illusion of green. Or sometimes purple, you use red and blue. But all these inventions I didn’t read them in any book but through my own practical revelation. Sometimes it’s two years before I finish some work.
My work is very therapeutic – that is, when I hold a piece of work in my left hand and I think about the problems of society, and so much as I am thinking about the problems of society I engrave it on the wood and it forms a kind of mental stability that even when people go in front of the work they will feel a certain amount of the cosmic vibration that I felt.
Certain types of things I develop subconsciously and unconsciously in my work are African. My work may have African motifs but they have universal appeal. Look for instance at my ‘Black Friday.’ It might look African but look at the meaning – what it means is humanity. Yet for all, people sidelining the universal and humanistic interpretation of it, you see? I think that there is no other artist that does work like I do. They have not been converted to the inner chambers of their spirituality. But although I depend on intuition and inspiration to do my work, I am well read when it comes to mythology. I have about 24 volumes about ‘Man , Myth and Magic.’ I have all the greatest books of power, deliverance, magical law – magical books. I have read the most and best, the best books on Egyptian religion and philosophy. Don’t think because they say “Philip Moore is a self-taught artist” that I am a man that just drop down from a tree. I am widely read, you know.
I am an ancient soul in a modern body … a spirit birthed in an African body in the country of Guyana and the universe … I often feel as a timeless being ever existed and deathless though my body will change through the earth and reappear in other forms of vegetation, etcetera.