Daily life in Guyana, particularly if you pick up the newspapers, knows no shortage of despairing incidents – “jarrings,” I call them – that combine to strain one’s resilience. Fortunately, there are scenarios that come along to remind you of the other side, of the uplifting, or refreshing. Sometimes it’s an incident, like a minibus driver holding up traffic to escort an elderly woman across Vlissengen Road. Sometimes it’s a piece of genius by a musician or an artist, like Philip Moore’s Cuffy statue. It can be a moment in time, such as coming out of the forest on the Lethem road into that sprawling bowl of the savannah opening up you before in a sudden view of creation.
Sometimes, as this week, it’s the work of very talented people; in this case two photographers, Michael Lam and Nikhil Ramkarran, whose work is now on display in a powerful exhibition at Castellani House.
Different visitors will naturally see different things in the collection, but a pervasive aspect is the considerable amount of care that went into the taking and printing of these photographs. While I don’t know for sure, I suspect that apart from just making beautiful images – although that is certainly motivation enough – Michael and Nikhil seem to have reached a stage, as many artists do, of seeking to show Guyanese their country, or aspects of it, in a new version of old views. Indeed, in a note accompanying one of the photographs, Michael declares that knowing what kind of camera he used is unimportant; his implied point being that it is on the interpretation of or the sensitivity to the subject that the picture will rise or fall.
I have written before, and won’t stop repeating, that the success or impact of artistic work often hinges on the amount of care, the urge to rewrite or reshoot again and again, the determination to refine, the devotion to excellence, that the artist is committed to making. It is there again and again in these pictures, and is revealed in one of Nikhil’s commentaries, when he mentions photographing a particular plant over and over, in varying conditions, in search of bringing that one image forth for us to see. It is clear, in every one of the photographs, that the two photographers had their sights set very high in this search for images reflecting the country around them.
And that leads to another striking point to this work which is that amidst so many Guyanese who, understandably, appear uninterested or even jaded about their particular landscape, these two are repeatedly demonstrating that they are seeing Guyana in a special light, and with special affection. Even when a photograph of the City Hall carries the complaint about its decay, the prevailing message there is one of pride and admiration that this is a Guyanese thing, a symbol of our worth, not quite matched anywhere else, and therefore worthy of our careful retention.
Almost always the artistic eye is much in play. It is there in the close-up shot of the bow of an East Coast fishing boat – the recognition takes a while – and in the narrow view of beads of rainwater on a leaf. It is there in the shadowy portrait of a strong but troubled face, seemingly cast in stone; a chilling slice of Guyana, for me. Indeed, my one critique of the collection is that I wanted to see more of those gripping Guyanese faces, rather than places, as in the exuberant shot of the Mashramani man. Perhaps in another collection, “the faces of Guyana,” we could see that side of the culture explored more.
Most striking of all though, for me, in this array entitled ‘Coastal Wanderings,‘ was the different view, the different slant, that comes across in the pictures. Although creative leanings are at play in the printing of photographic images onto paper, such work is largely an experience in craft, in the manipulation of techniques to enhance and reveal and to direct attention; it is in the composition and mood of the images that the artist truly shows his/her métier, and it is there, ultimately, that the work of these two young men is singular. Almost every one of these photographs is something you have seen before, repeatedly, perhaps daily, but these prints will show you them almost as, sometimes exactly as, in a different sight.
One of the most captivating photographs, for example, is a black-and-white presentation of the seawall taken by Michael. You really must go and see it for yourself; I won’t try to describe it except to say that the picture takes a common, almost trite, image and presents aspects not readily apparent before; if you want a definition of art, that is one such. In the artist’s version, the seawall structure moves from being a static cement construction to something spiritual or brooding or even ominous. Given the implications of what the seawall is about, it is a chilling work.
There is also the most striking view I have ever seen of St George’s Cathedral. The mirror image created by Nikhil in this photograph was a result of patience and foresight as the reflection came, ironically, from floodwater surrounding the famous wooden building. In the photograph, the cathedral appears through overhead telephone wires, floating in water and reaching up to a brooding sky.”
This exhibition has truly given us a genuine Guyana moment to treasure. What-ever your position about your country, I guarantee these photographs are bound to touch the Guyana nerve deep inside you; that is the ultimately the effect of the images. There may have been no such conscious intention behind the work of these two young men, but there it is anyway. The exhibition is on until March 17; take it in on a day when you’re feeling down about Guyana; it will definitely give you a lift.