Our 1823 Monument

So It Go

On civic matters in Guyana, while there are often opportunities for discussion or exchange, we have a marked tendency to eschew that route and simply make pronouncements.  The views of one side appear as a pronouncement, and the opposite view, or views, will likewise subsequently appear as a counter pronouncement. Once set in motion, the pronouncement approach operates like a square wheel (excuse the oxymoron; it pertains) where nothing turns.  Nowhere do the litigants appear to be giving consideration to the other view; no possibility of rapprochement emerges.  It becomes like Parliament; positions harden; polarization takes hold. These comments therefore, on the location of Ivor Thom’s monument to the 1823 slave uprising, are delivered not as pronouncements but as considerations.

My first comment is that the compartmentalizing or ownership aspect of the issue, on both sides, has rapidly taken hold and a political football is inevitably being pumped up.  Unless our “one nation” motto is merely rhetorical, all Guyanese are owners of all of our history.  Anything that has happened in this country from the time our forefathers came here is my history, benign or malignant.  I claim it as my own.  It is part of who I am, and how I think, and how I feel.  We should refrain from making claims on the past based on ethnic stances.  Knowing, however, the power of cultural positions, I concede that there may be instances (1823; 1867; Enmore Martyrs) where a particular group may have more powerful feelings about those events, but overall consideration must also be clearly in play. All the complexity that has happened here is ours. Tangentially, among the reasons drawing me and others to Guyana is that very mosaic of African, Indian, Asian, European and Amerindian mix that gives us the striking kaleidoscope this culture is.  Certainly, other countries have it, but the Guyanese version, flawed as it is, remains special and unique to us. You cannot find quite this mix anywhere else.

so it goBeyond that, however, there are two more pertinent aspects to this monument-location matter. One is the point, raised elsewhere by Ivor Thom (KN Jan 11) and others, about the need for open space and clear lines of sight surrounding massive works of art. One can cite, for example, the impact of the Washington Monument in the USA that owes significantly to the large space it commands. The open mall around it provides for persons to stand hundreds of yards away taking in a stirring view of the obelisk against the clear sky beyond.  But we don’t have to go that far.  Right here in Guyana, we have the principle clearly displayed in the presentation of Philip Moore’s Cuffy sculpture in Georgetown. The power of Philip’s creation is a given, but the elucidation of that into public spectacle and appreciation rests totally on the wide open spaces it dominates. We should consider that Philip’s work, powerful as it is, would not have reached nearly the same acclaim, here and abroad, if it had been placed in more confined circumstances.

The impact one feels from encountering Cuffy in Georgetown rests to a great extent on its elevation into open space. It is from seeing the work at a distance that we become most aware of the qualities of resolve and strength that Philip had captured. While up close the sheer size of the figure is striking, it is from the distant view that the strongest spiritual impact comes, and while various locations should certainly be considered for the 1823 memorial ultimately the decision should similarly be for a site that provides for wide uncluttered vistas around the monument. Massive works of art must inhabit massive open space not only in their immediate vicinity but also in the surrounding area, because it is largely in that long-distance view that we feel the full majesty and message of the work. That’s what happens with Philip Moore’s memorial; Ivor Thom’s work deserves a similar platform, as well.

It is important, too, to consider the rationale for this work. Certainly it comes as a memorial to unusual resolve and, eventually, sacrifice by our ancestors, but surely the wider purpose should be for such a monument to continuously contribute to the fortification of the nation going forward; to the assurance of worth in ourselves. Monuments linked to our past are important both as a retelling of our history as well as a reminder of those who created it, and the former aspect has as much weight as the latter.  Furthermore, the effective execution of those objectives inevitably means that the work should be placed in the most advantageous setting for the visual effect on the living. That criterion, of impact on our humanity, should be high on the list of those making the location decision because it affects present and future generations. Ivor Thom’s 1823 monument, drawing on the past, is actually more for today and tomorrow.

Finally, we should be considering the matter of the artist.  Far too often in Guyana and the Caribbean, we fail to place enough value on the resource that our artists are, and some of the reactions to the 1823 issue are demonstrating that failure.  Yes, Ivor Thom was commissioned to do a work and is being paid for it, but any informed position on that arrangement will tell you that the artist, essentially the expert, should have a significant (I emphasize “significant”) say in what is the best location to display his/her work. It is fundamental to the nature of artistic and particularly sculptural work that the person who conceived and created it should then have a particular understanding, based on his/her training, of how it should come to the public, and, consequently, have a major voice in where and how the work is displayed. In this particular matter, we are dealing with a very specialized area of art – that of the creation and display of massive open-air structures. There are probably few artists, not to say individuals, in Guyana who come with the credentials to pronounce on this endeavour. It is a suggestion that some may consider wry, but nonetheless one that we should take time to consider.

There is manifestly merit in a monument honouring our ancestral heroes, but if we are to have this memorial serve as a stanchion for us today and for the Guyanese of tomorrow, Ivor Thom’s creation of that signal time should be implanted where it can have the strongest visual impact on our psyche.  Other criteria are in play, but that is the main one we should be considering. The 1763 location decision may have been political, accidental or the result of dictate.  I do not know. Let us not waste time pursuing the answer.  Instead, however caused, let us recognize the right decisions made for that monument and apply them to the one now looming before us.  Philip Moore is no longer with us, but let his Cuffy guide us away from rigid pronouncements and into calm considerations.

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