Preserving our heritage

Guyana will forever be indebted to Ms Bernadette Persaud. Not just because she is one of our renowned artists, but because she brought to light the neglect of valuable visual art stored at the National Gallery, Castellani House as a result of which steps are being taken to correct some of the deterioration.

Ms Persaud, whose work has been displayed internationally to great acclaim, was at Castellani House because her work had been selected for the 2014 Independence Art Exhibition. It was there that she publicly condemned the condition under which art pieces, not just hers but that of other artists too, were being stored. Ms Persaud said she was appalled to see her pieces “tattered,” “cracked up” and “eaten up” by termites.

Referring to a particular painting, she noted that it had previously been on display at State House during the Bharrat Jagdeo administration, but had been removed and sent back to the National Gallery after it became infested with termites. One would recall that after President Donald Ramotar was elected in November 2011, he and his wife could not move into State House for months because of the termite infestation. It required extermination and repairs to make the building habitable. In fact, in January 2012, this newspaper had quoted President Ramotar as saying that termites had destroyed many parts of the wooden building, necessitating repairs.

With regard to her painting, Ms Persaud said it had fallen “… from the wall in the State House and was returned to the National Gallery. The wood was rotten. The edges were tattered and the frame was so soft it could have broken off. I was horrified.”

In what can only be described as a Philistine manoeuvre, the already damaged painting was simply returned to the National Gallery. And there it was just left to deteriorate. Ms Persaud said “… For three to four years the painting was propped up on a wall at Castellani. The painting was neglected I can only imagine what happened to the other paintings from other people.” It was clear that, aside from being angry, Ms Persaud was also speaking from a position of deep hurt. No artist wants to see her/his creation mistreated. There are artists who refuse millions of dollars offered for the sale of their work because they don’t get a good ‘vibe’ (feeling) about the prospective buyer.

Obviously embarrassed, Chairman of the Castellani House Management Committee Albert Rodrigues responded to the public rebuke by blaming artists for using the wrong type of wood to frame their work. This, he said contributed to the deterioration.

While this is a valid point and may very well be the case—some soft woods in Guyana are termite magnets—it does not explain why this was not discovered prior to Ms Persaud’s visit to the gallery this year. Termites, while destructive, don’t just crawl up into wood and eat it out overnight. This had to have been happening over a period of time.

Mr Rodrigues elaborated, noting that a lot of the art dated back to the 1950s and in acquiring the pieces in the early 1990s, the gallery had also “inherited” a lot of problems. “If you are going to criticise people for not doing anything then you should look at the challenges that is preventing these things from happening. We have the priority to preserve the works but we are limited by our finances. We have to look at what our country can afford… How do you justify taking money away from education, health and other matters of state to build a beautiful national gallery?” Mr Rodrigues argued.

Perhaps if our country cannot afford a national gallery then it should not have one. But the country invests in many things which it cannot afford and which are unnecessary to boot, like the soon to be completed Marriott Hotel. What the National Gallery needs can be obtained without breaking the bank as it would seem that the apathy afflicting the nation has also taken hold there. The gallery needs persons of mettle who would be prepared to fight tooth and nail to ensure the preservation of its precious collection. There should be requests made for specialists from places like the Smithsonian, Tate or the National Gallery in Britain to name a few, to come here on a voluntary basis. It is more than likely also that persons with the requisite experience can be found among the volunteers of the US Peace Corps or the Canada-based services such as CUSO International. These persons could work on curating and preserving the national collection pieces as well as training locals in how this is done. They can also impart advice on storage since this seems to be an issue.

Acting Curator of the gallery Ohene Koama was quoted as saying that it was recognised since 1995 that the art needed to be conserved and that a conservationist from the US had advised on transitioning to a gallery so that the works could be displayed. It would appear that this was all that has been done since then. This is appalling. A child born in 1995 would be 19 years old today. There is truly no excuse for the neglect Ms Persaud described. In all that time something ought to have been done.

One hopes that her understandable but necessary public rant will bring about the desired result and that the preservation of what is part of Guyana’s heritage will be undertaken post haste.


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