One of the most striking events of the past two weeks was the demolition by fire of the Umana Yana in Georgetown on the afternoon of Tuesday September 9. It was a striking blow to the national heritage not only because of the architectural magnificence of the building, but the telling irony that this conflagration took place during the celebrations of Amerindian Heritage Month. It was not only an imposing structure but it was an outstanding symbol of the place of the Amerindian contribution to the national cultural fabric.

In one of his earliest poems, a sonnet called ‘A City’s Death by Fire,’ Derek Walcott asks “why should a man wax tears when his wooden world fails?” The poet was contemplating the great fire in Castries, St Lucia in 1948 and doing some reassessment. Quite excellently for a young poetic apprentice (as Walcott was then), he describes the physical scenes, lamenting the tragic loss, but at the same time realising that his greater concern was for the intangible, the immaterial. From all reports it took some 20 minutes to destroy the great roof of the Umana Yana. That is not surprising because of the material used to build it – thatch, easy to burn – the fallible “wooden world.” But the greater issues are those of the culture, the meaning and significance of the building, the ironies and the Guyanese society that now confront us the way the apprentice Walcott confronted the burnt city in that sonnet.

20110807artsonsundaySo the tangible, visible monument that was the famous ‘benab’ could have been quickly demolished as the frail “wooden” world can always be, and often is. But the meaning and symbolism of the structure are part of an extremely important discussion in this month when Guyana is celebrating its Amerindian heritage. It was the most visible and identifiable representative of Amerindian culture in Georgetown. There are a few smaller, less prominent ones such as the ‘Amerindian Village’ at one corner of the Sophia Exhibition site and a few small pieces of public art. One of these pieces, however, claims a greater place than it seems to have. It represents the strong place of Amerindian art, and what the art represents in Guyanese culture; it is a mural, a triptych painted by George Simon based on indigenous mythology and spiritualism.

The Umana Yana was, among other things, a theatre space, a place for dramatic performance. One tragic fact is that it has followed so many other theatres and performance spaces that have been destroyed. In his contribution to the history of theatre in British Guiana, Joel Benjamin lists those buildings with a place in history removed by fire over the years.

Yet its importance as a theatre does not lie in how it functioned as one; it holds no place in history for the great plays performed there or the movements and developments in drama that it housed, but for its own origins, history and significance. This is provided in information quoted by Maya Trotz in ‘Umana Yana: More than just a building’ (Stabroek News, Sept. 15) and available on a number of websites including the Ministry of Culture.

The Umana Yana was built in August 1972 at the request of the Guyana government by a team of 60 Wai Wai men from Konashen in the south of Guyana led by Chief Elka. The Wai Wai name translates into English as ‘meeting place of the people’ and it was built from the model of the benab already in existence in Konashen. The language used is interestingly appropriate with poetry equal to the occasion. “A circular area of the lawn, about 26.8 metres in diameter was cleared of grass and excavated, the soil levelled and compacted to a smooth, hard finish by the Wai Wai who stomped the ground, feet unshod, moving rhythmically forward, backward and round and round as in a sort of tribal dance. Sand was then placed over the area and a concrete foundation slab, complete with holes for the insertion of the poles was laid to protect the structure from dampness, given the nature of the shallow water table of the coastal soils.”

The Umana Yana before its destruction by fire
The Umana Yana before its destruction by fire

The magnificent imposing roof, towering over 16 metres high, was fashioned from indigenous material, thatch, leaves and vines fastened to poles by Amerindian technology. Some of the sources say “not a nail was used” in the whole structure. Others say some nails were put in as reinforcement to guard against the high winds common in that coastal area. The people’s meeting place was completed in 80 days in time for its first meeting – a summit of the Foreign Ministers of the nations of the Non-Aligned Movement.

The Umana Yana thus began its distinguished career as a meeting place given to the nation by the Amerindian civilisation in Guyana. It was a place for dialogue following a tradition of a “meeting place of the people” built in traditional fashion representative of the culture of one of the indigenous peoples of Guyana. This was a strengthening of the Guyanese civilisation, and very significant to have an iconic building in the capital city as a place for such dialogue among civilisations. Additionally, such an iconic building was a symbol of Guyanese culture. It was a visible representative of a national tradition, not only in a symbolic way, but being literally used for that purpose. It was there as a demonstration of the Amerindian contribution to the national cultural fabric.

National identity is another important factor, and Amerindian cultural traditions have made perhaps the greatest contributions to national cultural identity. In so many ways, in history, geography, literature, linguistic background, the landscape, art, and visible images, Amerindian culture defines the Guyanese nation. Several things of Amerindian derivation or borrowed from Amerindian languages or traditions are unhesitatingly used to identify Guyana. This is ironic because in spite of this there is great concern for the continuing loss of these factors in contemporary society – the dying languages, the forgotten traditions, the erosion of village lifestyles and waning interest in folklore and theatrical performance traditions.

The Umana Yana, given its physical presence and the purposes for which it was most often used, was there as a symbol and reminder of the unfathomable depth of this contribution. Amerindian languages are dying, yet the country is identified by Amerindian languages. The very name given to the country is Amerindian. Additionally, waterways and natural features are overwhelmingly known by Amerindian names. Not only are Amerindian place names ubiquitous, but they describe the nature of the land.

The same happens with the interior rainforest regions which carry Amerindian names and depict an environment which is the habitat of Amerindians and the source of traditions and beliefs. Nowhere is this better reflected or demonstrated than in the poetry of Mark McWatt. In his work landscape is most precisely brought to life, but it is given borderless dimensions which include the psyche. It happens to a lesser extent in the poetry of Stanley Greaves. Where fiction is concerned the outstanding work in this area comes from Wilson Harris in many of the novels in which Amerindian personalities assume multiple and shifting existences in and related to the rainforest. Pauline Melville manages to make the craft of fiction out of a one-ness between Amerindian characters and the land, the land and the cosmos.

The traditional piece of architecture as a Wai Wai contribution to theatre and creative space was both tangible and intangible heritage. It was there for practical use in addition to its historic and symbolic significance. It was a building on the surface which stood for that greater depth of Amerindian culture in Guyana’s naming and identity.

Maya Trotz discussed “creative spaces in the Caribbean.” The Umana Yana was unique among those around the Caribbean that can claim to be a part of national history or tradition. Possibly among those could be the old Ward Theatre of Kingston, Jamaica, now replaced by the newer flagships like the NAPA of Trinidad. Yet the Umana Yana was fully indigenous and traditional.

Ironically, there was a certain challenge about it where staging dramatic plays is concerned. Fully in keeping with traditional practice, it was built properly suited for theatre in the round. But the ‘modern’ thinkers imposed a platform stage and a proscenium arch. This then made it very difficult to stage anything in the round. It also interfered with the conventional proscenium arch audience because of the poles which then appeared to interrupt the sight lines. They should have listened to the dialogue of the Wai Wai civilisation.

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