From Colony to Nation …Celebrating 50 years of nationhood through art

by Alim Hosein


The National Gallery of Art, in collaboration with the University of Guyana, the Guyana National Museum and the St Joseph Mercy Hospital will mount a special exhibition in celebration of Guyana’s 50th Anniversary of Independence. The exhibition opens on May 11 at 5 pm.

The exhibition’s name ‘From Colony to Nation,’ speaks to the country’s journey over the past fifty years. But the exhibition goes beyond 1966 to include examples of colonial and even pre-colonial art in Guyana.

20101114artsonsundayThe exhibition features paintings, drawings, lithographs  and sculpture, even though it is recognised that there are other forms that could be classified as art work from the period, and  even from the time of arrival of the indigenous peoples. However, such works will be the subject of a future exhibition.

Guyana became a colony of Great Britain in 1814, after over a century of occupation by the English, French and mainly, the Dutch who had established permanent settlements in Pomeroon and Essequibo from the turn of the 17th century. The counties of Essequibo, Berbice and Demerara were separate territories until Essequibo and Demerara were administered jointly from 1814, and the three counties were finally merged in 1831.

Not much is known about Guyanese artists before the end of the 1920s, and even less is known about art in Guyana before that time. However, there is evidence that there was some amount of art activity as foreign artists would travel to Guyana and set up shop. We know the names of some of these artists, three of them – T Wishart, Girault Gresil and Joshua Bryant operated in Demerara in the first half of the 1800s.  Bryant is also famous for writing a detailed account of the 1823 rebellion, to which he added his illustrations of the skirmishes, rebelling slaves and the gristly aftermath of hanged and beheaded slaves.

Denis Williams, Human World, 1951
Denis Williams, Human World, 1951

These artists would advertise their services in the newspaper, such as the painting of portraits, landscapes, the estates of the planters, designs on coaches and other kinds of artwork. There were also other locally-born artists or artisans who did sign-painting for the growing commercial sector, repairing and refurbishing church statuary and decorative, gilding and other domestic art services. There were artists who accompanied expeditions into the interior, as when Edward Goodall accompanied Robert Schomburgk’s 1841 expedition. Goodall’s portrait sketches of indigenous peoples were later published as Sketches of Amerindian Tribes, 1841-43.There were also many persons who practiced the new art of daguerreotype and photography, as portraiture or for the making and selling of postcards.

As for locally-born artists, it is recognised that at the end of the 1920s, expatriate artists and art lovers, and the local British Council, encouraged and organised talented Guyanese, thus leading to the formation of art associations, classes and exhibitions. But the locals soon took matters into their own hands, to a great extent because they had other ideas about art, and because these ideas were not accepted by the then-establishment. In this way, local artists such as R G Sharples, Vivian Antrobus, E R Burrowes, Sam Cummings and others became our pioneer artists. Burrowes later became a leader of this group, and today, the local school of art is named after him. The artistic energy attracted young people such as Marjorie Broodhagen, Stanley Greaves, Ron Savory, Emerson Samuels, Denis Williams, Aubrey Williams, Hubert Moshett and Stephanie Correia. These young people became the major Guyanese artists leading up to independence in 1966.

The exhibition shows these beginnings of our formal art. Artists such as Antrobus and Burrowes used the style and techniques of the British Landscape School to good effect in capturing the Guyanese landscape. However, the artists, influenced by pictures of artwork in magazines, and their own urge to be more than just technically-proficient, soon found their own themes from Guyanese life. They experimented with the styles and techniques of the modern artists, and made their own innovations. In addition, far away from these influences, the Berbician Philip Moore had been creating his own intuitive work to add to the developing body of Guyanese art.

The exhibition fully treats this founding period of our art and goes on to show the developments thereafter. The young artists of the 1950s and 1960s proved to be very productive and enduring, being active into the 70s, 80s and 90s. Indeed, Greaves continues to be a prolific and inventive artist. Alongside them, other artists such as Basil and Angold Thompson, Cletus Henriques, Gary Thomas, Compton Parris, Omowale Lumumba, Dudley Charles, Winston Strick and Colin Warde emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, to be joined by Bernadette Persaud, Maylene Duncan, Seunarine Munisar, Merlene Ellis and a host of other artists. These, along with others such as Winslow Craig, Terence Roberts, Philbert Gajadhar, and Betsy Karim are sustaining this history and adding to it right down to the present day.

Robert Swan, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, 1954
Robert Swan, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, 1954

Different forms, styles and phases of Guyanese art have developed over the years. In the 1970s, the Village Movement artists – artists from the rural areas – brought a free-form style of sculpture drawn from their African root. Similarly, the Lokono artists from the 1990s startlingly revealed the power of the indigenous imagination. Artists such as Carl Anderson and Roberts pursue an internationalist, avant-garde path. Karim, Gajadhar and Persaud meditate on East Indian and wider cultural roots. Desmond Ali is immersed in the history and struggles of the Middle-American region. And there is much more.

‘From Colony to Nation’ gives an understanding of all of this, illustrated by the major artists and also the not-so-well-known ones. Through all of this, the independence and post-independence artworks will show that Guyanese artists are in the forefront of thinking about Guyana, and therefore, in the forefront of nation-building. A view of the exhibition will show that Guyanese art engages us in thinking about  the life of the people, the historical depths of the landscape, the importance of political struggle, the concept of being, freedom, independence, progress, spirituality, concern for ancestry, aesthetics, and much more. It shows that Guyanese are focused on the place where we all live, and are alive to the wider world.

‘From Colony to Nation’ celebrates the creativity and inventiveness of our artists. It pays homage to their deep commitment to thinking and proposing views and ideas about Guyana. It also acknowledges the colonial and pre-colonial artists, because without them, we would have no idea of what this country looked like centuries ago.

The colonial and pre-colonial pieces will be of great interest in the exhibition. While these were done by a number of foreign artists, some of whose names we know and some of whom are unknown, these artworks represent a significant part of our history. They show how Guyana was seen through other eyes, and how the colonial enterprise was reflected in art. This aspect of the exhibition also fulfils the “reflection” aspect of the 50th Independence celebration theme.

The exhibition will also inspire. It is meant to be a visual, emotional, educational and intellectual treat. It will give viewers a concrete sense of the history that surrounds us, it will be a visual history-lesson, an eye-opening experience, a lesson in the development of art techniques, styles and approaches. It will also be a motivator of national pride, since it will inspire reflection on our journey as a nation. It will confirm that despite our diversity, we are a nation: a people with common interests and concerns, forming a common society.

‘From Colony to Nation’ will be mounted at the National Art Gallery, Castellani House. It opens on May 11 at 5 pm and continues until August 30. Admission is free.

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