It is imperative at this time to put on record another tribute to Dr Doris Elrina Rogers, distinguished artist, art educator, researcher, administrator, Professor Emeritus of the University of Guyana and Lifetime Fellow of the Institute of Creative Arts, Guyana, who died last week. It is important to put this on record because of the great significance of the contributions she made to Guyanese art, to the University of Guyana, to art education as a professional discipline, and to the oral traditions in Guyanese culture.
This is ‘another tribute’ because Prof Rogers’ work, attitudes, professional inputs, innovation, consistency of initiative and personal attributes made such a resounding impact that she was paid major tributes and duly honoured during her lifetime, while she was still able to meaningfully receive them.
Foremost among these honours was the prominence and elevated place of her recognition by the University of Guyana following her retirement after serving in the Faculty of Education and Humanities, Department of Language and Cultural Studies. She was recognised as a distinguished academic at the university convocation where she was formally accorded the status of Professor Emerita, decorated and honoured with a fitting citation.
Another similar recognition during her lifetime was her receipt of the achievement award from the Institute of Creative Arts of the Department of Culture, Ministry of Education, Department of Culture Youth and Sport. This Award was initiated by the Institute of Creative Arts, the new umbrella institution that brings together the National School of Dance, the National Dance Company, the Burrowes School of Art, the National School of Music, and the National School of Theatre Arts and Drama. It gives honorary recognition to persons who have distinguished themselves in the areas of the arts – art, music, dance and drama. Rogers was admitted as a Lifetime Fellow of the Institute in 2014 when she was presented with the award by the then prime minister Sam Hinds.
First of all, Prof Rogers was an artist. She was a painter whose work has been exhibited in Guyana, the USA, Nigeria and India. She was a fairly conventional painter, but may be regarded as an Africanist judging from some of her prominent work. A good example of this is a painting titled Fulani Ritual because the Fulani tradition was the major influence on this work. Rogers rose to be a senior academic while she worked at Benin State University in Benin, Nigeria from 1981 to 1988. She researched Nigerian art and adopted styles from the Fulani nation of South Eastern Nigeria and artistic forms found in that region may be seen in her work. For example, traditional Nigerian carvings exhibit slender, elongated female figures and this form of elegance and the intuitive traditional influence informed Rogers’ painting.
Before going to Nigeria, she received a UNESCO Fellowship to the South Australia School of Art. This was followed by studies at Howard University and a Doctorate in Art Education from Penn State University in the USA. She was Programme Coordinator at the Paul Robeson Cultural Centre, and Instructor in Art Education at Pennsylvania State. When she returned to Guyana, Professor Rogers served as Art Specialist to the Ministry of Education and taught at the Bishops’ High School after which she started her distinguished service to the University of Guyana in 1988.
Her unique contributions started here, as she went on to be a serial innovator, demonstrating the originality of her ideas and pioneer spirit. She extended the Minor in Art at the UG to the full Bachelor of Education in the Fine Arts in 1990. Before that art students were not able to go beyond the Diploma offered at the Burrowes School of Art and this opened further possibilities. Rogers herself opened these doors a bit wider with the establishment of courses towards the study of Art Education. She then took this to the Berbice Campus at Tain, travelling weekly to that campus to make it possible.
At UG, Rogers was Coordinator of the Division of Creative Arts. She established links with the Toogeloo College, University of Mississippi where UG final year art students began to go on an annual visit to hold exhibitions of their work and engage in workshops. The students would go on attachments to Jackson, Mississippi each summer.
At the same time, an annual exhibition of the work of art students and staff of the UG was founded by Rogers, which served to enhance the image of the university and justify it as a worthwhile place to study.
She then led a small team completed by UG lecturers Bernadette Persaud and Philbert Gajadhar on a professional visit to India to exhibit their work, research and have other engagements which greatly advanced the experience and career of these artists as well as enhanced the reputation of Guyanese art.
This was a further step in the important contributions to Guyanese art made by Rogers. Very significantly, these contributions transcended art, extending into the interests of women and feminist studies. She was among the group responsible for the founding of the Guyana Women Artists Association, through which a more prominent national recognition was afforded the local women artists while widening the opportunities for them to legitimise their creative industries and earn from their art. There were publications that accompanied this development and the permanent formation of a standing annual exhibition of the work of women artists.
Dr Rogers grew close to research in the oral traditions and consistent with her track record, was once more an innovator in this area. She was a native of Berbice and was therefore easily in touch with villages and villagers who are sources of information and knowledge about the traditional cultures of Guyana. She organised many groups such as those in Ithaca, West Berbice, the Corentyne, into the formation of a unifying body known as The Awareness and Perpetuation of African Celebration (RAPAC).
This novel association protected the rights of informants and practitioners of African cultural traditions and performance. It made them available to legitimate researchers but at the same time ensured that they were fairly treated and recognised their right to earn from the imparting of their knowledge. This was also an effective way of protecting national patrimony and the intellectual property rights of the people. At the same time it gave recognition and a sense of worth to those people. They would then be making a greater contribution to the preservation of the elements of African culture in Guyana that have become endangered and many of which are already moribund.
Interesting to note is that Rogers started her career as a teacher of science. When the opportunity arose and she chose to further her studies in art, although it might have robbed Guyana of a science teacher, and no telling what developmental possibilities in that area, where the country is in need of contributors and contributions. But the fateful switch to art was certainly an incremental advancement on a talent that was there and that later fructified. It surely wiped away any regrets that might have been harboured about the loss to science.
What was gained was a scholar and a nation builder, whose telling contributions stand today. The Berbice Campus Art Education programme has not faltered, but marches on at Tain. Indeed, it has been attracting many more students than the Pure Art degree at Turkeyen. The Guyana Women Artists Association holds an annual exhibition in which there has been growth in the displays of craft and cultural industries such as fabric, textile, jewellery and leather.
The UG exhibitions have not strictly remained annual, but struck a powerful note with the staff exhibition mounted by Gajadhar and Winslow Craig in 2015. That display showed the continuing strength of the work of the UG staff artists who are major names in the art of the nation.
Doris Rogers’ impact was sufficiently emphatic that she was recognised and acknowledged to the point of being given deserved homage during her lifetime. (With inputs from Tekia Hanover)