Castellani House asked to advise on preservation of CJIA murals

The Education Ministry’s Department of Culture has stepped in to ensure the preservation of the murals at Cheddi Jagan Inter-national Airport by Guyanese artist Aubrey Williams and has solicited the help of Castellani House.

“I have asked the people at Castellani House, who are in charge of the National Collection, to pay attention to this and give me a feedback… that they go down to the airport and look at the conditions of the paintings and make a report to me on what to do…,” Minister of Education Dr Rupert Roopnaraine told Stabroek News yesterday. “If they are in jeopardy we have to move them but we are working on it,” he added.

The near destruction of the murals, which were painted by world renowned artist Williams in 1970, was highlighted on Monday in this newspaper, following concerns that they were not taken into consideration when the design for the US$150M airport expansion project was planned.

It was only after recent objections, including by staff at the airport, that the National Trust was called in for meetings to advise on whether to preserve the murals or if “it was okay to demolish them,” this newspaper was told.

There are five murals at the CJIA and in 2007 there had been outcry after two were covered with concrete and other material in order to accommodate a new roof, which was designed to prevent water from leaking into the immigration department.

The two which had been largely obscured face the runway, two more are on the western side close to the immigration department, and one is in the departure area. They were done on what were previously the VIP open-air verandah’s walls and greeted visitors and returning Guyanese upon disembarkation.

Ruel Johnson, advisor on culture in the Education Ministry, said yesterday that the near destruction of Williams’ works was an example for all to learn why a structural policy guideline was needed for the preservation of heritage works.

“It is a clear case that we need to have proper policy to govern how it is that we preserve buildings that have some heritage value either by themselves or if they contain art and artifacts, or perhaps the resources to passively establishing a protocol where there is a checked box for heritage impact assessment,” he said.

Johnson added that he will be raising the matter with and sharing his views with his minister when they meet and he was optimistic that the murals will be preserved.

A well-known historian and artist, who said that he recently learned of the demolition plans, was furious that persons with knowledge of the artwork were not called in during the planning and design phase for the expansion of the airport. He preferred to remain anonymous.

“I had the wind almost sucked out me when I learned weeks ago that the plan was to have them all demolished to facilitate the new airport… it seemed déjà vu. Here we are 10 years later and it seems as if we are saying the same things again. When is anyone going to consult before making a decision and then have to come back to the drawing board over a protest or something worse?” another source lamented.

“I am hoping that President David Granger, not just as president but as a historian and someone who knows the value of preservation of history through arts, could intervene soonest and have them relook at this design, specifically the terminal area, that will be affected… In other countries, this would not be an issue, but it seems Guyana has lost itself and that is because it doesn’t know its history; a history that is depicted through artwork of this kind,” the source added.

Members of the public have also joined the call for the preservation of the historic artwork.