In February, 1970, some members of the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM), a group based in London, England travelled to Guyana for ‘A Caribbean Writers and Artists Convention’, organized by the government as part of the country’s celebrations on becoming a republic. Among the visitors were two native sons of the soil, the writer, Wilson Harris and the artist, Aubrey Williams.
It was Williams’s first visit back home since he had departed for England eighteen years earlier. Initially, in his time abroad, he travelled extensively in England and on the continent, visiting the major art centres of Europe, including Venice on several occasions. He would support himself during his wanderings by working on farms and in vineyards – he would later develop an extensive knowledge on the subject of wines ‒ falling back on his formal training as an agriculture field officer.
After two-and-a-half years as a student at St Martin’s School of Art in London in the mid-1950s, Williams became associated with the New Vision Centre Gallery which propelled his work into the spotlight, establishing him as a renowned international artist. By the time of the 1970 convention, his paintings, often considered as abstract expressionism, had been exhibited all over the UK, Europe ‒ Paris, Milan, Antwerp ‒ Karachi, Pakistan; Melbourne, Australia; Mon-treal, Canada; and Sao Paulo, Brazil. In 1965, he won the acclaimed Commonwealth Prize for Painting, presented by Queen Elizabeth II.
During the convention, whilst the Guyana Museum was hosting an exhibition of his work, he was approached to paint murals at the recently built Timehri International Airport which had replaced the old Atkinson Field, the former World War II American air base.
Prior to his original departure he had worked as an agriculture field officer, initially in the area of sugar on the East Coast, before been transferred to the North West District, where he was in charge of the agriculture station. It was here that Williams was introduced to the indigenous Warrau people. Later on, he would reflect that the two years spent with the Warrau had had a profound effect on his life.
“It was there for the first time in my life that I discovered myself as an artist,” he recalled in an interview with Rasheed Araeen in London in 1987. It was the Warraus who transformed his understanding of art. Their appreciation of colour and form would be displayed in his later work.
Presented with a large canvas, Aubrey Williams produced a superlative collection of five murals to adorn the new airport, two on the outer walls, with two in the arrivals area and one in the departure area. The murals, the Timehri – an Amerindian word meaning ‘mark of the hand’ or ‘the hand of God’‒ Collection, depicted Amerindian motifs and were named Tumatumari, Kamarau, Kaietuma, Maridowa and Itirbisi. In 1986, he returned to Guyana to restore his masterpieces, assisted by the young artist, Philbert Gajadhar.
In 2007, in an effort to stop a leak on the airport’s roof, a construction company obscured the two Williams’ murals on the walls of the original open-air verandah of the VIP lounge. The murals which greeted the disembarking travellers had faced the runway. Guyana’s then Ambassador to Unesco, Professor David Dabydeen was livid at the degradation of the artwork depicting Guyana’s native heritage describing it as an act of vandalism and the contractors as Philistines. In a letter to the editor of this publication, internationally renowned musician, Dave Martins predicted a reoccurrence of this calamity.
Earlier this year, the faux pas was almost repeated in April. The contracting firm, China Harbour and Engineering Corporation who have been hired for the airport’s current expansion programme were prevented from demolishing the remaining murals by two alert airport employees who remembered the furore caused by the previous incident. It appears the expansion design plans had not taken into account the remaining murals, despite subsequent assurances in May from the Ministry of Public Infrastructure that they had engaged the services of the National Trust in the preservation of the remaining murals.
Aubrey Williams, oft described as a gentle and warm human being, a man who had wide and varied interests, including practising martial arts, music and astronomy, passed away in April 1990, at the age of sixty-three, leaving a reputation as a world renowned artist and a wealth of work. Several posthumous exhibitions of the work of one of Guyana’s best artists were held by major galleries, and today, his pieces can be seen in important collections including the Arts Council of England and the Tate.
When will we begin to appreciate the value of the arts and culture to our society? There was a suggestion last year to move the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology from its Main Street location and risk damaging/losing the painstakingly acquired and carefully mounted artefacts, some of which are thousands of years old and extremely delicate. The nation’s greatest poet, Martin Carter, has been gone for nearly twenty years, yet no attempt has been made to acquire his writings, notes, and the rest of his library for national preservation.
As this tragedy of our own making unfolds before our eyes, we would do well to heed the destruction and the removal/looting of art treasures from Central Asia documented in Peter Hopkirk’s classic Foreign Devils on the Silk Road.
Perhaps, one aspect of the proposed sovereign wealth fund from the anticipated influx of oil wealth could be the allocation of adequate funds for the National Trust to preserve our arts and cultural history.
Why should we have to visit museums and art galleries abroad to view the masterpieces of our native sons and daughters?