There were errors, omissions in Mr Hosein’s account of the National Gallery at 25

Dear Editor,

It was a strange experience for me to read Mr. Alim Hosein’s account of ‘the National Gallery at 25’ (SN Sunday May 27), having been the primary agent, for seventeen and a half of those twenty five years, tasked with the gallery’s engagement with the Guyanese public, by virtue of my duties and responsibilities as its Director and Curator.

While always reporting to and frequently consulting with a Chairman and Board members (the Management Committee of the gallery), I was responsible for the management of all of its public events, programmes and projects, with the exception of some capital works projects requiring higher government initiation.

Public events between 1996 and 2013 included over 120 exhibitions, including three overseas, to Venezuela, Barbados, and to Washington, DC, and thirteen national biennial drawing and watercolour competitions. Over 220 other arts events included lectures, book launches and other literary events, film and other performance events, drawing and watercolour classes, and workshops, including one to Barbados, where Guyanese Lokono sculptors taught wood carving techniques to art students.

Additionally the management of the physical gallery building as well as the physical works of the National Collection meant two phases of major renovation and restructuring of the gallery building and its interior spaces and ancillary storage buildings undertaken in 1997 and 2006; and two conservation programmes, in 1997 and 2000, in which one US and two UK conservators, respectively,  professionally cleaned, repaired, restored and otherwise upgraded National Collection works for the first time since their acquisition to the collection. 

In all of this constant and long-term activity, I was the person required very actively to present and document, in all its aspects and manifestations, the work of the National Gallery: not only for administrative action and record, but also separately for the very frequent dissemination of public information.

Thus I feel I can pronounce, with some authority, on issues relating to the gallery’s history.

Mr. Hosein, who of necessity has had to rely much on second-hand sources (I recognize many of them), will therefore forgive my need to draw attention to, and correct, some mistakes and omissions in his recounting of the gallery’s functions and operations.

I take issue, first of all, with his second paragraph, where the gallery is placed ‘(standing) alongside’ several ‘sister’ agencies, as ‘bodies…(responsible) for… art in Guyana’;  But despite my knowledge and regard for many of these agencies and their contributions to our culture, very few of them, I submit, have the mandate, and therefore the obligation, to operate and perform on parallel  and multiple levels, that the National Gallery has: as indicated by its very mission statement,  which Mr. Hosein quotes from extensively, and which identifies the many roles which the institution is expected to fulfil, regarding the promotion and preservation of visual art: not only at a national level but, when necessary, in a wider, regional space and beyond. 

 I further note the oddity of describing some that he terms ‘bodies’ in this line up, such as the undergraduate visual art programme  of the Creative Arts Division, which is a department, I believe, within a faculty of the University of Guyana. Similarly, the National Visual Arts Exhibition (NVAE), despite the excitement and support of competing artists and art lovers for the event, and Mr. Hosein’s association with it, cannot be termed a ‘body’ or, even figuratively, an ‘institution’: it is a  once every two years event. Even less so, the Institute of Creative Arts is a cultural policy construct of the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport (MCYS) circa 2014, which does not yet physically exist but which intends ambitiously to bring together in the future, four now existing teaching institutions under one roof. I consider these references a rather puzzling misrepresentation of reality and of fact with which to begin an assessment of the National Gallery.

Beyond this the writer dwells on 125 plus years of the history of the Botanical Gardens, the gallery building, its architect and its occupants, using well-known reference material, before finally mentioning what is considered the first work of the National Collection, ‘Human World’, described simply as ‘a painting by Guyanese Denis Williams’. Ironically, the writer has overlooked the fact that the late Dr. Williams, our great polymath artist, art historian, novelist, anthropologist and archaeologist, had substantially built up the national art collection, as Director of Art in the then Department of Culture from the late 70’s to the early 90’s, as well as founding many of the institutions invoked by Mr. Hosein in his second paragraph: the Burrowes School of Art in 1975, the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology in 1974, and the Museum of African Art and Ethnology,  now the Museum of African Heritage, which opened to the public in 1994.

In fact, this article prompted a flood of reminiscence on my part, reminding me that Dr. Williams had first asked me to manage the National Collection in 1990. Three years later, in early 1993, a phone call on his behalf advised me that plans for the opening of the new National Gallery would soon be in place, and that I was to look out for the advertisements for the post of Curator, and strongly consider applying for the post. In the interim, in 1991, as I  left the Burrowes School of Art after more than five multi-tasking years lecturing and supervising in three subjects, and already acting twice for the then Administrator, Agnes Jones, Dr. Williams had asked me to stay on as the de facto head of the school, with Ms. Jones to remain as the titular Head.

On all three occasions I had in some agony refused his requests, hoping to return for a while to my own work as an artist; but knowing, as I said to him, the huge amount of work that was to be done, particularly in managing the National Collection at a nascent National Gallery.

By mid-1996 however, and further to a request from the gallery’s Board to undertake a complete inventory: requiring examination, documentation and attendant recommendations:  of the physical works of the National Collection then housed in various parts of the gallery building, as well as off-site, I was in mid-project when informed of the imminent departure of the then Curator, Everley Austin, and knew that I would be unable to avoid the pressure from many sides to apply for the vacant post. Having done so along with other applicants, I was appointed to the post in late 1996, and by November of that year, had submitted a detailed report of my concerns and recommendations to the Board regarding, among other things, the need to combine repair of severely damaged areas of the building with its adaptation to better serve as a functioning gallery; the need for highly professional secretarial support staff to work directly with the Curator and for an ideally experienced Technical/ Administrative officer;  the impossibility of continuing the curatorial work of the inventory once I began my day to day duties as acting Curator, and the unrealistic nature of the committee’s combining of three separate streams of gallery operations – curatorial, administrative and conservatory – into the single post of Curator.  I also emphasized the professional nature required of the institution’s operations, given that we were established as a national gallery, which also meant, by definition and extension, an international gallery.    

Mr. Hosein having correctly mentioned me as the Curator who took over, in 1996, from Mr. Austin, then hurries on to mention my subordinate at the gallery, wholly incorrectly describing him as ‘deputy curator’. This person had first been employed, on my recommendation, in a part-time post in 2001, and later full-time, in 2004, in the post of Curatorial Assistant: that is, as an assistant to the Curator; the job description, terms of reference and indeed list of duties regarding this post being drafted by me, and approved by two levels of administration before hiring could be confirmed.

There is, however, no such post as ‘deputy curator’ at the gallery, nor do I believe has one ever been authorized. Additionally, as one of SN’s knowledgeable correspondents commented only recently (June 12), ‘…how logical is it to have a Deputy to a non-existent Chief…!’  And Mr. Hosein knows fully well that there is no Curator on the premises, nor has there been one in authority there for some time, for very strange and serious reasons, of which he is well aware. Indeed I should also question the reference to the staff member as ‘acting as curator’, again for some very serious reasons. 

Mr. Hosein is quite correct though to say that there is no gallery Board, not since the end of July 2016. Mr. Hosein and I, in fact, were both appointed under the authority of a 2014 Cabinet decision, identified as the two officers of the newly constituted Board of the gallery in 2014: he as the new Chairman, and I, to continue in my post as Curator/Secretary: from August 2014 to July 2016. But again, despite receiving a second, very official and cordial letter soon after confirming my continued engagement as Curator/Secretary, for some strange and serious reasons – the latest at the time in a series of bizarre events set in motion earlier that year, and even before – I was unable to take my place in the gallery Board room, or elsewhere for that matter. Again Mr. Hosein well knows the reasons why, being complicit in some of these events.  

But he is incorrect to say that the gallery needs a Board ‘to help it move its plans along’. This trivializes its function. The Board are not ‘helpers’ but are supposed to be the independent, decision-making body of the institution, discussing and deciding on all its programmes and policies, which the Director/Curator/Secretary of the gallery (yes, all hats apply) is then expected to execute and bring to fruition, as the head of the agency; this person being at all times required to advise and report to the Board in the execution of these duties. 

Mr. Hosein does mention here though that ‘Castellani’ ‘within the last three years’ (2015-2018), has ‘extensively reviewed its establishment’, operations and policies.  This leads me to wonder who carried out this review: in fact who or what is ‘Castellani’ in this instance, in a three year period in which the Management Committee barely met, and for the last two of which has not even been in existence? Where and with whom has the authority lain for these reviews? Further how has Mr. Hosein been informed of these matters – via his capacity as art(s) critic/journalist of the SN, or via his capacity as Chairman of the intermittently functioning gallery board, and this only to 2016?

Or is it that someone has been brought in, outside of the Board and staff structures, perhaps as a consultant, to give attention to certain select issues? In fact, in the article’s prominent introductory panel listing Mr. Hosein’s credentials (unusually identified as by Arts Editor Al Creighton), and which interestingly describes him now both as an artist and an art historian, there is the quite odd omission of his recent position as gallery Board Chair, given the subject of the extensive article. In fact a clear declaration of interest on the part of the writer should surely be considered as standard: transparency and professional ethics necessitating that such information be stated, which would further clarify for readers the tone of authority and authenticity, and confirm the particular interest, with which the writer pronounces on his historical overview of the gallery.

Significantly too, in his article, Mr. Hosein makes no specific reference, the one exception being the aforementioned NVAE, to any major or other event presented at the gallery during the twenty-five year period of historical review. He instead spends several paragraphs on the importance of ‘preservation of the collection’ and the linked ‘criticisms’ regarding its ‘conservation’. The latest of these criticisms were fueled by very serious, and still unresolved, matter(s) relating to a deliberately false report by a gallery staff member about damage to the National Collection, which astoundingly, was reproduced in an official Ministry publication, as well as, most regrettably, in the Stabroek News, thus providing the premise for a revival of defamatory attacks on my personal and professional integrity in print and online media in 2014-15.

Mr. Hosein then mentions, regarding conservation of the collection, a ‘much-welcomed collaboration with the Argentine government’.  This pending project however had its origins in a proposal of mine, circa 2011-12, to engage Mexican conservation specialists through the Mexican government, further to my renewed concerns about the care of the collection and the need for trained Guyanese staff for such work. I was however unable to complete my final draft proposal, as well as many other matters, due to abrupt events set in motion at the end of 2013, and again soon after my return to work in mid-2014.

This project, like all other gallery projects, had been automatically submitted in early 2013 for information to the Ministry of Culture, our then new administrators after fourteen years previously under the Office of the President. The Ministry head office therefore simply adapted some of these matters and, naturally, presented them as their own, including the now much anticipated conservation and training programme, the government of Mexico being replaced by the government of Argentina – announced, I recall, by a banner headline in the Sunday Chronicle in August 2016.

My conservation/training proposal in 2011-12 in fact was merely a repeat of arrangements put in place prior to the gallery conservation projects in 1997 and 2000, which allowed two former students of mine at the Burrowes School of Art, by then art teachers in the Georgetown school system, to observe and assist on these projects; thus gaining them, alongside our full-time Gallery Technician, the invaluable experience of working closely with visiting experts. In the interim, with the gallery under the newly formed Ministry of Culture in 1998-99, they were also able to join an introductory short programme for museum staff in Guyana, conducted by a ministry on-staff consultant from Canada. One of the two persons who benefited from this training later became the gallery’s Curatorial Assistant, referred to above. 

I therefore appreciate with some irony Mr. Hosein’s acknowledgement that the ‘gallery curators’ have done a good job considering the ‘constraints’ of our working conditions, but I must correct his casual comment that the gallery ‘needs updated workspace’ – for there is no functional workspace at the National Gallery. This being so, how can the required space be referred to as ‘updated’?  As I noted via letter in the Chronicle in August 2016, our project proposal, circa 2001-02, for additional storage space as well as workshop and examination rooms – the latter in which to conduct conservation work, as a matter of routine (my emphasis) – and costing some G$18 million, was unaffordable by government at the time, due to strictures imposed on its spending programmes.

Similarly refused at this time, for lack of government funds, was the gallery’s proposal, in 2003, to relaunch the National Visual Arts Exhibition (NVAE).  The Management Committee had requested first prize awards, at that time, of $500,000 each for the two most prominent categories of Painting and Sculpture, with adjusted figures for other prizes, honourable mentions, and medals; additional categories were to be Ceramics and Craft and Textiles, and a new category of Photography. I had also suggested the inclusion of a Caribbean curator or critic on the judging panel, to emphasize the element of professional impartiality and a regional/international perspective to the competition, which might be welcomed by the artists’ community. 

Mr. Hosein may recall that, at a meeting we both attended with the then Director of Culture of the Ministry of Culture, the day before the eventual NVAE relaunch in mid-2012, there was still no engagement, at this late hour, with the gallery’s concerns about competition plans and our submitted 2003 proposal. By the next day however, the ministry had reprinted their competition brochure to feature the gallery’s proposal: the details of its categories and increased prize money, as well as that of the participation of an overseas judge, then mentioned as key elements at this event’s relaunch and in the ministry’s related press release. I state this for the record, and for the particular interest of the Guyanese art community.

Further correcting the record, I must state, briefly but necessarily, that the National Collection inventory numbers, now publicly stated more than once since 2015 and here repeated by Mr. Hosein, are incorrect: the number of works in the collection not being ‘over 1200 pieces’, in fact misstated by well over 100 due to a mistake I immediately noted in one of several documents supplied to me on my return to work in July 2014, regarding work supposedly done in my absence by a staff member which should not have been afforded such authority. Further adjustments to these numbers will also be necessary given the nature of the inventory, which is not only, as I indicated above, about counting objects.

Secondly, a point to note is that a possible first reference to the purchasing of art ‘for a National Gallery’ was documented in the mid-1940s, these works being ‘intended to form (the) nucleus’ of such a gallery; happily, many of the works from this era are in the National Collection: acquired some fifteen years before works began to be officially purchased by the state in 1961, with the establishment of a Department of Culture.

Thirdly, and finally, a serious omission on the part of Mr. Hosein is the matter of a still current gallery book project, in which I believe he has played a key role so far. This project, one of two such directly relating to my work and my substantive role as the gallery’s Curator, and a trained art  historian (as Denis Williams was wont to say), was to be a collection of my Curator’s notes from some of the numerous exhibitions conceived and or otherwise mounted and presented by me over several years. As one on the pending list of projects submitted to the Ministry of Culture in 2013, this proposal was later reconstituted into a new venture, with three of these exhibitions to be turned into three books, generously funded by GT&T in 2014. The first book, using an exhibition, Panorama, Portrait of Guyana, conceived and presented by me in 2007, was however published not with my Curator’s notes, but with new notes written by Mr. Hosein, and presented as another first for the Culture Ministry: see SN Arts Page coverage of this launch (Jan 25th 2015), written by Mr. Hosein himself.

When some months later I received a copy of this book by kind courtesy of the outgoing General Manager of GT&T, Mr. RK Sharma, I was distressed to find factual mistakes as well as two unfortunate errors of misattribution: with the wrong titles and descriptions being given to two paintings in this shiny book. 

The second book, on the subject of portraits, may possibly also have notes by Mr. Hosein; and most likely not my admittedly brief notes for an exhibition of Portraits which I had been urgently and apologetically asked to write by the gallery committee Chair, Mrs. Janet Jagan, herself, in January 1996, some weeks before I began the national collection inventory project there.  The third book, if I remember correctly,  was/is intended  to be on a theme I had conceived and had fondly nursed along for some time for one of our landmark Independence exhibitions, this one presented in 2006: Green Land of Guyana: Landscape and Vision in Guyanese Art.

I would yet hope that any future National Gallery publications should incorporate the acknowledgment and use of the material and ideas originated by those in the course of fulfilling their professional duties, enhanced by their talent and personal vision, as is the nature of such work, and which form the basis of such publications. This is fundamentally what ‘an intellectual property rights policy’ is all about, based on principles already in place universally, such as professional ethics, fair play, and the great value placed on ideas and intellect as the drivers not only of the arts and culture and the sciences, but of progressive societies themselves.

Having been targeted by the alarming mysteries of ‘fake news’ for much of my time at the National Gallery, and in particular in recent years by the phenomenon of ‘post-truth’, which seems currently in place there, I consider this response an absolute, though somewhat overdue necessity, as the errors, misrepresentations, and omissions that I noted in this instance had to be corrected or otherwise placed in their correct context.

Finally, however, I note the warmth with which Mr. Hosein describes the harmony of people getting together at National Gallery functions to be ‘refreshed’ and to share ‘common enjoyment’ – something I have had the privilege to observe and enjoy with my staff and our guests over a long period of time, presenting events too numerous to count at Castellani House.  

I thank him for this positive view of the gallery and all its potential, which I have been writing and speaking of, privately and publicly, for so many years. But for all of this to be realized, and for the gallery’s foundations to continue to be built, what is needed is not only a great deal of government support and funding but, even more importantly, a cadre of committed, professional and principled people, happy to have the opportunity to contribute to the building of a lasting national institution – as I wrote so long ago, in that document of my concerns submitted to the Chairman and members of the gallery Board, in November 1996.

Yours faithfully,

Elfrieda Bissember

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