Picturing Guyana’s seascape in black & white

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A few weeks ago I sat down with Michael Lam, a local photographer whose works have been steadily gaining momentum both locally and abroad. We spoke about his participation in the recently concluded Un|Fixed Homeland exhibition at the Aljira Center for Contemporary Art in Newark, New Jersey; his local practice; ideas of “homeland” as well as the position of his work in a space where photography is, as he describes it, “still in the infancy stage.”

Dominique Hunter: How were you made aware of the Un|Fixed Homelands
exhibition?

Michael Lam: In 2014 Ms. Grace Aneiza Ali received a curatorial grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation. The project centered around Guyanese photographers in the diaspora and at home. During the same year she contacted a few of us to begin networking and finding active photographers in Guyana. We had given her a number of names, from stalwarts like Bobby Fernandes to more modern photographers who were new to the field. She visited Guyana and whilst she was here she met with photographers in two or three small groups.

DH: How important was the title of your body of work for the exhibition?

ML: Originally, the exhibition itself had a different title, Guyana Modern, so I truly did not see the title of my own body of work [Oniabo] fitting into it. The title was important to me, to the series I was/am working on. I had wanted a name that reflected not only the theme of the series, which was “water”, but to also pay homage to the first peoples of Guyana, the Amerindians.

DH: What was the most immediate observation you made about the exhibition and each practitioners’ work?

ML: My first observation would have had to be that here were works by some amazingly talented artists, as I walked into the Gallery, I was welcomed not only by the warmth of the people of Aljira (and my family) but by Erika DeFreitas’ amazing pieces, and then onto others by Donald Locke and Hew Locke, and then to see Kwesi Abbensett’s installation on the wall right before my own pieces down the way. The works of each artist varied, in as much as the artists themselves are different, and to see the ideas and amount of work done by the artists based on something as simple as a photograph was amazing.

DH: Beyond the theme of the exhibition, how was your work positioned in terms of the actual art objects and their aesthetics?

ML: Given how I am accustomed to galleries displaying art, and from what I am also accustomed to seeing online and in magazines, it was very surprising to see how Grace had chosen to display my three pieces, either she saw into my heart or the work affected her in a similar manner to which I am affected, they were displayed upon a black wall(s) as opposed to the customary white walls. To me, it was perfect!

DH: How would you describe the concept of “home” or “homeland” as experienced by someone living and working in Guyana?

ML: This might be a bit surprising, but my series Oniabo is actually based on a different idea of “home” or “homeland” than the obvious home I have in Guyana. I am very patriotic. I love my country. I chose to live here even through all the good and bad times but my relationship with the sea/ocean is one of longing and wonder about how we came here, where we came from, the people who came and the home that they left for a distant shore and a new home. There’s a common phrase that goes “Home is where the heart is”, and while that [applies] to family and friends, I am easily “at home” on the seawall in Guyana, staring out to the horizon.

DH: A lot of the critiques thrown at diaspora artists are grounded in the concept of [working through] rose tinted glasses; that somehow living outside of Guyana makes you out of touch with the actual lived experiences of the “home” in question. How do you feel about that?

ML: I don’t necessarily agree with that. Yes, their idea of home won’t be the same but from what I saw at the exhibition, much of their ideas of “home” as it pertains to “homeland” or Guyana, is either based on memories of a childhood here, or on shared memories from parents and family; the stories of the old days as told by the ones who were there. The ideas that are formed in the minds of the new artist may be tinted by life in a different place, but the basic homeland idea remains, that of “family.”

DH: What was it like exhibiting alongside Guyanese art giants like the late Donald Locke and his son Hew Locke?

ML: When I first saw the email from Grace and in the same sentence she mention myself and Hew Locke I was floored. Never did I think that I would be exhibiting in the same space as Hew Locke. I only learnt of Donald’s piece being included when the official announcements were being made. To stand in the entrance to the Gallery and see Donald’s piece to my left, one of Hew’s pieces further down on the right, and in the distance my own pieces was an amazing experience, almost unbelievable.

DH: How was the public’s reception to the exhibition and your works in particular?

ML: This being my first exhibition outside of Guyana I was probably expecting something similar to my experiences here, but I was to be a very surprised person. The reception far exceeded my expectations. The people there were vocally expressive and you could feel the excitement and enthusiasm in just how they looked at the pieces. But what surprised me was the demand placed upon me for my time and attention, to help the patrons understand what it was like as a Guyanese living in Guyana; how my pieces were taken; what was I thinking and the questions never stopped. Here I was surrounded by works of artists who I thought to be, by far, my superiors and yet people were interested in my work too. I was treated the way artists want to be treated, like their works were important. I think my appreciation for my own work rose considerably that day.

DH: Have you since, in any way, reconsidered how you frame your own work in terms of being commercial/non-commercial, the subject matter(s), techniques, finished works etc.?

ML: Based on the exhibition, I would say no. I have never really wanted to commercialize my work and still don’t have any great inclination in that direction. The subject matter of my work has always varied. The Oniabo series, being my first seriously curated set, has [put] me on the path of thinking along the lines of projects or series of photographs. Techniques always need adjusting or improving, and in terms of the finished product, that has always been an issue in this digital age, where we think of photographs as pixels on a screen rather than a print. I have been printing more and experimenting with different finishes, but the Oniabo series has always been envisioned as gallery wraps.

DH: Having had this exposure to the international art scene, how would you describe Guyana’s position regarding contemporary photographic exhibitions?

ML: We are still in the infancy stage in Guyana, getting the photographers themselves to approach it as an art form is the stage where many are at, but other than the GVACE and our own smaller VISIONS Exhibition, there are very few avenues other than social media for exposure in terms of displaying to the public. This is something that we have to work on.

DH: What do you think needs to happen to improve Guyana’s position within the arts regionally and further afield?

ML: Throughout history it has always been the arts, visual, performing and literary arts that have defined culturally progressive eras in nations, education needs to be a primary step in this direction, as a people, we have little to no real appreciation of the arts other than popular culture references. While many of the visual arts have people in the field who are not only practicing, but also teaching, photography is not so fortunate, there are now no qualified people in this field, but some who have experience.

DH: This being our 50th year of independence do you think we’re any closer to shaping a Guyanese identity that doesn’t exclude any one group or the other, and doesn’t mimic any foreign cultures?

ML: No, I don’t think so, personal opinion only. I think that instead of preserving our cultures and finding a way to not only move forward as a people but to develop a national identity, we have forgotten much of our past and where our ancestors came from. We have allowed our modern way of life to be influenced too much by the pop culture from North America and the Caribbean. While there’s nothing wrong with assimilating some of this, to have done so at the expense of who we were, are and should be, is a travesty in my eyes.

DH: You’re a part of a relatively young group of photographers who have managed to accomplish quite a few significant achievements so far (even with limitations of space, funding etc.), how do you guys make it work?

ML: I think that since Fidal [Bassier] initiated a group on social media, many of the original set of people who gravitated to the idea are still around, and it is this core that the rest have built upon. Whilst we are still primarily using social media as the primary means of communicating and sharing, the times when we meet face to face are invaluable. We have done less of that lately, but hope to have a resurgence soon. I believe that because even the more experienced people in the group readily admit that they are still learning, and from their work and interaction give evidence of this, the bridge between photographers with various degrees of experience is shorter than it might be otherwise.

DH: How important is it to you to have that fraternity to help propel your own production?

ML: It is easy to be creative in the initial learning stages, when everything is new, and experimentation leads to discoveries and to seemingly new photographs, as time goes on, there is a dry spell, or a period where you don’t feel as creative, that maybe you’re just repeating yourself; having others around who are in the creative phase, as well as having others who are in various stages of this is good, it keeps you grounded to the fact that its just a phase. I myself have stopped my annual Deck Project and let my mind relax this year, I am still shooting, but I have stopped forcing it as I think I did last year.

DH: Anything else you would like to add that I might’ve missed?

ML: With specific reference to the Un|Fixed Homeland Exhibition, I was struck by the fact that the three representatives from Guyana itself were the only ones that used art of photography to produce photography as art, while the artists in the diaspora took it further. I had mentioned to someone recently that looking at the artists there I saw my own works as the bottom rung of a ladder, where I simply take photographs of scenes as I see them, then there are the works of Karran Sahadeo and Khadija Benn who had many pieces that were conceptualized, the scene thought out and sometimes staged. The other artists took photographs and used them as part of a larger concept. It was amazing to see what they did with a simple photograph, and the message that they told differed or spoke more loudly than the original photograph did.