Recently, I sat down with Karran Sahadeo, a Guyanese born overseas-based photographer and designer whose works were recently included in the Un|Fixed Homeland exhibition at the Aljira Center for Contemporary Art in Newark, New Jersey, alongside photographs from twelve other artists of Guyanese heritage. We spoke about his uncertain recollections of “home”, his return to Guyana after 24 years, the value of the immigrant experience and his involvement in the steady progression of local photographic exhibitions.
Dominique Hunter: You submitted four very distinct photographs with varying styles to the Un|Fixed Homeland exhibition. Why those images?
Karran Sahadeo: These photographs to me are so normal but at the same time so brand new and abnormal. I left Guyana when I was four but I remember when I was in Uitvlugt my mother would place diyas and they would cover the whole house. When I was there I saw Christmas lights go up. They would do it [place diyas] but it wasn’t the same intensity as I remembered. So it made me wonder if these memories are even real or if it’s just something that I built up over time and idealized, romanticized.
All of the photographs are basically that: My idea of Guyana, what I have in my mind, growing up with my family, the traditions that we kept when we left and how we adapted to the new surroundings when we brought those traditions with us. I think that’s what those photographs are. The one with me in the bedroom [Untitled (Blue)] was probably the first photograph I took when I came back to Guyana. It was a bit of a shell shock. I noticed right away that as much as Guyana seems to be trapped in time with certain aspects, when it comes to technology everyone is pretty much up to date.
DH: You spoke of your memories of Guyana as opposed to when you came here and the disconnect that followed. A lot of the critique directed at diaspora artists is that they don’t share the same lived experiences and that what they attempt to recreate and label as the “Guyana experience” is not exactly true or authentic. In an exhibition like this when you have so many other artists responding to ideas of “homeland” you tend to get some push back from artists living here saying things like, “You don’t have the authority to comment on this because either you haven’t lived here or been here in so long.” Have you encountered that and if you have, how did you respond to that?
KS: I can see why that is a critique but at the same time there is something about the immigrant experience. The majority of the people that left were fleeing basically, that’s what it was. They all left around the same period between the 70s and the 90s. So they were fleeing the country and I think there is something about that. You’re not willfully leaving. You’re not going because you don’t think Guyana is great. You’re kind of being ripped away from it. So when you leave, you take whatever you can of Guyana with you and I think that’s very, very authentic. Some aspects of that might even be more authentic than what is happening in Guyana itself.
When Grace [Ali] first came to Guyana to speak to photographers there was a lot of chatter like “Who does she think she is?” and “She left for so long. She doesn’t understand it and she’s trying to make this exhibition about Guyana.” But the exhibition really isn’t about that. It’s trying to pull away from the cliché shots of Guyana. I think what’s unfortunate and what I tried to address while I was there is that I don’t think Guyanese photographers living in Guyana show Guyana. I think they go for these really beautiful shots and they ignore certain aspects of the country [even though] I think they have a lot of brilliant material. You have guys like Nikhil [Ramkarran] and Avinash [Richards] who are doing amazing work. I feel like the other guys are taking these really nice seawall shots and if you turn a few degrees to the right or left you would see this mound of garbage that they ignored on purpose. That was one of the things Grace mentioned. When you Google Guyana, you see photographs of Kaieteur Falls and that’s basically it. And that’s not the reality.
Outside of Guyana, photography is almost the method of fine art nowadays: Photography, video and installation works. That is fine art. But in Guyana, it’s completely opposite. People think just because they have a camera, anyone can do it. But we worked hard against that. That’s why we had those photography sessions at Moray House where people would just come and show others what they’re doing. More important than that, was speaking to them about it, telling them why they’re doing it and why this is important. I believe that’s when the art aspect comes in. But as far as fine art in photography, it has a long way to go in Guyana.
DH: You mentioned the local Facebook photography group, Guyana Photographers. I know that you guys were doing a lot of work at one point and you were very active in that process. How important was it for you to have that fraternity and support system?
KS: It was very important. Right before I left, I remember I told Mike that if it weren’t for them then I probably wouldn’t have stayed in Guyana as long as I did. And I definitely would not have done the work that I did or took the photographs that I did because I wouldn’t have felt like there was a reason to. Meeting those guys and talking to them made me realize that what I was doing would be understood, would have meaning and would have some sort of an impact. If it weren’t for them I probably wouldn’t have stayed six months in Guyana let alone two and a half years.
DH: You were the driving force behind the Visions exhibition. How was that experience?
KS: I think Visions was great. I was very surprised at how it turned out. I did not expect it to be as successful as it was but that was partly because of the circumstances the exhibition came out of and because of what happened with Capture Guyana, which was what we were supposed to do with the Ministry of Education. It was supposed to be a change in the way photography exhibitions were done in Guyana.
Prior to this, photographers would have to do all of the work. It would be up to them to print and frame the work, and the curators would just choose and display. That was done in the previous Capture Guyana and the GVACE [Guyana Visual Art Competition & Exhibition] a few years ago. What I had envisioned for Capture Guyana was that it would be democratic. Everybody would’ve submitted an image and we would’ve printed and framed it for them.
What I didn’t like about GVACE was that it came down to who had the most expendable income to put towards this. So the person with the bigger prints, which might not have been as good technically as the person with the smaller prints, commanded more attention because they were bigger. I wanted to move away from that, to make it more democratic. But it came down to the fact that government didn’t want to pay for that kind of stuff so the project was nixed.
So when Mike and I decided to go on our own to do Visions we had to scale it back a lot because the original budget for Capture Guyana was, I think, $2,000,000. When we decided to do it ourselves, we didn’t have that kind of money. We got it down between $150,000 and $200,000. We had some sponsorship too, which was nice. But it still had the underlying concept where it was about making these exhibitions democratic. With Visions it was about taking the control back from government resources. Art, as you know, is very dependent on government in Guyana. Visions was the first [photographic] one that had nothing to do with the government at all.
DH: Even the way the exhibition was mounted was very unlike anything that has ever come out of Guyana. A lot of times curators or persons in curatorial positions get lazy and just stick things on the wall without really thinking about activating the space, which is what I think you guys did really well. And that it came from a very young group of photographers who were thinking about context and engaging with the bigger picture was really refreshing.
So what’s on the table for you right now? What can we expect to see from you in the future?
KS: Right now I don’t have anything in the pipeline but I can tell you what I’m noticing in my photography work. I’ve been in Guyana for two and a half years and I got accustomed to a certain lifestyle there. So trying to reintegrate into North America is a little weird. I’m starting to notice these similarities from Toronto to Uitvlugt and I’m quite amazed by it because I didn’t notice them the other way around. I’m seeing similarities here that are in Guyana. I’m trying to look at those connections. I’m going back through my old work to see if I can do diptychs perhaps of photographs from today versus photographs from a year or two ago, of the same thing just slightly different.