By Dominique Hunter
The National Gallery of Art on February 18 opened its doors and welcomed patrons to ‘Circa 1970’ The Crossroads in celebration of Guyana’s 46th Republic Anniversary.The exhibition, as the title suggests, marks a particular shift in our country’s cultural, political and economical position within the region. This shift was characterized by a spirit of nationalization that swept across the country as we stepped out of colonization and into independence. Now before I continue, I think it’s important that I make a disclaimer. This is not so much a review as it is a retelling of my thoughts after viewing the latest installation of artwork at Castellani House, within the scope of my art education and local art history. I make the distinction because I don’t think I’m yet qualified to unpack the weighty history and profound implications of the works on display, far less to propose new readings of them. However, I can offer my perspective as a 21st century female art practitioner living and working in Guyana.
This exhibition reiterated a long held opinion of mine that circa 1970 was arguably the best period of art production in Guyana, for a number of reasons. After the country gained independence, the government at the time went to great lengths to carve out something we never had before – an identity of our own that wasn’t shaped by the British.
In the process, our most creative minds were called upon to produce various representations of iconic persons and events within our local culture. In fact, quite a lot of our national monuments were unveiled during the independence period (Independence Arch – 1966; Umana Yana – 1972; Non Aligned Monument – 1972; African Liberation Monument – 1974; the 1763 Monument – 1976; Enmore Martyrs’ Monument – 1977).
After the public installation of these monuments, the need to protect and maintain these cultural markers became top priority. As a result, the National Trust of Guyana was established in 1972 following the National Trust Act No. 7, with a mandate to “make provision for the preservation of monuments, sites, places and objects of historic interest or national importance.”
Even the Caribbean Festival of Arts commonly known as CARIFESTA had its inaugural launch in 1972 right here on our shores. Indeed, this was a time when creative practitioners, their vision and the fruits of their labour were held in the highest regard.
The exceptionally high quality of work was not just limited to our sculptors of the time. Many of our most accomplished painters including Aubrey Williams, Stanley Greaves and Philip Moore (just to name a few) were actively producing and exhibiting work during this period. And while the three names mentioned were included in this exhibition, I was disappointed to see that of the thirty-one artists represented I could only identify three women (Marjorie Broodhagen, Leila Locke and Judy Drayton).
There is no doubt that men largely dominated the post-independence art production in Guyana and were given recognition accordingly. However, that is not to say that female practitioners were few in number, quite the opposite in fact. It was the commitment of Golde White, a female Barbadian artist, that was the catalyst for a number of artist-led initiatives in the 1930s and onward (including the formation of the Art and Craft Society of British Guiana in 1931 and the Guyana Women Artists’ Association much later on in 1987). The 1988 publication titled “60 Years of Women Artists in Guyana 1928-1988, A Historical Perspective” by the Guyana Women Artists’ Association lists 121 women artists who produced work during those 60 years. So there was hardly a shortage in that regard.
In many ways I find myself envious of creative practitioners who would’ve worked during that period. I always marvel at how much they were able to accomplish given the limitations of the time.
It points to a certain level of commitment towards nation building as a collective. Fast-forward decades later to the 21st century and we just can’t seem to get it right, even with all the modern conveniences at our disposal. We live in a self-obsessed and self-driven society that no longer appreciates the value of combined effort.
We are strangers regurgitating the same ideas in isolated pockets spread across Guyana with no real connection to each other, no sense of community and no apparent desire for change. And I often wonder about the ‘why’ in this situation. Why is it that we have regressed? Looking back now one thing stands out immediately: most of the serious practicing artists were mature (older) folks who understood and accepted that any creative undertaking acted as a mirror, reflecting the sensibilities of the society at that particular time. And what’s more, they understood the importance of keeping that mirror clean.
But there might be hope yet. As we wrap up our Mashramani festivities in preparation for the much-anticipated Independence hoopla, one can only hope that the surge in national pride is sustained long after the celebrations would’ve ended.
And that this renewed appreciation for our beloved country would inspire us to work towards re-establishing our position in regional art and culture. While we wait I encourage everyone to take time to view ‘Circa 1970’ The Crossroads at Castellani House. It is truly a beautiful display of works by some of our greatest and most accomplished artists. The exhibition continues until 26th March.
Dominique Hunter is an independent visual artist who recently graduated from the Barbados Community College with a Bachelor of Fine Art (First Class Honours).