The politics of shaping a cultural identity (Pt. 4)
In his June 5th, 1966 article “Can our writers and artists live up to Burnham’s dreams?” P.H Daly, in a column for the Guyana Graphic, gave a rather grim outlook of the creative arts in Guyana, following what should’ve been a much more successful Caribbean conference of scholars hosted the previous month at Queen’s College.
While addressing the “staggering tonnage of pointless inanities” in their presentations Daly underscored the failure of the artists and writers to put forward a practical plan for the development of a “Caribbean personality,” with the creative arts at its foundation. In fact, it seemed that the most feasible vision came, not from the creative participants invited from all over the region, but from someone whose role in that conference might have been gravely under estimated.
Daly wrote, “Though the artists did not appear to have in their minds any clear image of the Caribbean – Guyanese personality which, by right of their genius, it is their job to fashion, the Prime Minister, Mr. Burnham, surprised me at the sharpness and clarity of his vision of the personality which should be fashioned.
Mr. Burnham communicated to us what he called his dream – Burnham’s Dream. It was the very blueprint which the pragmatic limitations of the artists had made them fail to conjure. Mr. Burnham said:
– I dream of literature inspired by the peculiar temperament of the West Indian artist.
– I dream of paintings inspired by the tropical jungle of Guyana and the beautiful waters of the Caribbean.
– I dream of sculptures depicting the forms of our forefathers.
– I dream of research in art forms, of artists being capable of borrowing from the Europeans without slavishly imitating them.”
Indeed, it seemed “the statesman stole the artists’ thunder.” But Daly also pointed to a number of issues that were ultimately responsible for the artists’ inability to make any meaningful contribution to the cultural discourse at the time. Two such being the absence of historical paintings from the independence exhibition, which he chalked up to the artists’ ignorance of their nation’s history, and their dependence on validation from “outside”.
Daly went on to say, “Until this narrow vision is replaced by spaciousness of thought and a restlessly enquiring mind, the Guyanese personality will never be fashioned. […] If the artist is to be free to contribute to the development of the Guyanese personality in art, he has got to be free, not only from ideological commitment to the East and West, but free from the patronizing applause of a foreign audience.”
During the lengthy process of gathering information for this series I was fortunate enough to find a copy of A.J Seymour’s cultural policy proposal, which was published by UNESCO in 1977. His was a very concisely laid out plan for the shaping of a cultural identity that catered to the inclusion of every Guyanese citizen. In addition to establishing the scope of work to be done and the methodologies that would allow for a relatively “smooth” implementation, Seymour reiterated the value of having such a cultural policy in the first place, particularly in the post-independence period.
He wrote, “The revolution cannot sustain its momentum without an ever deepening apprehension of national identity. For the artists of Guyana, the revelation of a national identity is the most revolutionary possibility that exists. The Guyana man has to re-create himself in his own image as an indispensable basis on which to realize the image of a national identity.”
Seymour also cited the “interrelated framework of politics, economics, religion, education and mass media created by those who controlled Guyana and who established institutions to maintain this control” as being the source of what he referred to as “practices of cultural exploitation.” This reinforces the idea that any shift towards an inclusive national or cultural identity must start from the head (of state), and that continuity, regardless of any change of government, is crucial to the development and sustainability of any such undertaking.
“Guyanese society is still highly vulnerable to external forces, for example, the influences of pop music and films, and the intrusive power of the transnational corporations.
“As Guyanese citizens are trained overseas for the new positions available in society, their attitudes are sometimes influenced negatively by the values inculcated abroad.
“All these factors point to the importance of the government’s decision that a new international economic order must be established which will remove the present economic stranglehold and give effect to the new spirit of independence being expressed in Third World countries.”
It is sad indeed that Seymour’s words could’ve been written today and still be applicable to our current situation. But there might be a glimmer of hope yet. Recently there has been a renewed interest in the formation of Guyana’s cultural policy. It seems to come in waves of fifty-year increments. Maybe if we wish hard enough we could actually make some real progress in the next fifty years before “they” (whoever they are at the time) realize that the work started in 1966 should be completely undone. After all, Guyanese seem to have a penchant for throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
There is quite a lot of material already available for us to speed up this process of shaping a “Guyanese personality” as Daly described it. In so many cases the work has already been done. To my knowledge there were cultural policy submissions/proposals by the late Dr. Denis Williams as well as Barrington Braithwaite. It is very possible that there are even more, locked away in unmarked boxes in an old office somewhere. Regardless, there is absolutely no excuse for any delayed implementation, fifty years after the fact. We shouldn’t still be in meetings, having the same discussions all over again. We should be seeing evidence of that work now. More than enough time has passed.
(Points of Departure is a four part series inspired by the pre-independence writings of several columnists of the then Guiana Graphic. The series is intended to reflect on key areas of cultural development and planning that were in discussions leading up the country’s departure from its British colonizer. As the name suggests, those discussions will be used as indicators to track the initial course of ideas proposed by thinkers of the time to present day realities.)