Thursday, September 29, 2005
THE SUSTAINABLE IN ART...
Essay by Stanley Greaves
(Stabroek News May 9th, 1999)
This essay on the sustainable in art is about the role of concepts in the productions of two Guyanese artists, and to a much lesser extent about the protection of the physical product as well.
To use a term borrowed from the Japanese that has had world wide applications, I would like to refer to two paintings in particular in the National Collection as "National Treasures". These are "The Human World" (1950) by Dennis Williams (1923-98) and, "Guyana, Land of the Dolorous Guard" (1961) by Edward Burrowes (1903-66). Here are two works addressing the same issue but from different points of view. The issue being - "The Condition of Man" - which is the title of a most enlightening book by Lewis Mumford that should be required reading for all of us dealing with effects of the material and ideological constructs of Western Civilizations on the rest of the world.
It is not the intention of this essay therefore, to attempt a detailed critical analysis of the paintings involving technical, aesthetic and thematic concerns. An effort will be made to indicate the intentions, as I see them, underlying the production of these works. It is therefore a question of addressing particular issues presented by the artists, of which we are afforded clues in the titles.
While a work of art has an existence as a thing in its own right and has to be viewed as such, it also has to be put into the context of the time in which it was created. The exercise in appreciation can be extended seeing that the thematic content may have applications further along in time. It is at this level when a work seems to stand outside of linear time, when its relevance-technical mastery included - seems to stand for all time, that we begin to think of it as being a masterwork.
It is my contention that the two paintings being considered fall into this category as far as the Art of Guyana is concerned. It is fitting therefore, that the two artists mentioned represent sterling and significant contributions made to art in Guyana from the perspectives of education and an administration. Contributions made in spite of the severe limitations under which they had to work. Limitations of a financial nature as well as the general failure to recognise the spiritual and intellectual power of art.
Burrowes and Williams fortunately shared the notion that the practice of art was evidence of man's humanity and was therefore something that had to be sustained. That it unquestionably had a dimension to add to the national ethos was an additional central feature of their activities. The question of appropriations of artistic concepts and techniques was secondary to that concern. Appropriations represented a methodology and were not the subject matter itself of art.
Burrowes in 1948 founded the Working People' s Art Class (WPAC) and the mission of this exercise was to encourage the working class to pay attention to the necessity of developing latent talent. This he felt strongly was not the prerogative only of the upper social classes. While this idea unfortunately was not sustainable in the long run, that of dealing with the education of individual aspiring artists was. It was from his endeavours in this field - 1948 to 1960 - that the title of "Father of Art" was conferred on him by his students and admirers.
Dennis Williams for his part continued the mission of providing an education in art by establishing an Art School in 1975 through the ministry of Education and Culture, naming it after Burrowes. The idea was to provide a higher visibility for artistic practice as well as to sustain and extend the efforts of Burrowes at national level.
Williams' struggle for greater recognition for artists enjoyed some successes and some reversals as well. Among the former was the establishment of public art in the form of monuments - the 1763 Monument, designed by Phillip Moore, erected in Georgetown in 1976; the memorial to the "Enmore Martyrs", designed by Williams himself and Cletus Henriques, erected at Enmore in 1977; the "Damon Monument", designed by Ivor Thom, erected at Anna Regina in 1988. The final achievement being the housing of the National Collection in 1993 at Castellani House. In an attempt to promote excellence in the visual arts Williams tried to institute a prestigious award for Art along the lines of the present Guyana Literary Prize. This has not materialized to date.
For me personally in 1956, the arrival in Guyana of Williams' "Human World"(1950) - which had graced the cover page of the prestigious Time Magazine - signaled the presence of great art in the land. Until that moment we had not been exposed to art of that scale of execution in form and content.
We were accustomed to works on a smaller scale (cabinet paintings), and thematic content of a comfortable nature like landscapes and figurative work that did not require much interpretation.
Apart from the size of Williams' work, one had to deal with the content as signified by a title which suggested a world wide application but whose figurative images had a Caribbean aspect but were given a background that was distinctly not of the Caribbean. There were those in the WPAC like Donald Locke and Rex Walcott who were attempting work of some complexity but nothing really to be compared with "Human World". Works of imagination, complexity and technical competence were still some distance away.
"Human World" was ceremoniously taken out of its crate by Burrowes in the art room of Queen' s College one bright Sunday morning in 1956. A small group of WPAC members and Dr. Frank Williams, waiting with suppressed excitement, bore witness to the event. Dr. Williams represented the committee of persons who provided the funds for the repatriation of the work. The Committee felt that it was around this work that the National collection could and should be organised. It was an idea that has had its moments backward and forward in time but which has survived to its present, hopefully irreversible, form as an institution.
In the painting we saw a group of people of Caribbean origin standing in a location easily identifiable as industrial and metropolitan. Questions arose as to what were they doing so far away removed from the support afforded by their own culture, whatever its weaknesses. The answers contained elements that were relevant then and equally so now, and some elements that were not.
Willingness to exist as an immigrant in a foreign country hoping for a better life is still with us. The notion of the UK as the "Mother Country" with ideas of subservience, is now of course something of the historic past. The USA has taken the lead as the land of opportunity.
One curious fact was that in the painting none of the figures were Europeans, as should have been expected. Their presence however was symbolised by the architecture of the background. They had been replaced by "aliens" which in the context of today is a worst case scenario in European Countries.
Even though surrounded by a foreign culture which would dominate his perceptions, the artist felt the necessity to show some concern for fellow nationals living in the same situation. One begins to see the play between his Guyanese/Caribbean heritage and that of the foreign British culture in which he lived. There were other related considerations.
In the 1950's, even with a burgeoning nationalism heralded by the PPP, the influence of British culture in Guyana was so strong that an identifiable Guyanese culture was still under siege. It meant therefore that regardless of where Burrowes and Williams lived they came under the same influences, except that in Williams' case at the time it was total. One can therefore appreciate the context in which Williams placed his figures. He was inhabiting that same space himself and his major problem would have been the manner in which his work would be viewed by the British. The figures in "Human World" would have been recognised as part of the London scene. They were, an alien "exotic" presence that did not assume then, what could be perceived rightly or wrongly as threatening proportions now, but a presence which had the potential to do so later. This vision, nearly sixty years later, is now confirmed as we are aware of the crises caused by increasing numbers of dark skinned immigrants living in European countries. In a sense this reading of the work continues to infer that as "they" are here to stay some dynamic of reasonable social conduct has to be put in place. This is two way traffic. Artist Williams had to react to foreign influences under which he lived and the British viewer also to react to the presence of foreigners in his midst as proposed by Williams' painting, as well as by the presence of Williams' himself.
Whereas his concern for the existence of Caribbean people in a foreign context and their need to retain a certain cohesiveness was central to "Human World", this consideration was not reflected in the literary works of fellow Guyanese Edgar Mittelholtzer and Wilson Harris in London. In their case the scene of action was uncompromisingly Guyanese. The exploration of the Guyanese ethos was a primary concern. One would have expected a certain unity of theme between artist and writer if it was not brought to mind that the artist relates to the world as seen and experienced daily in a one to one visual relationship. This comparison between artist and writer was also compounded by a problem well stated by Williams in two prescient statements" The West Indian writer did not go to Britain to learn how to write: what he was after was recognition... West Indian painters by contrast, practising an intrusive and historically recent art, did not enjoy a similar assurance: they knew next to nothing about the Renaissance and its aftermath. They knew nothing at all about the Academies. Thus they most certainly went to Britain to learn." I would most certainly add that they did have notions about recognition as well.. This is partly the reason why both Williams himself and Donald Locke returned to Britain after a period of study.
My own personal experiences in Britain substantiates Williams' arguments, but armed with the knowledge of the experiences of himself and Aubrey Williams I was under no illusions at all about what being recognised in the Metropolis entailed. Added to this was another of his statements. "They went to art schools, endured absurd and irrelevant curricula, steeped themselves in an overwhelming History of art, fed their inferiority concepts in great metropolitan galleries..." These as well were my own experiences which forced me to be extremely careful in evaluating my own position particularly in the light of my own "inferiority concepts". These had to be reviewed if I was to make more sense of them. Some artists like Patrick Barrington of the WPAC did not survive. How could he when he was specifically a landscape artist of Guyanese orientation. In spite of my saying so it takes some courage coming from Guyana and confronting the work of the giants of European art to summon up the courage to persist in what Williams calls "...an intrusive and historically recent art..." In a conversation with him I was told that no matter how well you performed as an artist you were made to feel that you really did not understand what you were doing. The considerations and experiences of all that was stated above most certainly informed the establishment of the Burrowes School of Art and the Division of Creative Arts at the University of Guyana where the question of relevance determined what was to be taught.
Returning to the relationship between artist and writer, it would have been rather strange to be engaged in rendering visual and social experiences of Guyana while living in London, as Barrington must have discovered. This formula for frustration still being applied by some Caribbean born artists in metropolitan cities can never really be convincing for obvious reasons. There is no relationship between the work and the context in which it is being produced and examined. In my estimation the real content of Williams' work was being ignored or missed completely by the artist/critic Wyndham Lewis. It seems that "Human World" like some of his other figurative work evoked the inevitable cliched responses that alluded to his colonial status..."because of the empire-building propensities of the Briton of yesterday, he (Williams) is British..." and to the exotic... "But the jungle is there in the background...and it obsesses the pictures he paints, existing like an atmosphere about the symbolic figures...". There were more comments of this nature but little of any significance to say about the actual content of the work apart from it being classified as "symbolic socialism". Aubrey Williams was given practically the same treatment, but unlike Dennis Williams he elected to stay and endure. While "Human World" came out of the consciousness of a Guyanese artist it does not seem at first to be directly concerned about issues relevant to life in Guyana itself. When however one considers the question of migration as an issue of life in Guyana, the relevance reveals itself. The meaning of the work is certainly sustained. It is here in the area of sustained meanings that the power of both Williams and Burrowes is revealed. This is the power of art.
Burrowes' self appointed mission as a teacher came after his achievements as an artist in Guyana in the 1930-40's which earned him a reputation of a master of genre painting - recording the lives of the people of Guyana as well as the coastal landscape. After two British Council Scholarships abroad he still maintained his direction to the everlasting benefit to individuals like myself and others.
It is this deep sustained concern for things Guyana that made me refer to him as a Guyanese. His painting "Guyana, Land of the Dolorous Guard" exerted an even more powerful influence on my own work than "Human World" because of the strength of its symbolism. It is an influence that has remained and has been the singular motivation for my present on-going series of political paintings (there are eleven to date) entitled "There Is A Meeting Here Tonight".
Like "Human World", Burrowes' painting is commenting on humanity, but in this ease he is commenting on the political scene in Guyana as he saw it in 1960-61. My first reaction on seeing the work was to ask myself why the bleakness and fatalism, why the overpowering sense of unrelenting doom. Although much smaller in size than "Human World", its spiritual power to my mind is stronger because of the specific reference to Guyana.
Like the Williams' painting, the reading of the Burrowes seems to span time and has a significance that is still frighteningly relevant to the present political scene in Guyana. It is the most prophetic work on this topic by far in the National Collection, and it should be registering as well in the National consciousness.
Our political leaders would be well advised to go have a real close look at that work. While it is presenting a message of total despair it is paradoxically also saying that one should recognise what is taking place and do something positive about the situation. The reading of this symbolic painting should be straightforward for Guyanese people whom Williams always referred to as "spirit people". We can all say who the figures in suits walking the tight rope are. The same is true of those crawling on the ground and the single figure hiding his head in the sand. The recommendation to the political leaders is also extended to the Guyanese people because it is only through "meaningful dialogue" between the two that a solution will be found for the problems set out by Burrowes thirty years ago.
I know only too well that to date it is only lip service that has been paid to the visual statements of our artists. Their achievements have not been responded to as having the same power and relevance as writers.
The problem is that their work has not been regarded as having intellectual content and power. This is something that artists themselves will have to face up to and strive for their efforts to be recognised. Just before his death in an attempt to redress this situation and to attract work of rigour and power, Williams, as mentioned earlier had been working on a plan to institute as substantial a prize for art as that for writers. The question is will his plan still be considered.
A comparison between the two paintings being discussed demonstrates, on the part of the artists, an awareness of and concern for the state of the human condition. This is something sustainable because people have always been interested in other people. Where Williams has pointed to the problems of the migrant, Burrowes has focused on the problems at home and therefore between them have set the parameters for further enquiries extending the theme - the human condition.
In the two paintings we are witnessing a production that was based on a sensitive scrutiny of two societies. The subject matter was not about technical prowess or style as is so often the case these days. Having these paintings in the National collection has certainly created a condition for sustained interest in human affairs, and by so doing certainly allows for a wider participation by artists and viewers alike in mutual concerns of an existential nature. There is material existing at all levels for the continuity of relevant artistic production. We no longer have to look abroad in a total manner as in previous generations for a sense of direction.
Artists can either refute or sustain arguments of previous generations of artists or generate the energy for discoveries of their own, as in the contemporary works of Bernadette Persaud, Dudley Charles, George Simon and Oswald Hussein, thus adding to our own home grown values, to the National consciousness...to what Williams refers to in art as the "Guyana School". We must therefore recognise the living link between artist and society as exemplified by the two works "Human World" and "Guyana Land of the Dolorous Guard" and not think of them as only belonging to a museum - a place that is often mistakenly thought of as presenting "dead things".
It will be the function of the national Collection to see that the values incorporated in these and other works are kept alive and made to function in the society through educational programmes aimed not only at schools but at the population as a whole. It is a function of the Guyana Government as well to see that private institutions give support to the maintenance and protection of the National Collection as a national asset.
Williams is on record as saying that we do not have great art in Guyana. An art of heroic proportions and grand themes I expect is what he meant. These are things that arise out of the historic accomplishments of a people or nation. Given the nature of artistic production here, as well as in some other Caribbean territories, he may well have a point. I am prepared to argue however, that although we may not have great art in Guyana we do have art of significance which we need to employ in a sustained manner as a resource towards the development of the nation.
(Courtesy of http://www.landofsixpeoples.com & http://www.stabroeknews.com/)
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Thursday, September 29, 2005 ::
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