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Sunday, October 16, 2005

Guyanese art and artifacts take centre-stage at British exhibition


A GROUNDBREAKING exhibition highlighting the cultural links between early Amazonian cultures and the flourishing of Caribbean art and identity is now on at the Horniman Museum in south London.

Titled `Amazon to Caribbean: Early Peoples of the Rainforest’, the Horniman exhibition, which is open to the public free of charge and is on display in the museum’s Temporary Exhibition Gallery, opened earlier this month and will run for a year. That is, until Tuesday October 31, 2006.

According to a release from the museum, the exhibition, which is being staged to coincide with the commemoration of Black History Month, “brings together stunning ethnographic and archaeological finds, plus contemporary works of art by renowned Guyanese and Caribbean artists, Aubrey Williams and Oswald Hussain to portray the Amerindian spirit as a force that continues to endure into the 21st century.”

Expertly researched and curated by the museum’s Kenyan-born Head of the Department of Anthropology, Dr. Hassan Arero, the exhibition takes a unique look at the cultural connections between the people of the north Amazon and the shaping of a Caribbean identity, the release said.

These unique cultural links are highlighted in a stunning array of artifacts, many of which have never been displayed, such as colourful feather headdresses, intricately-made jewellery, elaborate hair combs and a collection of exquisitely decorated dance clubs used in Amerindian rituals and celebrations.

Besides the Horniman’s permanent collection, the exhibition also features objects on loan from the British Library, the British Museum and the Natural History Museum amongst other notable archival institutions. In addition, many of the objects on show were acquired during a field research conducted here in Guyana by Dr. Arero at the Wai-Wai village of Masakenyari on the upper Essequibo River, and in the capital, Georgetown, between December 2003 and January 2004.

Amongst pieces on display are a beautifully crafted belt made of the pelt of the jaguar, called a kamarapicho, which item is symbolic of the animal’s mythical value in Amerindian culture, and intricate necklaces made of animals’ teeth which were once worn by community chiefs during important ceremonies.

Representative of the powerful anaconda, another symbolic figure in the Amerindian ethos, is a striking serpentine motif that adorns many of the objects on display such as finely decorated beaded aprons and textiles.

A common belief among the Wai-Wai peoples of Guyana and Brazil is that women are descended from the mythical peoples of the deep, known as the Okoimo Yena, which, when translated, means ‘the Anaconda People’ who are regarded as a powerful force in Amerindian folklore.

Other motifs can be found echoed in the fine examples of basketry, stools, and various objects on display including canoe paddles and ceramic bowls - many of which depict revered local wildlife such as the sloth bear and the scorpion.

‘Amazon to Caribbean’, the release says, displays a range of early ceramic remains that have contributed significantly to the work of archaeologists in understanding pre-Colombian Amerindian society. The carefully decorated remains have also provided the key to tracking the movement of populations between mainland South America and the Caribbean Antilles before and during the arrival of the early-Europeans.

Striking symbolism
In its attempt to examine the complex cosmology and striking symbolism that have formed the fabric of Amerindian societies for generations, the award-winning Forest Hill Museum has put under the spotlight a fascinating array of objects, from the beautifully-crafted wood carvings depicting the three main aspects of Amerindian mythology (the Sky, Earth and Underworld) to an ancient Taino three-pointed stone used by shamans and healers.

Another significant aspect that is common to Amerindian societies, Horniman says in its release, is the universal production and consumption of cassava. An indigenous South American plant that is poisonous if not carefully prepared, the cassava is a tuber that has to be grated in order to remove the toxins.

Demonstrative of the refined craftsmanship involved in the production of by-products from this staple is the number of beautiful wood graters featured in the exhibition, which also represent an enduring tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation.

The exhibition finally highlights the valuable contribution Amerindian culture has made to the world and reveals how the origins of the words tobacco and hammock have made their way into everyday English usage.

As Horniman Museum’s Director, Ms Janet Vitmayer observed:

“The cultural links between the north Amazon and the Caribbean Antilles is a relatively unexplored subject, and I am delighted to offer our visitors the opportunity to discover an exciting new perspective on Amerindian culture.”

‘Amazon to Caribbean’, she said, “is a fitting grand finale to the Africa 05 celebrations at the Horniman and reveals a vibrant culture that still endures in the face of immense cultural, political and social change.”

And British entertainer, ‘Sting’, who is a patron of Horniman’s, is quoted as saying:

“As indigenous cultures around the world face increasing challenges to their unique cultural heritage and way of life, the opening of ‘Amazon to Caribbean’ at the Horniman cannot be more timely. I am honoured to support this bold exhibition, giving Amerindian peoples an enduring voice which refuses to be silenced and highlights the survival of their cultures in a rapidly transforming world.”

According to the release, “the exhibition comes at a time when Amerindian festivals are experiencing a resurgence in parts of the Caribbean and mainland South America.”

In the Caribbean for instance, the Caribs at Santa Rosa in east Trinidad are reviving their cultural heritage, whilst Puerto Rico has experienced an increased interest in the Taino traditions. Mention was also made of the designation of the month of September as Amerindian Heritage Month.

‘Amazon to Caribbean’ is being funded by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) through its Renaissance in the Regions Scheme, Designation Challenge Fund and Arts Council.

It was inspired by the more than 300 Amerindian artifacts acquired by the Horniman Museum from the British explorers PS Peberdy and Nicholas Guppy during their expeditions in the 1950s and 60s, which fact led Dr. Arero, who, at just 34, has the distinction of being the first black to have ever been appointed curator to a British museum, to undertake a three-week research into the way of life of the Wai-Wai Peoples.

Said he: “I wanted to find out if there were ways of using the ethnographic, archeological and contemporary artifacts in the Horniman collection to tell a wider story of the cultural links between Caribbean and mainland South America.”

Guyana focus
As such, he said: “My focus was on Guyana, the only English-speaking country in South America that represents a point of confluence between the Caribbean and South American cultures.”

The aim of his first sojourn here in May 2003, was to research Amerindian cultures at museums and organisations around the capital, Georgetown, where he met Hussain, one of several contemporary Amerindian artists who at the time was “working to create art that celebrates and reconnects the Arawak community with their indigenous roots.” The dramatic centre-piece at the entrance of the exhibition is a fitting example of the kind of work he turns out.

One of the striking things that Arero found during the three weeks he spent here is the fact that contemporary artists in Guyana and the Caribbean are heavily influenced by Amerindian cultures, so much so that many of the striking motifs representing their complex belief system now adorn the many works of art from the region. He also found that there was a renewed interest in Arawak culture among the Amerindians themselves, despite the many cultural challenges they faced from missionaries bent on converting them to Christianity and the advent of modernity.

But, it was not until his return in December 2004 that Arero was finally able to gain permission from the Guyana Government to venture into the ‘interior’, as the Guyanese hinterland is called in local parlance, arriving by a specially chartered light aircraft.

As he recalled: “On arrival, the chief of the village (Touchau) met us. After introducing ourselves, I was amazed to hear that Chief Chekema’s father worked with Nicholas Guppy during his research expedition in the late 50s.”

He had been looking forward to attend the traditional Wai-Wai ceremony, Shodewika, a pre-Christmas activity in which the men celebrate after a successful two-week hunt, but was to be disappointed as he had arrived too late.

To make amends, Arero was invited to a culture night organised by the Chief to show him just how much fun he had missed out on. He recalled being “painted with striking Wai-Wai patterns from natural red paint and adorned with Harpy Eagle feathers before being presented with armlets and a feather headdress, [and that] after being applauded for undergoing such a drastic transformation, took part in a stylised dance, [during which he was] offered a palm drink from a vast aluminium container that was passed on to the next person.”

As he recounted: “The chief, who was also painted and wore a feather headdress, asked me in Wai-Wai what my name was. I replied: ‘Oyosoti Hassan (My name is Hassan)’. At which point he said that I was to be know as Kaiwana (The Sun Fish) and, that as an honorary Wai-Wai, was welcome to live with them if I wished. He then asked me what my name was again, and I replied: Oyosoti Kaiwana!’”

Describing the moment as one of the highlights of his time spent living with the Wai-Wais, Arero said: “The remaining days were occupied by interviews and documenting various aspects of Wai-Wai culture,” and that “through an exchange of goods, I was able to acquire a number of items for the exhibition, including one cassava grater, a beautiful beaded apron, ceremonial belts, and blow pipes among other things.”

He said that after a moving farewell, he left wondering how the village would cope with the increasing challenge to their cooperative and traditional ways of Amerindian life. A village lad himself, having been born and raised in Kenya’s Nyandarua District, Arero said: “I knew from observing the youth that change was inevitable, but hoped that such change need not eclipse the Wai-Wai’s sustainable and unique way of life.”

A graduate of the Institute of African Studies, University of Nairobi and Chevening Fellow, Arero once worked as Collections Administrator with the National Museum of Kenya, and holds a Masters in Advanced Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas and a Doctorate in Social Anthropology.

Currently a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute and a board member of the UK-based International Council of Museums, he had contributed to numerous publications and research papers published by organisations such as the British Museum Press, the national Museums of Kenya, and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

He is quoted as saying once: From an early age, I have been fascinated by world cultures and how they adapt to change – especially in the light of globalisation and the challenge it poses to marginalised communities around the world. The evolution of cultural identity on both global and local scale is also a huge area of interest to me, and this has manifested itself in an exciting new exhibition exploring Amerindian heritage and the shaping of Caribbean culture.”

(www.guyanachronicle.com)

Posted by jebratt :: Sunday, October 16, 2005 :: 0 comments

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