Akima McPherson is a painter and a graduate of the Burrowes' School of Art and University of Guyana
At a time when the atmosphere in Guyana is charged with politics, with questions about security, with concerns about legitimacy, it is nice to be reminded of a Guyana of peace and tranquillity, beauty and quiet industry, and this whilst within the Guyana space. 'Green Land of Guyana,' an exhibition of 106 works (of which 100 are paintings) currently on show at the National Gallery, Castellani House, does precisely this. It affords one ample opportunity to retreat to familiar spaces of calm, of serenity, of order and beauty, of peaceful co-existence with fellow man, nature and circumstance and to places of quiet contemplation. Hence, in a subtle way, the works collectively make a bold statement.
As the title of the exhibition suggests, images of the Guyana landscape are presented as are scenes from pre-Independence/British Guiana. These vary from realistic to wonderfully interpretive and abstract, from city to rural, from expansive space to micro-space, from unspoiled space to space significantly reconfigured by or accommodating of mankind's presence. Many also offer delightful reminders of our cultural heritage embodied within renderings of structures (some now remnant), celebrated natural spaces and other spaces.
It would appear the pre-Independence artists whose works are here included were influenced in their choice of subject matter by subscription to the notion that the function of their art was more suited to recording the images of their epoch. Hence, with their brushes and oils or watercolours, they preserved snippets of their reality for posterity. The result is an evocation of the timelessness of aspects of who we are today.
Consequently, it is a pleasure to see the images by Antrobus, Bowman and Moshett along with those by De Freitas, Sharples and others. The inclusion of The Palms, Lima, Essequibo of ca 1888 by Helen Agard is particularly exciting; Up until now, I had not seen a Guyanese painting dating so far back. Individually and collectively these images give a sense of historical context to scenes we today take for granted, while allowing one's imagination to become activated regarding their contemporaneous social realities.
It would seem, as this and past exhibitions of Independence-era art at the National Gallery have suggested, that in an effort to assert a national identity the artists of the pre-Independence and early Independence eras resorted to landscape. They recorded their times - the everyday and the mundane: the marketplace, quaint wooden structures, the tree-lined avenues, the trees, interior vistas etc - matter-of-factly but with occasional sentimentality. This they did with as much adherence to truth as they could.
These images of identity are wholly based on the Guyana spaces of public access. Occasionally, they are celebratory of simple realities made grand. In this vein, E. R Burrowes's Rice Harvesters,(1962) shows a group of six women in varying postures as they harvest rice. These women dominate their landscape with great ease while engaged in a task which we know to be arduous and nearly endless. Meanwhile, the men in Gordon Welcome's Untitled (Loading Cane), (n d) do not physically dominate the landscape as the women do, yet they too appear as conquerors of their land. Both groups appear in quiet resignation of their circumstance.
This sentiment of viewing and rendering all with respect and imbuing with a sense of the grand is the legacy these early artists passed on to many that followed. This is evident in works such as Between the Trees, (1999) by Angold Thompson and S Hanoman's pen and ink composition, Untitled (Old Houses, Country Yard),(1974).
As we enjoyed nationhood and sought to define our national identity more completely, artists have been inclined to re-presentations of our landscape that are substantial and symbolic. Philip Moore's The Chase,(1970-71) and Sand Koker Trees,(1974-87) in characteristic Moore fashion are meditative and infused with symbolism of an intricate personal dimension.
Influenced by the indigenous cultural presences, many artists sought to re-interpret land in a manner that pays homage to the resonances of these. Drawing no doubt on the indigenous resonances of his ethno-cultural identity and his experiences amongst the Warrau in Hosororo, North West, Aubrey Williams executed Guyana XII,(1964) and Timehri (Rock Drawing),(n d). Both are wonderful reminders of the exemplary colourist Williams was and are filled with a mystery that is characteristic of this the land we all love.
Similarly, Dudley Charles's River Spirit,(1985) is imbued with the mystery and excitement the land evokes. Clearly derived from local mythology and with engaging colour, the image echoes magnificently a theme recurrent in this exhibition: celebration of the majesty of the natural elements. And it is this very aspect of land - its pervasive majesty - that Cyril Kanhai appears to be communicating in his image Green Land of Guyana,(1967) from which this exhibition no doubt derives its title. Kanhai has captured the essence of the untouched natural forest space and in so doing creates a space reminiscent of a metropolis with walls or edifices of green and sudden appearances of other colour. Whereas Ron Savory communicated this aspect realistically in Forest Path, Nightfall,(1996), Kanhai utilizes abstraction.
Winston Strick's leather expressions are, in a word, exquisite. Morning Breeze, (1990) while excellent, hints at the versatility of his skill with this material. His creations are truly special. Habitat, (1989) along with Birds in the Forest,(1987) are bold and individual. Along with the aforementioned works by Aubrey Williams, Dudley Charles and Bernadette Persaud's The End of a Season, (1983), Strick makes the trek to the third flat of the gallery definitely worth it.
There is much to savour within this exhibition. At times the dialogue with the work is simple, at others it is quite profound. Winslow Craig's Discovery, (1989) asserts very boldly the pervasiveness of the indigenous presence. Within a very technically accomplished piece, Craig overtly rejects the notion that anyone other than the indigenous people discovered the mass that came to be Guyana. Meanwhile, ER Burrowes's Guyana Land of the Dolorous Garde, (ca 1951) quietly speaks to refraining from donning the garb of another, imitating another and encourages embracing one's true identity. Its content carries both socio-political and metaphysical implications. Both make terrific pronouncements as they seek to widen our consciousness, the latter being as relevant today as it was when it was painted back in the pre-Independence days.
'Green Land of Guyana,' Landscape and Vision in Guyanese Art opened on May 18 and coincides with our 40th Independence anniversary. The exhibition continues until July 29.