The new Amerindian force in Guyanese art Sunset Birds III

By Alim A. Hosein
Stabroek News
September 30, 2001

Unlike the imagery suggested by the title of their most recent exhibition, the work of the local Amerindian artists seems to be growing from strength to strength. Their latest exhibition, Sunset Birds III at Castellani House (on show until October 6), features only 3 of the Amerindian artists, but the work is of uniformly high standard and is diverse though rooted in a common culture.

Sunset Birds III should be of more than passing significance since it marks ten years of consistent, high quality and eye-opening formal displays of artwork from local Amerindians. The first big show in which Amerindians announced themselves as possessors of a distinct and well-developed artistic vision was the Exhibition of Contemporary Amerindian Art in May 1991 at the Hadfield Gallery. Previous to this, George Simon was the most visible artist of Amerindian origin, although others such as Adam Azaire and Guy Marco had begun to display work in ceramics and painting respectively. A tutor in Fine Art at the University of Guyana and the Burrowes School of Art, Simon's paintings were influenced by his training in print-making, and by contemporary European traditions in painting. However, it was Simon who actively encouraged and assisted other Amerindians in producing the exhibition at the Hadfield in 1991. These artists worked in a more native vein than Simon, and his later work also began to draw more purely from his Amerindian heritage.

Black Tobacco Spirit by Oswald Hussein

This tentative but ground-breaking exhibition was followed by a powerful show at Castellani House in 1995. This exhibition helped to concretise the presence of Amerindians as artists on the local scene.

Another important exhibition was the "Six Lokono Artists" exhibition at the Venezuelan Cultural Centre in June 1998. Subtitled "Artists for the Environment" this exhibition was far from a buzzword show, but was another exciting display of the richness of Amerindian art. In this exhibition, the artists, as though now confident enough to assent their identity, announced themselves as "Lokono" which is the original name of the Arawak people.

Over the years, a number of Amerindians have participated in the various exhibitions, but have not maintained a consistent presence in the art scene. Artists such as Linus Clenkien, Foster Simon, Roland Taylor, Telford Taylor and Edwin Clenkien, while not consistently present at all the exhibitions, would continue to appear from time to time. The one artist who has emerged and stood out is Oswald Hussein. In fact, Hussein has been the mainstay of Amerindian art since the departure of Simon. But he had begun to

make a name for himself nationally as far back as 1989, when he won the top prize for his sculpture at the now-defunct but then highly prestigious annual National Exhibition of the Visual Arts. He won again in 1993.

Indian Drummer by Valentine Stoll

The exhibition in the years following 1998 have not maintained the heady atmosphere of the first three major shows. However in place of the bold/and exciting energy which these 3 shows evidenced, the work has matured and been considerably refined. The work on display currently at Castellani are some of the most finely executed work exhibited by these artists.

In 1999, Hussein mounted "Sunset Birds," a one-man show - his first solo exhibition - at the Venezuelan Cultural Centre. He repeated this venture with "Sunset Birds II," along with Roland Taylor, in 2000 at Castellani House. Taylor is also present in the current "Sunset Birds" exhibition, along with Hussein and Valentine Stoll.

Hussein's early sculpture was massy, dynamic and bristling with potent energy that gave them a sense of power and danger. This work, especially since 1999, have been less large and massy, and more slender and elegant. Many of his talent pieces are vertically-oriented, while the major earlier work was balanced between the horizontal and vertical planes. However, his work seems to contain the energy and dynamism. Instead, the work seems to contain the energy rather than project it aggressively. In the vertical pieces, such as "Black Tobacco Spirit," and "Timehri", he makes use of well-proportioned sections to create a dynamic sense of power and balance, which gives the pieces a rhythmic harmony.

Hussein is also a prolific producer, and in this exhibition he displays a variety of work. Apart from the three-dimensional sculpture, he also etched work, mobile sculpture, mixed media work, masks, and other forms.

What is most notable, however, is the collection of 18 paintings which he exhibited. He had exhibited paintings in his "Sunset Birds II" show, but these were weak and not on par with his sculpture. The current paintings are remarkably well-developed in comparison with his earlier attempts. Done in the manner of scrolls, these small paintings all have pale blue backgrounds against which highly articulated semi-abstract drawings are placed.

Ronald Taylor's work is on a smaller scale than Hussein's, but he pursues the same themes, representing the spirit and culture of his people. His style of work is also similar to Hussein's, but his pieces, in their smaller scale, have a greater sense of delicacy.

His Ari (snake)walking stick is a good example of well-realised art - without actually representing the physical form of a snake, Taylor makes us feel the movement of the creature through the series of rhythmic sections which he carved on the stick. The stick thus becomes a snake in a cordially unsuspected manner, and it conveys more to us about the nature of the snake than a true likeness would have.

The third artist, Valentine Stoll, takes a different approach to the others since he focuses more on actuality. His four pieces of sculpture capture people in the activities of daily life, and are done in a realistic manner. However, Stoll captures the movement and mood of the figures rather than attempting detailed figuration. In many respects, his work is the sculptured counterpart to the paintings of the late Edward Fredericks (exhibited at Castellani in 1999) who captured the same thing - everyday activities of his people - in paint in the same almost native manner.

Secondly, they have established themselves not as just particular ethnic artists but as national artists, persons who could articulate a vision or express a way of life, and do so in art of the highest quality. The Amerindian artists are serious about their work. The pieces they exhibit are well crafted, come from their life and experience, and are far from being typical knock-offs. In

achieving national recognition, they give added visibility to their people and culture.

Thirdly, these artists have contributed a new articulation to Guyanese art, especially to sculpture, which has been searching for a new language since the waning of its African, semi-abstract efflorescence of the 1970s and 1980s under the late Denis Williams.

Fourthly, they have introduced to Guyanese art as a whole, and moreover, to Guyanese culture, a dynamic and vigorous imagination and artistic articulation which can only enrich us as a people.

While Amerindians must have been producing work for a long time, and while there is evidence of Amerindians who have achieved varying degrees of recognition at the national level - George Simon, Stephanie Correia and Edward Fredericks, for example - the last ten years have seen the Amerindians emerging as a strong force in Guyanese art.