`Bitter Sweet Cassava Culture'
Exhibition captures significant Amerindian ritual

By Linda Rutherford
Guyana Chronicle
September 21, 2003

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THE saga begins with a file of Amerindian men of varying ages, each carrying a warishi and other impedimenta on their backs, making their way up a gentle incline awash with verdant vines.

Each has a length of wood of some sort in one or other of their hands.

Behind them, at the point where the treacle dark waters of the waterway touch land, lie a number of canoes, all neatly parked as one would a car in a designated parking lot.

A sprinkling of womenfolk, some with the customary baby weighing down their generous hips, mill around the now stationary vessels, seemingly in search of a trophy or two that may have been inadvertently left behind by the group of strangely silent men.

So, too, does a young black and white mongrel, his velvety black nose riveted to the ground.

A barely perceptible movement of the water indicates the presence of a gentle breeze.

Etched at the left hand corner of the unusually large photograph is a single word. Arrival, it says.

But who are these men? Where did they come from? And where, in Heaven's name, are they going?

The location is Gunns Strip, on the Upper Essequibo River, which is home to the Wai-Wais, one of the country's nine nations of Indigenous Peoples.

These hunts, the attendant explained, are usually held around Christmas-time and can last for as long as two weeks. The object in their hands, earlier referred to, she said, are bamboo horns, which the men will use to reproduce in song the sounds of the many animals in the surrounding forest as they enter the village.

As the saga continues, the group of men, still maintaining their single-file formation, can be seen making their way across what looks like a courtyard, their bamboo horns now raised in unison to their lips.

Hanging at equidistant intervals from a length of sisal twine strung along the length of the courtyard are several hands of ripe bananas, their lemon-yellow colour lending handsomely to the festivity.

But wait! What are those thingummies riding high atop their warishis?

Effigies of animals, it seems; mainly the monkey.

Yes, agreed the attendant. They use those as a sort of talisman, to ward off any evil they may encounter during the hunt, and to generally bring them good luck.

This particular photo is titled: Plaza. The word again etched, rather unobtrusively, at the left hand corner of the photo.

Spree is the title of the next study, which takes us to what appears to be a communal benab, where the entire village seems to have turned out to welcome their tired but jubilant men-folk. The quality of the photograph suggests the men have broken into a run.

It's a tradition with the Wai-Wais, says Dr Wilkes in a little booklet compiled to guide viewers through the exhibition. It's what you call a traditional cassava harvest celebration, she says. And it only occurs around Christmastime.

"My series of photographs capture this significant ritual, practised once a year as a community expression of the inherent value of the cassava cycle throughout the year, as part of a complex social, political and cultural economy associated with a body of social memory and rich iconography," she says.

She then goes on to say that according to the earlier colonial writers, the Wai-Wais were "the southern tribe of the territory," whose lighter than usual complexion made them "the legendary wild and beautiful white Indians" and whose preference for tapioca earned them the nickname: 'Indios do Tapioc'.

She also quotes the renowned anthropologist, Walter E. Roth, after whom the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology here was named, as saying that the name Wai-Wai, which means tapioca, was given the tribe by the Wapishanas, "on account of their liking for tapioca and starch foods."

Wilkes, whose discipline is Fine Art but has a passion for image-making and anthropology, says in her Artist's Notes: "... for centuries Amerindian societies have devised complex technologies, systems of knowledge and cultural practices, using artifacts such as the woven matapi and carved wooden grater in the creation of a wealth of cassava products valued by local communities as currency in maintaining identity and autonomy."

Cassava culture, she says, which has historically served as a vital source of subsistence and trade in village life, and as the main source of carbohydrate in many regions of South America and the Caribbean "envelopes a world of Amerindian mythology and expression associated with the plant's toxic tubers and its purification cycle, from the nutritional to the medicinal and spiritual, articulated through artifacts, iconography and ritual."

Noting that it is this significant Amerindian culture, which had been previously classified as merely a domestic sphere of subsistence that has been the focus of her research to date, Wilkes, whose doctoral thesis is based on extensive studies carried out here during the 90s, says:

"Pushing the boundaries of existing approaches, I have sought to understand the dynamics and world view of cassava culture, not only as a vital food source and repository of Amerindian knowledge, but also as a point of negotiation within the wider global context."

She uses "the tourism art market and Guyana's complex multicultural heritage" to explain the term: 'A point of negotiation within the wider global context'.

Through a combination of photographs, glass digital screen prints and image, and sound scrape projections, Wilkes says, "this exhibition articulates bitter cassava's unique role."

Sharing her views on what she thought of the exhibit, the contents of which are part of Wilkes submission for her doctoral thesis, Curator of the National Art Gallery, Ms Elfreida Bissember, said its very title "is perhaps apt in the modern context of inevitable loss and change which challenge lifestyles of all of us, including Guyanese Amerindians."

Its concerns, she says, "also accommodate, coincidentally, the theme of [Guyana's] Amerindian Heritage Month 2003, 'Igniting our Indigenous Roots Amidst Change'.

The exhibition runs until October 4.

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