The headline should actually read “No place for performance art or any kind of new media art in Guyana” because let’s face it, that is the unfortunate reality of art in this microscopic Earth pocket that we call home. Too soon into the New Year to hop back onto the wagon of despair? Perhaps. But with the season of merriment coming to a swift end, and an upcoming year of much anticipated “cultural extravaganza,” there is no time like the present for us to pause and consider all the ways we have failed artists and art lovers alike in this our dear land of Guyana.
Why now, you ask? Well, the answer is quite simple. Last week’s article about the work of Guyanese born New York-based performance artist Damali Abrams inadvertently exposed a number of flaws in the way art is being taught and practiced here in Guyana. It set into motion a chain of thoughts that ultimately led me to the belief that our reluctance to acknowledge the value of art forms that deviate from the traditional canon of art history is perhaps less about personal preferences and more about institutionalized thinking within our school system.
For years Guyanese have been brainwashed into believing that it had to be pretty to be considered art and that the deal breaker is always, “But does it go with my living room chairs?” This is where I insert my earnest plea for patrons to desist from buying art simply because it matches their chair set and makes the cushions “pop.” Please stop. The artwork should stand out on its own, not disappear into a sea of highly questionable prints and dusty artificial floral arrangements. Selecting a work of art that will be permanently housed in a space in your home should not be likened to choosing complimentary colour swatches from Torginol Paints.
Having said that, in the spirit of celebrating the newness of 2016, let us take a moment to be completely honest with ourselves. As an independent visual artist, I’ve been in the belly of many an ugly and incredibly mangled beast. I can say with certainty that every single educational institution in Guyana is broken. I don’t care that we now have students successfully writing 20 CXC subjects. More than likely there would’ve been at least one art related subject thrown in there to help make up the numbers because art is super easy and your baby niece could do it, right? Cue the outrage. While it’s an impressive accomplishment, an average of 20 CXCs per student does nothing to fix this flawed education system.
The fact remains that a working system would not require students to attend lessons to supplement more lessons to then supplement the work actually done in the classroom. A working system would require high school art students to produce more than a still life composition of four glass bottles or an abstract interpretation of the best day of their life. Where is the challenge? These are children that have figured out how to unlock their parents’ phone and download cartoons before they learned how to ride a tricycle. And yet we wonder why art isn’t being taken seriously. Art is not taught to be taken seriously. Years ago French and Spanish were introduced at the primary levels in schools but today critical thinking courses, concept development and art theory are noticeably absent at the secondary levels.
The way studio art and art theory is being introduced to students needs to be revamped without question. And this is not to cast the blame on teachers by any means. They are required to follow a fixed syllabus. But it is this tired and outdated syllabus that needs to be overhauled. Its content and the manner in which the material is being taught in school needs to reflect the world we now live in. Students need to be taught that there are options available to them that do not include well-executed landscape paintings or portrait drawings. There needs to be space for students to engage with technology, new media and even social media as legitimate vehicles for expressing creative ideas and critically engaging with audiences. This would hopefully go a long way to diminish the tendency of students to pursue art simply because it’s an easy A. And if we can shift their thinking as students then perhaps there will be hope for those who choose to pursue art as well as those who choose to pursue something entirely different but would’ve had a solid enough foundation to appreciate art in all its forms, old and new.
Dominique Hunter is an independent visual artist who recently graduated from the Barbados Community College with a Bachelor of Fine Art (First Class Honours).
This article was first published in the Pepperpot magazine of the Sunday Chronicle newspaper on January 10, 2016.