Locating Guyana within the regional art discourse

Two weeks ago, the fourth installation of the Caribbean Linked artist residency concluded at Ateliers ’89 in Orangestad, Aruba. This initiative’s mandate has always been to provide a space for “building awareness across disparate creative communities by bringing together emerging artists from Anglophone, Francophone, Hispanic and Dutch Antillean Caribbean Islands.”

Geography is therefore a critical and foundational element of Caribbean Linked. It is also perhaps one of the most immediate factors each participant is confronted with upon arrival to the Dutch territory.

Location and landscape are almost always the focal (or if not starting) point of cultural exchange programs like Caribbean Linked. It is in our nature, as creative practitioners, to enter these programs with open but inquisitive minds that identify the differences as we search for the connections between “home” and “abroad.”

It was no different for this year’s participants as we tried to locate points of entry to start our individual engagements with this new environment. And so too did my own quest begin as I wrestled with Guyana’s unique physical placement within the region, its creative plateau some 40-odd years ago and its subsequent and noticeable absence from regional conversations since.

During the course of this residency, a number of wild theories regarding what I like to refer to as the “Guyana situation” burrowed into my brain and took up occupancy. These theories were not imposed by anyone else but were revealed to me while in conversation with the other participants. They are still being revealed to me even as I type these words. It became clear very quickly that I was the only one who wasn’t from an island and that I (my country) was the only one attached to a much larger mass of land. But what exactly does that mean? What does it mean to not be entirely surrounded by an endless stretch of blue water? I doubt I’ll ever have the answer to those questions.

Although we (Guyanese) are more directly and physically connected to our South American neighbours than our Caribbean neighbours, we don’t share their identity in any other way (at least not in my opinion). In fact, much of what shapes the Guyanese personality comes from the Caribbean territories further afield. Theirs is the measuring stick we use to gauge our own sense of self (after the great U.S.A. of course). Why else would there be so many Jamaican accents on our radio stations or fetes trying to mimic those found in Trinidad? Our unique positioning within the region should’ve afforded us a more advanced footing than we currently have. Instead we’ve been burdened by a crippling identity disorder, the result of years of failed or simply non-existent policies.

This, in my opinion, is one of the major conundrums of the Guyanese personality. There is a certain sense of disorientation that befalls us every time we swing from one side to the next. Are we Caribbean or South American? Where do we fit? Is it even important that we do fit? How do we successfully balance the scale if we choose to claim both sides? Coupled with our diverse cultures and our unique history of political tensions, it is indeed quite the challenge to explain our particular situation.

And so, very often in the midst of discussions where most participants presented a relatively linear explanation of their country’s “How we got in this mess” story, I simply sat quietly and listened. How do you explain the Guyana situation to someone outside of Guyana? Where do you even start? We can always boast of the seemingly thriving art scene up until the 80s or of the brilliant art practitioners of that time or even of being the founding country of CARIFESTA. But what have we managed to accomplish in the years since? Most of our veteran artists have left and those who chose to stay work in relative isolation (if they still work at all).

It boggles my mind that we are one of the few territories in the region with an art school and yet there is no system in place for students upon graduation. There is no shortage of talent in the art school but the sad reality is that most of them don’t have a fighting chance once they leave.

They are either co-opted into careers that are unrelated to their field of study or they teach for the rest of their lives (which is perfectly fine). Teaching is a necessary and respectable job but the problem arises when we’re flooded with art teachers and there are no art practitioners, the result of which is the nasty cycle we find ourselves in today.

Art students with no opportunities for growth are forced into teaching jobs and they can’t continue their practice while employed because they’re too busy teaching ten different subjects. And so it continues on and on, year after year. All of the talent on display at every graduation ceremony gets hijacked because our policy makers couldn’t get it right. Yet no one can see the correlation between this and the staggering gap between our veteran and contemporary artists.

I often speak of Guyana’s absence from any (significant) creative discourse within the region, not to cast blame outward at any organizer but as a challenge to Guyanese to use that as an opportunity to address the elephant in the room. Our model isn’t working. It hasn’t been working for years, which is why there is usually very little to no representation anywhere, in any discipline. Granted no country has the perfect model for creative sustainability, we’ve somehow managed to regress even further into archaic and stagnant methodologies. Either that or we’ve gotten awfully comfortable sitting back with folded arms waiting for the next person to do the work.

It would appear as though we’ve fallen off the “map.” While I understand and have a great appreciation for the groundwork done by our veteran artists here in Guyana, I often wonder about our contemporary practitioners. It was glaringly obvious during my time in Aruba that I had trouble identifying serious Guyanese art practitioners under 50 who didn’t spend their careers pandering to the whims of buyers. It was even more obvious to me that we are a scattered people, operating in our own disconnected pockets of the country. One can only hope that this once fertile land, rich with creative energy can recover from this dry spell.

This article was first published in the Pepperpot magazine of the Sunday Chronicle newspaper on September 4, 2016. Click on the link to be redirected to their website:


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