This issue of The Arts Journal is dedicated to the indigenous peoples of Guyana and the Caribbean region, their arts, culture and traditions. Earlier issues of the Journal have acknowledged the presence of Africans and East Indians as major cultural strands forming Guyanese and Caribbean societies. Volume 3 Numbers 1 and 2 (2007), dedicated to the observance of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Atlantic trade in Africans, featured articles that critically analysed historical and cultural aspects of African experience. Volume 4 Numbers 1 and 2 (2008), released on the 170th Anniversary of the arrival of (East) Indians on Guyana’s shores, selected articles that critically examined Indian experience, their traditional arts and culture. Thus an issue devoted to Amerindians seems timely. What has been revealed in this exercise is that there is a dearth of critical material available on the cultural legacy of indigenous peoples of the region and that much more needs to be done in this respect. Amerindians in Guyana and the Caribbean count among the region’s accomplished visual artists, poets, potters, ceramicists, and sculptors while they, in turn, have been the raw material in imaginative writings and visual arts of contemporary writers and artists. The aims of The Arts Journal remain, primarily, to strengthen critical thinking and to examine neglected areas of experience as depicted in the art forms of Guyana and the Caribbean region.
We inherited some crude, misinformed 16th century perceptions of the original peoples of the region from European travelers and fortune-hunters from whom Shakespeare no doubt took his cue for a sketch of the aborigine: “....cannibals that each other eat . . . and men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders” (Othello 1: 3). The arrival of Columbus and his mercenaries on western shores saw the decimation of aboriginal tribes, large numbers of whom were either killed or killed themselves in the first encounters with the invaders.
The opening article of this issue by Dr. Michael Gilkes is an illuminating address that draws attention to the role the myth of El Dorado has played in popular conceptions of Guyana and its hinterland inhabited by original Indians for thousands of years. This article informs us that: “Because of the pioneering work of modern anthropologists . . . the earlier colonial view of the Amazon basin as too primitive an environment to support a civilization of any complexity has been reversed. It is now believed that the Amazon basin gave rise to and supported flourishing, complex societies with highly developed art forms: this represents an indigenous cultural history spanning more than ten thousand years.” This is the background to what has been regarded for too long as the “marginal” Amerindian presence in our region and in the world.
In Guiana, Amerindians were not brought within the colonizing net of European planters but of zealous religious missionaries who travelled vast distances up rivers and through savannahs, bent on civilizing the various tribes. Professor Sr. Mary Noel Menezes’s “The Historical Legacy of Missionary Enterprise
Among the Amerindians of Guyana” traces more than two and a half centuries of missionary work by every religious denomination starting with the Moravian
Church working among the Arawaks in the Berbice River at mid-eighteenth century. The nineteenth century saw expansion of missionary work among Amerindians with the arrival of Anglicans, followed by Catholics, with none sparing a thought for “the typically Amerindian assets of space, time, silence, their natural reverence for the earth and capacity for deep thought . . .”
Dr. Odeen Ishmael’s short stories from Guyana Legends: Folktales of the Indigenous Amerindians, offer a glimpse into the mythology of the Amerindian. Through the power of their oral story-telling style, these short stories keep alive the original legends of a people. They are a vivid reminder that the literary historiography of Guyana did not begin with the travelogues of Walter Ralegh but with these rich oral tales that form the mythology of the original peoples.
Palace of the Peacock (1960) is the first of a rich body of works by Wilson Harris comprising more than two-dozen texts, both fictional and non-fictional. This work not only sets the tone and establishes the themes of the novels that follow but also introduces an innovative language, form, idioms and metaphors through which Harris navigates his journey of discovery and self-discovery and pursues his quest for identity and belonging using the interior habitat of the Amerindians as transformative setting. The first three chapters of the Palace of the Peacock have been used as a point of reference for this issue. Its half-blind, nameless narrator voices the vision of Harris’s oeuvre: “In this light it was as if the light of all past days and nights on earth had vanished. It was the first breaking dawn of the light of our soul” (34).
“Chant to Earth Mother 11” and “Music” are two evocative poems by pioneering Amerindian poet and potter, Stephanie Correia, from her first published collection Arrows From the Bow; Correia recounts her process of self- discovery in “Clay – A Voyage of Discovery”.
Guyana also owes a debt to Amerindian researcher, Desrey Fox, for her work into Amerindian languages, arts, and culture. Her article, “Colour Symbolism Among Amerindians in Guyana”, is seminal work that adds immeasurably to our knowledge of the spiritual/magical power of colour and its use in the visual culture.
While this issue presents an appreciable clutch of representative writings on the Amerindians, there is need for more critical analyses that will throw light on Amerindians, their arts, their customs and traditions and how they have been portrayed in the creative work of other artists and writers.
This issue is developed by Harry Hergash’s “Indian-Guyanese Words and Phrases: Arrival, Adaptation, Migration, Obsolescence” – an attempt to document the Bhojpuri language used by indentured Indians to British Guiana up to the post-indentureship period. There is a patent fear that this language has declined in usage over the last few decades and is now nearing extinction as a spoken language in Guyana. Hence, the impulse to trace the origins and document the usage is fundamental for scholarship.
Charlene Wilkinson’s contribution, “Offerings towards a Retrospective on Language and Power” was written in observance of International Creole Day (28th October 2012) and offers a retrospective glance at the Guyanese linguistic past. It revisits a 1916 text on language use in colonial British Guiana which allows a reflection on past power relations between the English language users (the ruling minority) and the African Creole speakers. This, too, is another valuable piece of research into language development and language as identity in a British colony.
“Songs of Iron and Fire” by Professor Eliff Lara Astorga, critically analyses the poetic processes applied by Martin Carter his Poems of Resistance and connects them with historical parallels very common to the rest of Latin America.
In “The Enigma of Arrival: V.S. Naipaul”, Professor Daizal Samad offers an interesting reading of Naipaul’s timeless quasi-autobiography, The Enigma of Arrival, in which he deems the narrator a “self-creating creator”. The narrator must heal himself of the ambivalences of history with its fragmentation, alienation and homelessness, and Samad argues that his tools in this process are writing and imaginative recreation. Stanley Greaves, in “Philip Moore (Immanuel Kweku Moorji): Mystic, Visionary and Artist of Guyana”, offers critical insight, not into Moore’s prodigious creative output but, rather, into his spiritual experiences and an innate mysticism that seems to drive his work.
Kenwyn Crichlow, in his address to the Opening of the 50th Anniversary Exhibition at the National Museum and Art Gallery, Trinidad, reminds us: “It is fascinating to look at the ways art over the last fifty years has explored links between the visual cultures of Africa, the Caribbean, and the representations of indigenous spirituality”.
We have brought you a few of the visual images exhibited that speak to the social and political reality and, above all, to the question of identity and the implications for nationhood in the island.
The poems of Indran Amirthanayagam and Michael Gilkes enrich the issue while reviews of at least five recently published works cap the offerings.
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