THE ARTS JOURNAL (Volume 9 Numbers 1 &2)

Editor: Ameena Gafoor

 

REVIEW BY DR. MARK TUMBRIDGE

 

The subtitle of this edition of The Arts Journal, “Till I Collect My Scattered Skeleton,” is a line taken from Martin Carter’s poem “Till I Collect.” Bearing in mind that the articles in this issue are centred on personal identity, the image is a fitting one, and any reminder of Carter’s work is always most welcome.

     Whenever I hold a new publication, I always examine it first of all, turn it over in my hands, check the quality of the binding. How has this been put together? Aside from the critical importance of the words on the page, I have been taught to appreciate, examine, and analyse a publication’s tangible, material existence. It is an aspect of the printed material as an object in itself that is often overlooked. One can judge a work by its cover, at least, to some extent.

     The front cover of The Arts Journal (Volume 9 Numbers 1 &2) is the first thing that holds one’s attention. It is exceptional. Dreaming Nothing to Lose 2014 is the beautiful, yet sublime, artwork of Kenwyn Crichlow that seems to go beyond filling the front cover of this edition – it possesses a quality which Keats might have referred to as “fine excess”. It immediately surprised me and distracted me. I use the word sublime in the technical and not the popular sense – Immanuel Kant and Longinus have spoken about it. The mixture of the beautiful alongside the sublime is an amazing effect. The painting’s beauty has me at ease, for a few moments, as I contemplate the smooth, sleek lines – and then I see some movement in there which is awesome and terrifying. For example, I see something like a tiger lily, similar to the ones in my backyard in Georgetown, a rippling pond of iridescent light. Suddenly, the next moment, one has the feeling of staring at something like the Eagle Nebula. Crichlow has managed, using his materials – oil paint and gold leaf on canvas— to get so much depth and high relief into this work. It is a wonderful addition to the works of art that have been featured on the front covers of The Arts Journal over the last ten years.

     Lee Johnson’s engaging article, Derek Walcott: Poet of Exiles, seeks to “re-introduce” Walcott’s work from the point of view of “the large community living away from home”. The article addresses the limitations and the positive aspects of Caribbean life and, similarly, discusses the experience of an exile or “fortunate traveller” now living away from home in New York, Toronto or London. Johnson also allows the reader to see how an emigrant from the Caribbean might look back and think about home. The perspective is clearly from “we, the young exiles, the second generation of the diaspora,” and, one imagines, Walcott’s generation too. Johnson’s article provides us with a strong sense of the existential boundaries of small Caribbean societies: the gaze out to sea, scanning the infinite distance to the horizon, and ruminating on what lies beyond – this is, of course, set alongside quotations from Walcott’s majestic poetry (from In A Green Night, The Fortunate Traveller and others) to illustrate the points.

     Derek Walcott: Poet of Exiles is well thought through in terms of balancing the kind of ambivalence one would have on leaving the Caribbean – the “urge to leave” versus “longing to stay”; “the nostalgia for home” versus “the realization that there was not much there worth staying for”. Johnson identifies on a number of occasions with being “West Indian”. One comes to the end of this enjoyable article with a sense that he would have wanted more space than any journal piece would allow. For example, Johnson highlights that “the issue[s] of identity and belonging is central to Walcott’s poetry”, noting that the same is embedded in “race, history, language and landscape”(19); there is enough scope and material for a more fully articulated work and one hopes that Johnson is thinking of extending the work, or that his article is already part of a larger manuscript.

     Kenneth Ramchand reads and examines Harold Phekoo’s work A Bong-Coolie – Poonith: A Quest for Knowledge and Self-Discovery. Ramchand flags up in the opening sentence of the article that Phekoo’s book is “a well-researched work put together in an unorthodox and surprisingly effective way” (33). He also describes Phekoo’s work as “a virtual museum of the religion, folk culture, social and economic arrangements, domestic life and household artefacts of the Indians in Trinidad” (33). A number of elements seem to contribute to the sense of the book being unconventional. It is an oral history which has now become narrativised and written down – the author’s grandfather, father and the author himself are the focus of attention; there is nothing too unorthodox here. However, “the author does not use the actual words of his informants to any great extent” and “other members of the community [. . .] come together to complete the work”. The author’s poetry is included towards the end of the book, which was added posthumously. This just gives a flavour of some of the features of this work that make it different. An interesting point to note is Ramchand’s relation to the audience of The Arts Journal – he does not define the word “Bong” at all in the article; perhaps Ramchand believes that the definition is unnecessary as this word will be second nature to those that read. The work includes many useful cultural details (with regards to those categories listed above) in the lives of the protagonists, especially vocabulary of Indian origin. Both the book and Ramchand’s article will benefit those who are working on or interested in Indo-Caribbean studies, but the work will no doubt engage those outside of the East Indian communities – descendants of Africans, Chinese and other groups. Specifically, Professor Ramchand’s inclusive attitude and warm way of relating to those outside of the Indo-Caribbean community is not only heart-warming, but this particular position of recognition and empathy is also  much needed in these times.  

     Clem Seecharan’s Bifurcated Nationalism: African and Indian Identities in Colonial Guyana, the 1930s is republished in The Arts Journal after first appearing as a section in the author’s work Mother India’s Shadow over El Dorado: Indo-Guyanese Politics and Identity 1890-1930. Appearing as the article does on the cusp of the 2015 elections in Guyana, it is perhaps a timely reminder of the deeply emotive and highly complex issues suggested by the title. Seecharan’s focus is on “why a Guyanese national identity showed no signs of cohering,” and “why a bifurcated identity was in the making” (55). On the one hand the key elements and events that contribute towards the construction of Afro-Creole consciousness are traced through figures such as Marcus Garvey and Haile Selassie, while on the other, the East-Indian sensibility is examined through Gandhi and Nehru’s push for Independence by way of the Indian National Congress. Seecharan brings depth to his analysis by including important cultural categories such as language. His discursive reconstruction of his subject is written in the style we have come to expect from him; immersed in historical and cultural detail, meticulously documented, Seecharan’s majestic prose is always a joy to read and sometimes a challenge (I mean that in a very positive sense).  

       Inhabiting similar but different ground to Seecharan’s work is, Marianne Bessy’s article “You are Haiti, too”: Negotiating “Haitianess” in The Works of Women Writers of the Diaspora. Bessy analyses literary works of women who have migrated to the U.S.A. and Canada and then writes about, “among other themes, being Haitian abroad” (83). Her subject materials are: Edwidge Danticat’s memoir Brother I’m Dying; as well as novels such as Joanne Hyppolite’s Seth and Samona; Myriam Chancy’s Spirit of Haiti; and short stories by Marie-Hélène Laforest. Within these works, Bessy examines the representations of “home” and accounts of Haiti and Haitian history; the aim is to compare the sometimes contradictory notions of “nostalgia, rejection, pride, and celebration” that are present in the Haitian “diasporic imagination” (84). Invoking Benedict Anderson’s work, Imagined Communities (1983), she notices a similarity in all the works she analyses – this is the symbolic presence of “the collective desire to understand the present by inventing, creating, and celebrating an imagined homeland” (84). The article addresses the effects of the earthquake of the 12th January 2010 in the literature and, more widely, the society it affected – “Writing, teaching, and talking about Haitian-related themes could not be quite the same” (83). Bessy’s analysis is focused and while there is a sense of the shock and sadness associated with the event, she not only avoids sentimentality, but also recognises how the literature incorporates the earthquake.

       Melody Boyd Carrière’s Petra’s Underworld: Rational Speech in Rosario Ferre’s The House on the Lagoon uses, in part, José Luis González’s essay Puerto Rico: The Four-Storeyed Country to elucidate Ferre’s novel. The article also analyses why Ferre uses references to an Odyssey and examines the association between this reference and the “African tradition which has purpose in Isabel’s [a subject in the novel] manuscript” (95). Carrière initially focuses on why the author of the novel chose to locate Petra and her family in the basement. Carrière’s reading of the novel is complex as she shifts through the different levels that structure the work, to address issues such as the engagement with Greek mythology, the presence of Orisha and African spiritualism, as well as highlighting the colonial aspects and language issues that arise. Before the article concludes an examination of the “vital element of water” is undertaken. This analysis is well structured, the prose feels measured, precise and accurate – readers will feel comfortable that the author is in control of the material. Carrière’s article is a solid contribution to the field; it will no doubt be of great value to those who are either doing research on Ferre’s work, or for anyone who enjoyed reading the novel and are in search of a detailed analysis.

           Alim Hosein’s “As New and as Old,” the title of which was inspired by a Martin Carter poem, very productively reads the work of Guyanese artist Bernadette Persaud. As the extended title makes clear, the essay was originally “published in the catalogue of Bernadette Peraud’s Exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Guyana, May-June 2014”. The essay briefly considers how the “seductive surfaces” and depth of Persaud’s work, develops using new “technical resources” (107), and examines the transition of her work “from paintings to installations”. Hosein reviews the different forms that Persaud uses – a particular innovation being the triangular canvases which represent Jhandi flags. It is a concise introduction that assists the reader by pointing out Persaud’s techniques and approaches, as well as beginning to reveal the cultural and political implications of the artist’s work. Hosein sees her as establishing “herself as one of the most important artists to emerge in Guyana in recent times” (111). The journal includes six of her works. I am particularly impressed by the paintings which, as Hosein observes, contain an effect of “swirl and movement” such as White Birds Like Dreams, Gentleman at the Gate, and Birds and Sunlight.

     Not only is one of Kenwyn Crichlow’s artworks featured on the front cover, we also have the pleasure of reading his written work in the form of an essay entitled Imaging Transition. Initially, the work discusses Ralph Baney’s beautiful sculpture in Trinidadian mahogany called Baptist Shouter. A photographic reproduction is included in the journal. Crichlow refers to the sculpture as “a seminal object of art” which is “an exultation of primary energy” and a “sedate force of spirit” (113). Inscribed into the very form of the work Crichlow sees “not only the feelings, [the] imagination of the artist, but also [the artist’s] insight into the urgencies of the time.” (113) He then focuses on the “transition from colonialism to modernism” (114). This is important ground and Crichlow articulates it: “Reading that time [the 20th century] of transition is an imperative today”. He sees a route to contemporary practice of art – but he says that “we must question the intent and context of that transition” (114). The author then considers Mahmoud Pharouk Alladin’s work, in particular his piece Tadjah in light of the transitional process that he sees. Crichlow concludes by asking a number of perennial questions about art, such as, “What is art and what is it for? What are the pressing urgencies that force its necessity in our personal and cultural lives” (118). Crichlow’s article (and no doubt his artwork on the front cover) help us down the path towards finding some answers, even if they are, inevitably, always partial.

     St Hope Earl McKenzie’s work entitled Names and The Self deals with what he calls “onomastics.” He refers to his article as “my story” signalling a personal account of how McKenzie’s name has been variously changed over his lifetime. This is a very common feature in literature – McKenzie’s own account may help us to realise that the frequent presence of name-changing in novels is because it has happened, and continues to occur, to real people in their lives not just Oroonoko or Friday or the very long list of similar characters. So many novels in the English language contain these subjects who have their names changed – often forcibly – so it is interesting to see someone working on this in a very personal way. In thinking through why his name, Earl, was withheld from him, McKenzie says: “I now believe it may have had something to do with the primitive belief that knowing the name of someone, perhaps a god or spirit, gave you some kind of power over me” (119).

     I was very mindful while reading McKenzie’s article of how he addresses names not only as unique markers of our identity, but also the associated power relations. He addresses these issues from a number of perspectives. For example, the odious Headmaster of his elementary school who insisted that he could not have the name Earl because of its association with British aristocracy. Another example is how “in some societies the state has the authority to reject names proposed by parents” (124). McKenzie’s article ruminates in a very creative way about the different changes and effects his name went through and there is never any sense of bitterness. Mr McKenzie is a poet and an artist and includes a triptych of self-portraits that address the different parts of his name and various aspects of his character.

 

Dr Mark Tumbridge,

Georgetown, May 2015.