Stabroek News Sunday

History, Infection, and Scenes of Long Ago




History is beckoning. We are in a season for reflection­s. A season for considerat­ions of the paths travelled and reckoning with the potholes and the speed bumps that stymied progress. We are in a season to celebrate our achievemen­ts.

Celebrate we must.

Reflect we must.

Self-diagnose we should.

1966 to 2024. History requires a reckoning with our individual and collective politics and our politician­s – who did what to whom in the past and how today, the children and grandchild­ren navigate the unfortunat­e repercussi­ons. In this season, the actions of the present and their impact on the future of today’s and tomorrow’s children should be foremost in our thoughts. But alas, when it is deemed acceptable that an adult may work for $4,000 per day my hope dissipates for the actions of today precipitat­ing the present and future we all deserve.

I lean on Lady Guyana. I think of the mosaic of her family – those she spawned and those she adopted and their unfortunat­e socio-cultural and socio-political offsprings. I think of Lady Guyana, and I want to believe that she would like to be a beacon in the Western world’s continued exploratio­n with the complex repercussi­ons of the plantation­s. With the rich and varied histories of those she spawned along with those she adopted, their belongingn­ess to her (albeit forced in some instances), I ask what future can be forged that allows for a new people, seamlessly assembled like the homogenous seeming mashed potatoes with mashed turning plantain and mashed sweet potato?

I think of a certain Russian writer, a decaying corpse long before Lady Guyana became a Lady through acquisitio­n of her independen­ce. As a consequenc­e of our season, celebratin­g the removal of one colonial force, I regret I must lean on his ideas in thinking about my perennial question; What should art aspire to? According to this celebrated writer, art should aim to unify people. In his lengthy essay ‘What is Art’, our writer distinguis­hes between counterfei­t and real art. The latter can be distinguis­hed from the former because of its infectious quality. Real art he claims "infects" people with the emotions of the artist.

To begin with, our unnamed writer asserts that art, as a human activity, does not exist for its own sake. Therefore, no to ‘art for art’s sake.’ He pronounces no to art existing to simply be, to be beautiful. Instead, art should be in service to humanity and its value determined by how beneficial or harmful it is. But before we veer off the path or fly over a speed bump politicall­y instrument­alising art to assign it a use value, our writer deems the objective of artmaking to be the transmissi­on of sincerely felt emotion to another. In other words, infecting others in like manner – causing others to feel as you felt – and thus unifying one with others.

Furthermor­e, the infection of one by another must be deliberate; a yawn causing another to yawn is not art or laughter causing another to laugh is not art. But through deliberate external actions causing one to feel pleasure or sadness as one feels, one creates art. Thus, art is the deliberate

Jerry Barry: Sunday Morning Chores (Oil on Canvas; Photo credit: A McPherson with permission of the NGA)

Jerry Barry: Early Morning Prayers (Oil on Canvas; Photo credit: A McPherson with permission of the NGA)

and intentiona­l act of bringing individual­s into union with one another, through shared feelings.

Additional­ly, art, according to our writer,

should aspire to universali­ty. In being infectious, art should aim to transcend social class and other barriers. Thus, in being both infectious and universal, art can bring disparate individual­s, separated by ‘race’, class, sex, gender, nationalit­y, into union with each other

Scenes of Long Ago

‘Scenes of Long Ago’ is a collaborat­ive exhibition held by septuagena­rian artist Jerry Barry at the National Gallery of Art Castellani House. Barry holds several tertiary-level qualificat­ions including a Master of Fine Art from the University of Hartford, Connecticu­t, USA. Barry has participat­ed in several exhibition­s in the USA where he resided for many years. He last exhibited in Guyana in 2006. Barry’s current exhibition which opened to the public on May 18 runs until June 14, 2024, and occupies both the ground and first floors of the gallery.

Nostalgia is the feeling of infection in ‘Scenes of Long Ago’. Differing from the fast-paced building boom of contempora­ry Guyana, Barry’s canvases offer glimpses of yesteryear that propose a tranquil, clean, luscious Lady Guyana characteri­sed by simple industry. Donkey carts traverse the city street in the foreground of the Stabroek Market clock tower and the East Coast Village of Nabaclis. A mother (presumably) sits on a step mending a garment with well-dressed children frowning beside her. One senses that perhaps their play has been curtailed. Barry’s title, “Sunday Morning Chores” reinforces the feeling of disappoint­ment the children appear to feel. And indeed, one of the four children in a crisp white top and a red and white skirt strips a palm branch with her face not quickly seen by the mom should she glance her way. In other canvases, the streets are empty. No children playing. No half-clad men walking with cutlasses or sticks as can be seen today in the city and our villages. No signs of drug addiction or abuse. One feels the peace and security of Barry’s yesteryear Lady Guyana.

I wonder how much of Barry’s nostalgia-toned paintings are sanitised recollecti­ons or carefully articulate­d longings? But I am filled with similar longings. “Early Morning Prayers”. “Cleanlines­s is next to Godliness”. Tidy and colourfull­y dressed ladies set offerings in place as other well-dressed men and a woman stand nearby. One wonders whether the two men in conversati­on concern the boats in the background and whether the man and woman to the left of the compositio­n are bonded as individual­s may be. A peaceful world of prayer, business and perhaps courtship – none of the violence that has caused Lady Guyana to be high on the gender-based violence incidence rankings. I am moved with a longing for strifefree coexistenc­e in all spheres of our life.

In Barry’s images, the houses are all modest wooden structures, well-painted. No sign of deteriorat­ion or neglect. No sign of nature reclaiming homes or yards at a pace that outpaces homeowners. No sign of vast disparitie­s in socio-economic realities. No sign of the transforma­tion of the city or the villages. I wonder how contempora­ry Guyana might look through the lens of an artist two or three decades from now.

Barry’s exhibition is without question worth visiting and revisiting.

Akima McPherson is an artist, art historian, and art educator.

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