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The soundtrack of Guyana

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You can’t escape birdsong in Guyana. From the caw caw of the wild parrot and macaw to the omnipresent kis-ka-dee, kis-ka-dee. For Guyanese flautist Keith Waithe, these are not just background sounds – but inspiration. Now ‘The Flute Man’ is planning on creating what he calls a birdsong symphony, taking his cue from Guyana’s dawn chorus.

Normally based in London, Waithe is in Guyana as the University of Guyana’s artist-in-residence – the first person to hold that post since Martin Carter. At a workshop, held yesterday at UG, he hosted an Improvisation Workshop – to introduce music fans and performers to his repertoire and research.

“I have over two hundred flutes!” he said, and proceeded to demonstrate a few. The alto flute, the Irish penny whistle, the clay ocarina… swooping from bird sounds to classical music to masquerade to a kind of mouth percussion mirroring the sound of Indian dhol drums.

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From India, we were taken to Africa and some Guyanese kwe kwe rhythms, performed with the help of a guest drummer and an impromptu performance from National School of Dance director Linda Griffith. Then, after a brief stop in China and the world of classical music, it was on to Guyanese folk as Feed The Flames frontman Gavin Mendonca performed ‘Small Days’ and a steel pannist was called up from the audience to join in.

“Show us a conversation between the flute and steel pan,” requested one participant, “this is an improvisation workshop after all!” Waithe and the pannist duly obliged, and ended the workshop with a lively jam session.

Having a musician as an artist-in-residence is an interesting step for the university, which offers three music programmes: Associate of Arts (Music/Creative Arts), Certificate in Education – Music Education, and Diploma in Music (none are on the 2017/2018 course list but that seems to be an omission).

Yet music isn’t an island. At the workshop, students from the art department were invited to paint while the session was in progress. The experiment drew some great results, including this piece (see below) – inspired, said the artist, by Waithe’s reference to his many flutes.

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Students and interested folk in Berbice can enjoy the workshop when it’s repeated next Wednesday (29 March) at UG’s Tain Campus (10am-12pm). Other upcoming events to look out for include a concert at the Theatre Guild in Georgetown on Friday March 31st, and a Public Lecture, also at the Theatre Guild, on Thursday 6 April.

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Roots + revolution at Guyana’s Museum of African Heritage

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Dropping me off outside Guyana’s Museum of African Heritage on Barima Avenue, my friend hung around to see if it was actually open. “I’ve never actually been here,” she said, peering at the sign. The closed gates didn’t look promising.

I had only discovered the museum existed a few days earlier, after walking up the wrong road (something that happens often to me). But being within walking distance of the National Zoo, Botanical Gardens and Castellani House, it’s actually well placed for the enterprising visitors who track it down.

Luckily, it turned out, the museum was open – and I wasn’t the first visitor that day. “We had a tour earlier,” said the friendly guide optimistically (admitting later that before starting work there, even she hadn’t heard of it). More promotion was needed, we agreed.

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Painting outside the Museum of African Heritage, Guyana

Until 2011, the museum was known as the Museum of African Art and Ethnology. According to the tourism board, it was renamed to “open their doors to a wider audience and begin to fully address the African experience in Guyana”. Most of the museum is still given up to artefacts from (predominantly) the West Coast of Africa and neighbouring Suriname, but there are artworks by local artists too.

On entering the top floor, you’re immediately met by a small replica of Guyana’s famous moment to Cuffy (more in this post)– an African slave who led the great slave revolt of 1763 in what was then the Dutch colony of Berbice. Most of the lower floor of the museum is dedicated to Cuffy and his men, too.

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The Dutch began bringing Africans to the colony as early as the mid-17th century. Over the following years, thousands of slaves were captured and transported over the seas in appalling conditions, for a life of back-breaking work, oppression and abuse.

Today, Guyanese of African ancestry make up around 30.2% of the population – according to the 2002 census. (There was a census in 2012, but the preliminary report makes no mention of ethnicity and I cannot find anywhere the final version, which was ‘due soon’ last May.)

The connection between Africa and the Guyana of today is made by the contemporary art itself, which tackles themes including slavery, unification and revolution. Like this striking piece by artist Ras Iah entitled ‘Escape Mental Slavery’:

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There’s also a great painting that imagines the pioneering group of former African slaves who clubbed together to buy their own plantation village and make it their home of freedom. But I’ll save that one for you to discover in person.

Museum of African History, Barima Avenue, Bel Air Park, Georgetown Guyana. Entry: Free. Getting there: Take the number 40 bus and get off near Popeye’s.

African arts, culture + politics

Human zoo

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(ARISE magazine, issue 15) People with animal faces, towering security fences, mouthless mutants – the imagery used in South African artist Jane Alexander’s work is not always comfortable viewing. But it’s not her intention to unsettle says Alexander, as she prepares for a new exhibition at SCAD Museum of Art in Georgia, US: “I have responded to the social environment as I interpret it from observation and conventional research… and the images evolve from this. It would seem to me that life is often unsettling, and that South Africa has always been so.”

The exhibition, entitled Surveys (From The Cape Of Good Hope), features work dating from 1998 to as recent as last year – including the tableau African Adventure, developed during South Africa’s shift from apartheid to democracy. “I see the works as fitting into a broad project of African adventures,” explains Alexander, “referring to the continent as a site of discovery, mystery and pleasure; colonial adventure and intervention; economically driven social control and enterprise; and pervasive exploitation, discrimination and damage”.

Born in Johannesburg in 1959, Alexander grew up under the shadow of apartheid. South Africa was, she remembers, “very isolated, constrained, controlled, conservative and divided in almost every way.” And although the instruments of apartheid have long been dismantled, Alexander still finds injustices. “There is exceptional work being produced in South Africa but the art scene is still largely dominated by a privileged minority in terms of access…While this may be true of other countries, it still impacts primarily on those who were and still are discriminated against because of apartheid.”

Surveys (From The Cape Of Good Hope) is at the SCAD Museum of Art from February 21 to June 3. http://www.scadmoa.org

African arts · culture + politics · London culture

On the buses

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(ARISE magazine, issue 14) A mutual love of eavesdropping inspired illustrator Olu Oke and writer Michael O’Kelly to create a graphic short story set on a London bus. Now the duo’s four-page creation, Ding! (above), has been named runner-up in The Observer/Cape Graphic Short Story Prize 2011.

It’s a welcome validation for Oke who has been working in the industry for almost ten years, supplementing her work as a freelance illustrator with part-time jobs as a cinema projectionist and theatre manager. Born Oluyinka Adunola Omoyeni Oke to Nigerian parents in south London, Oke says her family’s background is a major influence on her work. “As an illustrator you tend to draw from life; if someone asks me to draw a large granny, it’s not your ubiquitous Red Riding Hood granny; it’s my granny, who is big, colourful, wears a headscarf, is always feeding you.”

However, these drawings aren’t always received well in the industry, says Oke. “If you, as a black artist, draw black characters, no one will employ you because they think that’s all you can draw. And I was told quite clearly that if I wanted to work I needed to draw white people. It’s good that someone’s that honest but really? Now?”

Oke’s decision to ignore that advice and draw as diversely as she wants has, in the end, made her work stand out. There are plans to release a short edition of Ding! in February, Oke and O’Kelly are working on another four stories – each set on a different form of public transport, and then there are children’s books for Oke to illustrate. The five-year-old Oke, who drew on walls at the family home and precociously declared she would one day be an illustrator, would have been proud.

http://www.oluoke.com

African arts, culture + politics

The revolution will be digitised

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(ARISE magazine, issue 13) Inspired by the Jasmine Revolution that swept North Africa earlier this year, artists around the world have been creating works of resistance. Responses range from Soviet-style graphic posters, as seen on Flickr, to a dedicated exhibition at Cairo’s Safarkhan gallery entitled To Egypt With Love. Egyptian artist/designer Marwan Shahin created an image entitled The Dictator after participating in the revolution: “I was so inspired by what was happening. After the crisis and Mubarak stepped down I created another piece called The 2Vth.I was told it was such a powerful image, I took time to graffiti it on a wall here in Alexandria.”

Online creative platform African Digital Art (ADA) compiled a gallery of graphic art inspired by the uprisings using submissions from its own creative community. Editor Jepchumba explained: “The Egyptian revolution was all over the news, all over the world, so it was no surprise to see that being reflected in artists’ creative portfolios. This was an important thing for us to show at ADA.”

www.africandigitalart.com

London culture

Guyana in London: Stockwell’s Bronze Woman

Bronze Woman. Courtesy of Lambeth Council
Bronze Woman. Courtesy of Lambeth Council

(Visit London, 2 February 2011) London is home to many people from the small South American country of Guyana, but there are few indicators beyond the odd Guyanese takeaway (think delicious hot curries and roti bread) or famous figure – be it reggae star Eddie Grant or former Southbank Centre writer-in-residence John Agard.

However, venture into the south London pocket of Stockwell and into Stockwell Memorial Gardens and you’ll find another piece of Guyana – a 10-foot bronze sculpture of a woman holding a child. It’s a powerful image, not least because of its fascinating history.

The first public statue of a black woman in England, Bronze Woman was the brainchild of a black woman: Guyanese poet and local resident Cécile Nobrega.

Based on and named after her own poem, Bronze Woman took 10 years of planning, fundraising and determination by Nobrega and other groups and individuals who wanted to mark the struggles faced by Afro-Caribbean women, as well as their contribution to society.

The statue was designed by renowned sculptor Ian Walters, whose many famous London sculptures include the Nelson Mandela statue next to the Royal Festival Hall.

Sadly Walters died before the project was completed. But the project was picked up by London-based sculptor-artist Aleix Barbat, then a final-year sculpture student at Heatherley’s School of Fine Art.

Eventually, on 8 October 2008 – during Black History Month – the sculpture was unveiled, with the help of the then 89-year-old Nobrega.

Do you know anywhere else you can find a bit of Guyana in London? Tell us in the comments below.

http://blog.visitlondon.com/2011/02/guyana-in-london-stockwells-bronze-woman/

London culture

Into The Wild: Heaven & Earth at Menier Gallery (review)

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(Visit London, 22 October 2010) Yesterday I popped into Heaven & Earth, a striking new exhibition of African photography at the Menier Gallery.

Snapped by Cape Town photographer Caroline Gibello, the sundrenched, over-exposed photos show the wildlife, landscape and people of Botswana and Namibia in a new light – literally.

Instead of lush greenery and the bright colours we usually associate with Africa, the photos have a stark, dried-out feel. This is intensified by the choice of subject matter – the cracked texture of elephant hide, dry grasses and local people walking through clouds of dust.

The photos reminded me of the increasing water shortages in Africa, and beyond. However, the unusual beauty of the wildlife and landscape, plus joyful photo names such as Courage, Spirit and Reverence, can’t help but lift your spirit.

Judge for yourself by stopping in at the exhibition. Make a night of it by nipping next door to Menier Chocolate Factory for dinner or to catch Samuel and Timothy West in A Number, the downstairs theatre’s thought-provoking new show.

Myerson Fine Art presents Heaven & Earth at Menier Gallery until 30 October.  Entrance is free.

http://blog.visitlondon.com/2010/10/into-the-wild-heaven-earth-at-menier-gallery/