“My work is now concentrated on drawing attention to the indigenous people and how they have lived with the environment in mind. I hope this will lead to a general acceptance that man is related to the environment; that the environment is not just bland, but is full of life and has deep meaning.”
By Neil Marks
Later this month, George Simon will be one of the speakers at a three-day conference hosted by the Institute for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Leeds, in the United Kingdom.
The conference brings together scholars, professionals and arts practitioners to investigate the ways in which sacred traditions – in diverse cultural and historical contexts – have shaped discourses and practices of empowerment, emancipation, change, resistance and survival.
Simon’s inclusion as one of the conference speakers attests to the superlative nature of his body of work, and has bearing on his international acclaim as one of the best known Lokono Arawak artists in Guyana, the Caribbean and indeed, the world.
As the conference organizers describe it, George’s paintings, murals, and sculptures have been the sites of an intense personal dialogue with the diverse sacred and spiritual traditions of Guyana, as well as other countries in which he has lived over the years, including England, Haiti, Chad and Canada.
“His artistic practice and his dense, dynamic and vividly oneiric artworks are defined by their unique exploration of indigenous Amerindian cultural and spiritual traditions in Guyana as well as their explorations of other spiritual traditions, including Haitian vodun (Voodoo), Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism,” the conference says.
The organizers have noted that his special interest in shamanism and shamanic practice, in particular, have a tangible influence on his work, and his artistic practice and his work as an archaeologist are inextricably interwoven.
His archaeological investigations have been into Amerindian material culture in Guyana and its relation to history and cultural memory.
From next month, George will be involved in a seminal archaeological project in Berbice led by Professors Neil L. Whitehead and Michael Heckenberger: ”Materializing the Past: Linking Lokono (Arawak) Ethnography, Indigenous History and Archaeology”.
Indeed, George’s accomplishments deem him a ‘Special Person’.
A group of Lokono Artsists he nurtured, not only became excellent artists, but represented the major force in Art in Guyana in the 1990s and 2000s, when Guyanese Art, especially sculpture, had almost disappeared. And they had come from almost nothing. They introduced a major new vision and creativity in Guyanese Art.
St Cuthbert’s native
George was born on April 23, 1947, at St Cuthbert’s Mission, located up the Mahaica River. His parents, now deceased, were Olive and Mark Simon. His father was a wood cutter, harvesting logs for sale. His mother served as a housewife.
He attended primary schools in the village, but at age 12 he was adopted by an English Anglican priest named James William Pink, who was at the time serving the Mahaica River churches. When the priest was re-assigned to serve the Upper Demerara river parishes, he took Simon with him to the mining town of Linden.
Because of the racial violence which gripped the town in the early ‘60s, the priest was re-assigned to the St George’s Cathedral in the capital Georgetown and took Simon with him.
He was enrolled at Christ Church High School, where he pursued studies in English, Mathematics, Geography, Hygiene and Physiology.
Art was on the curriculum, but there were no teachers. George decided he would take the exam for art anyhow, rummaging through as many art books as were relevant. His concentration was charcoal drawings. He passed the exam.
From 1970, he worked for Sandbach Parker Shipping Company in Georgetown as a Discrepancy Clerk, and thereafter moved to Essex, London, when his foster father retired from the Anglican Diocese and moved back to England.
In 1972, he enrolled at Grey’s Technical College in Thurrock, Essex, to do the Advanced Level examination in Art, namely Print Making and Advanced Art, with a focus on Painting and Drawing. He later read for a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Fine Art at the University of Portsmouth and graduated with Honours in 1978. His studies focused on Art History and 19th Century Art.
George’s earliest output as a painter, in the mid-1980’s in Guyana, directly reflected his heritage in depictions of Amerindians in traditional costume and activities, followed soon after by a second phase which, less pictorial but still representational, again recorded elements of Amerindian life. His travels to England for visits and for study in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and subsequent time spent in Africa, Canada and the Caribbean, notably Haiti, from the late 1990s, resulted in a shift in content and technique in his work. Always with a cosmopolitan destiny it seems, his peripatetic missions have informed his output as he continues to absorb and interpret many influences and experiences.
Yet, just as in his physical travels he often returned to Guyana and to his native village of St. Cuthbert’s, so he has always referred closely to his own Amerindian culture as a central and defining element in his work.
The starting point of much of his work has roots in his origins and to his professional interests, such as the petroglyphs examined or seen by the artist in Guyana, in the Caribbean and in North America. In so doing, his abstract linear markings detail the Amerindian presence of thousands of years ago.
Influence by an icon
Much of his tutelage came from the late Denis Williams, the brilliant artist and polymath painter, novelist, academic, archaeologist and anthropologist whose professional distinction spanned institutions in London, Africa, the United States and the Caribbean region.
As Director of Art and Anthropology from the 1970s to the early 1990s, Williams’ contribution to the arts in Guyana is most notably expressed with his founding of the Burrowes School of Art, the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology, his stewardship of the Museum of African Art, and as administrator of the National Collection of Art.
On his return to Guyana with a Fine Art degree from Portsmouth Polytechnic in 1978, it was immediately to the Burrowes School as a lecturer that George was seconded, with Denis Williams his Director. A close professional relationship and friendship was to develop, with Williams a rigorous taskmaster but also a highly informed, critical eye and sensibility which guided the artist Simon, shaping his ideas and instilling confidence through the formidable depth and range of intellectual reference that he possessed.
It was to Williams that he owed his introduction to the disciplines of archaeology and anthropology and its revelations of the indigenous cultures of Guyana, which were to so stimulate and enrich his future work.
Williams, having by 1984 completed five years of intensive archaeological work in the North-West of Guyana, which most notably had resulted in the discovery of a virtually intact 7,000 year-old skeleton, asked George to accompany in his place two American anthropologists into the interior. It was thus at Shaperiymo village in the Rupununi in southern Guyana that Simon was to encounter the Wai Wai for the first time, in response making detailed drawings of a Wai Wai house, its interior and exterior structures.
This experience was to directly inspire the making of significant paintings for the first time since George’s return from England. These works, such as Flautist and Wai Wai Elements are now in the National Collection of Guyana.
George became Denis Williams’ research assistant at the Walter Roth Museum from this period and worked with him until 1992, accompanying Williams or on his behalf working at sites throughout Guyana. It was on one of these trips that he made a discovery, in a cave in the Pakaraima Mountains, that was to become and remain a key source in his current obsession with spiritual power, its source and its manifestations, within world cultures and individuals.
Simon came across an urn with a distinctive carving around its rim of a serpent swallowing its own tail, a symbol of the continuity of the cycle of life and death. The vessel contained human bones and was obviously a burial urn.
George has pointed out that the Serpent, or a variation of it, is a symbol of the life force in many cultures, notably Indian, yogic culture, where the life force is expressed as a ‘serpent of fire’, the winged serpent or dragon of Chinese culture, and the plumed or flying serpent, Quetzalcoatl, of Meso-American cultures.
He notes also the importance in Amerindian cultures of the great snake, the Anaconda, and that the Orinoco river’s name is an Arawak or Lokono language one literally meaning ‘mouth of the serpent’ (oh noroko). The Lokono word, OriyO, which means water-spirit, also key in Amerindian mythology, similarly means ‘mother of serpents’.
In recent times, George has developed somewhat of a preoccupation with elements of Amerindian spirituality, which are, as in most belief systems, an expression or a reflection of elemental forces.
The visual and written manifestations of this ‘life force’ and its elements are indeed the myths, legends and symbols of Amerindian and other cultures. Simon thus explores a particularly powerful phenomenon of the Amerindian belief systems in his ‘Kanaima’ series: representing the sometimes human, sometimes supernatural form believed to do harm as a vengeful killer, move faster than light and take the shape of powerful animals: the Shapeshifter or Beswado and the Assassin, being examples of these.
Other works feature cruciform/tree imagery. The power of the earth in fact, symbolized in various animal manifestations, and of the sun (he speaks of solar and serpent power), unite in one work as two forces promoting growth. He points to the tree as a ‘link’ between sun and earth, and adds, ‘the serpent is a part of the tree’. Masks and heads derived from African artifacts also feature, with some forms clothed in a bou bou, a long, caftan-like African robe, reflecting George’s sojourn in Africa and in Haiti.
In his works you see not only his training as a printmaker, but more directly his experience in a workshop with three Haitian artists in December 2004 where the latter, using local and home-made materials, worked on paper and with inks, oil pastels and watercolours. George has continued much of his work using these means since then, creating effects with the resistance of oil and water-based materials, and sometimes with sprinkled sand.
Shaping a new generation
As far back as 1988, George set up a workshop in drawing and design in his village, St Cuthbert’s, in an effort to guide many of the artists then in early stages of development. Despite his travels, he remains the force behind the group, arranging and urging participation in exhibitions.
A group of 10 artists has emerged as Guyana’s finest, including Oswald Hussein (one of Guyana’s finest top sculptors) and sculptors Lynus Clenkien, Roaldn and Telford Taylor and Foster Simon.
He orchestrated the setting up of an Art Centre in St Cuthbert’s Mission in September, 2002.
George travelled to the African Republic of Chad in December 1998 and worked with the United States Embassy Public Affairs Department’s Language Centre. He served as Director of the American Language Centre, but his love of art and of mentoring others soon set in.
He expressed a keen interest in African art and African artists, and this moved him to galvanize a group of African artists. This led to the setting up of an Art Studio in Chad’s capital city, N’Djamena, called House of African Art.
The sale of African art helped to raise funds to sustain the studio and when Simon left Chad, the studio was handed over to the government of Chad.
But, George did more in Chad. In English class, he came across a group of students who were part of a musical group called H’Sao and promoted them aggressively.
In 2001, he was instrumental in getting the band to be Chad’s representative at ‘’Jeux de la Francophonie’, a gathering of athletes and artistes of the French-speaking countries of Africa which was held in Canada. The team won the bronze medal, and remained in Canada. The group eventually settled in Montreal. H’Sao is nominated for the Best Album of the Year in the 2010 Nomination List recently released by ADISQ, the Organization that honours excellence in the Quebec Music industry.
George went to Lyon, France in 2001, where he was Artist in Residence at the Arts and Spices Gallery and exhibited there, later moving back to Canada. He coordinated a group of Amerindian dancers and musicians for performance at ‘Guyana Festival’ in Canada, to celebrate Guyana’s Independence in May 2002.
In that same year, he moved to north Haiti and set up Escola Nueva, a school where he taught English, Art and Music. There also, he set up a musical band, though it didn’t enjoy the success that H’Sao did.
George is now a Member of the Teaching Faculty in the School of Education and Humanities at the University of Guyana, and has had much of an influence on young artists, such as Anil Roberts.
“My work is now concentrated on drawing attention to the indigenous people and how they have lived with the environment in mind. I hope this will lead to a general acceptance that man is related to the environment; that the environment is not just bland, but is full of life and has deep meaning,” George asserts.
As a result, a big part of his work now is pushing for a robust group of environmental artists in Guyana.
In addition, he is passionate about developing the Bina Hill Institute (for which he serves as a consultant) in the Rupununi region, which he hopes could become a hub for spawning new talent. The goal is to set up a National Institute for Fine Arts. He also sees the Bina Hill Institute as being ideal for the setting up of an anthropology research station.
George’s dream is to set up a facility, maybe a scholarship programme, to support artists who are unable to develop their skill. He is currently using his own finances to fund the school of a young artist he sees potential in.
George holds a B.A Fine Art (Hons) from the University of Portsmouth, U.K and an M.A in Field and Analytical Techniques in Archaeology from University College, London. In 1985, he won the Painting Award in the National Exhibition of the Visual Arts, this country’s major Fine Art exhibition, and in 1998, he received the Golden Arrow of Achievement (A.A.), for exceptional contribution to social and community work among the Amerindian Peoples of Guyana and for exceptional contribution to the arts and culture.
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