Reflections on the 1980 Exhibition, ‘Images’ of Dudley Charles by Bernadette Persaud
Assassins of conversation
They bury the voice
They assassinate, in the beloved
Grave of the voice, never to be silent.
– Martin Carter
The following article, commenting on the ‘political substance’ of an exhibition entitled, Images, by the distinguished Guyanese artist, Dudley Charles, was published 33 years ago in the Catholic Standard on 19 October 1980. The paintings in that memorable exhibit daringly critiqued the legendary ‘Anancy’ (Forbes Burnham) holding court in a brutal arena of ‘sharp steel’ and interrogated the assassination of Walter Rodney.
Though the themes of Charles’ canvases remain topical and the death of Walter Rodney heatedly debated today, we would like to bring to the attention of a new generation of artists and art students the incontrovertible fact that works of ‘political substance’ have always been part of Guyanese Colonial/Postcolonial art-history – from E R Burrowes, Philip Moore, Stanley Greaves to Dudley Charles, Bernadette Persaud and Desmond Alli, among others, in and out of the mainstream.
Contrary to what has been dangerously propagated by the National Art Gallery, there is no contemporary artist who is ‘a pioneer in the political substance of his messages’ (See catalogue entitled, ‘Innovators’, February, 2013). Works of ‘political substance’ (sic) and overtly political works, critical of the status quo, have never been snuffed out – even when reduced to a trickle, in the most desperate of times (as Charles’s exhibit so aptly illuminates).
For the young artists of Guyana, this is the most important lesson of that 1980 exhibit of Dudley Charles: ‘never to be silent’, never to be complicit with the questionable doings of the status quo – at all times – despite the ever present “assassins of conversation”.
Catholic Standard 19 October 1980 — REFLECTIONS
The just concluded exhibition at the Umana Yana featured daring and revolutionary images. Charles’ new forms, with their full –blooded vigor and intrinsic honesty, starkly contrast with those which have in the past graced the Umana: studied, clever concoctions of form and colour, by his contemporaries – excursions into the realms of Cubism, Surrealism, Primitivism and other fashionable ‘isms’ – pale into insignificance next to his images of pain, pathos, cruelty, horror and oppression.
It is a momentous happening in the field of Guyanese Art! The Artist has finally managed to transcend the ongoing intellectual agony over Identity and Roots. He has dared to respond as a human: has refused to be numb and detached; and this constitutes a landmark when one considers our arid aesthetic traditions over the last decade.
GRIM, GHASTLY POLITICAL IMAGES
Charles’ obsession, for many years, with images of the Old Colonial House (obviously encouraged by his patrons) illustrates visually the old futile quest for identity. In this exhibition (25th September – 2nd October, 1980), which features not only his latest work, but a selection of his earlier pieces, one sees clearly that the Gothic and Georgian paraphernalia of intricate tracery, turned balusters, carved mouldings, and ghostly presences, are all superseded by grim, ghastly, political images.
Most significant was the central, overwhelming image of ‘Anancy’ – a green, loathsome presence emerging from a primeval jungle. Such images as ‘Death of a Slave’, ‘Anancy Story II’, ‘Landscape (Shadows)’, the ‘Crucifixion’, and the ‘Transfiguration’, became charged with new meaning in the presence of this legendary character.
‘Anancy Story II’ depicts sinister, sharp forms, fused into a closely-knit, dynamic design. One can almost hear the clanging of dark metal and cries of agony. Surely this is a part of the tragedy of our society.
DEATH OF WALTER RODNEY
‘Death of a Slave’, captures, not merely that terrible moment when Walter Rodney is killed, but shows dramatically that in death, his is the final victory. For though the body lies blasted apart, the arm rises, outthrust, defiant, in a seemingly clenched fist – a symbol of his undying hope and utter belief in man…’dear Comrade, I salute you and I say/ Death will not find us thinking that we die.’(MC)
One views the ‘Crucifixion’ with a mixture of revulsion and anger. It is a cruel caricature of a man whose life was an embodiment of genuine compassion and humility: a man reduced to a laughable, ‘comic-strip’ figure. This canvas shows an ill -proportioned body strung up on a cross – which captures of course his real crucifixion after the death: a broken body, ridiculed, cartooned, flayed and the nails finally driven in …… ‘he was a bright chap, after all’ ……..One can almost hear the Comrade Minister chirping….
And finally, in the ‘Transfiguration’ one sees the body still on the Cross, enveloped in clear blue flames, the face warm, vital and aglow, as in life – but the heavy-lidded eyes, forever closed in death. It is an utterly simple composition, its rigid symmetry reinforced by a rhomboid-shaped frame: a moving testimony to a people’s sublimated grief.
No one can leave such an exhibition undisturbed.
Bernadette I Persaud
(Re-published, with slight revisions, through the kind permission of the Catholic Standard)
The editor of The Arts Forum Column and The Arts Journal, Ameena Gafoor, may be reached by e-mail: [email protected] or by Telephone: 592 227 6825.
The art editor of The Arts Forum Column and The Arts Journal, Bernadette Persaud, may be reached by e-mail: [email protected] or by telephone: 592 220 3337
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