2001—The Year in Arts
by Al Creighton

IF we attempt to sum up the issues and events in the literary and performing arts at the end of the year 2001, we may find that the greatest impact was made in the field of literature. For those international developments with a direct Guyanese context, literature predominated in the overall picture, both locally and overseas. But inside of Guyana, literature shared centre-stage with two aspects of the theatre. While dance was prominent among the performing arts, the greatest impact in the theatre was made, not by any performance, but by the absence of drama. Then, alongside the devastating decline of the theatre during the year, were the rise of poetry readings and the vigorous debates over V S Naipaul's receipt of the 2001 Nobel Prize for literature.

In the extended world of Guyanese literature, there was a grand celebration of the country's most outstanding novelist, Wilson Harris. In March 2001, the world celebrated Harris' 80th birthday with many events, including symposia coordinated by Hena Maes-Jelinek, a leading Harrisian critic. The University of Liege in Belgium also conferred on him an honorary Doctorate of Letters for his amazing contribution to literature, including works of fiction, theory and criticism.

That this should take place in 2001, the first year of the 21st century and of the third millennium is significant, since Dr. Harris' fiction has been preoccupied with time and the survival of civilization. Faber and Faber published his latest novel, The Dark Jester, which continues his devotion to those themes. This book exhibits Harris' fondness for images of the theatre as well as the revolutionary changes he has achieved in the form of the English novel. The Dark Jester dramatizes man's rehearsals of the history of the second millennium, including the wars of mankind against himself and his determination to destroy humanity. In Harris' cross-cultural fiction, man, wearing the theatrical masks of different races, brought about the destruction of the great civilizations of the Americas.

Celebrations of Guyanese literature continued in academia, not only with Harris' own honorary PhD, but with theses written by students of his work. Michael Mitchell completed a study of Harris, David Dabydeen on Derek Walcott at the University of Warwick's Centre for Caribbean Studies and Gemma Robinson completed a doctoral dissertation on the work of poet Martin Carter at Cambridge University. While both Mitchell and Robinson are British, Guyanese born academic Denise de Caires of Sussex, published a critical work on the subject of gender in West Indian writing.

Also in 2001, the BBC took an interest in the Guyanese past with a two-part documentary called Guyana, the “Forgotten Colony” designed and narrated by Dabydeen. This delving into the past was also reflected in the BBC's decision to film Brother Man, a 1954 novel by Jamaican Roger Mais, and Merchant Ivory' s just concluded filming of Naipaul's The Mystic Masseur. Then another Guyanese writer, Fred D'Aguiar, was a member of the panel of judges for the IMPAC-Dublin Prize for fiction.There were other achievements in fiction for Guyanese writers belonging to the Kempadoo family. Onya Kempadoo, whose Buxton Spice received much attention, critical and otherwise in 2000, completed a second novel set in Tobago this year. Then, in the continued revisits of past novels, Peepal Tree reprinted Guyana Boy by Peter Kempadoo. The book, originally published in the 1950s, is one of the early novels written about rural Indian life in Guyana.

Recalled to Life

Inside of Guyana, literature was also relatively lively. Poetry and prose readings have recently been recalled to life, with British High Commissioner Edward Glover hosting a series of literary evenings during 2001. However, catalysts to this development, were the members of the Association of Guyanese Writers and Artists led by Roopnandan Singh, while the Ministry of Culture and the newly formed Janus Young Writers Guild joined in.

Also a part of this rejuvenation, were the very lively Naipaul debates which exploded in Guyana and Trinidad among other places. They followed the announcement that Sir Vidia Naipaul had won the Nobel Prize, which, while a triumph for the Caribbean, was itself followed by controversy to which Naipaul is no stranger. The hot debates injected new vigour in the flagging tradition of public discussions about literature in this country, even if some of the loudest arguments arose from the reading of remarks made about Naipaul rather than from the reading of his books, and were more about socio-politics than about literature.

Also significant in this literary activity, was the launching of the novel Hendree's Cure by Moses Nagamootoo, who is better known as a politician and a journalist. It documents life among the Madrasis at Whim on the Corentyne. The book attracted some attention. Its inclusion on the Guyana Prize shortlist for First Books of Fiction was itself a tribute, but it was also noticed by Caribbean Beat, the BWIA magazine. Not surprisingly, Nagamootoo's journalistic inclinations limited his ability to successfully turn documentary into fiction.

Book Fairs

There were two prominent book fairs during the year, another feature of literature's rising prominence. A book exhibition accompanied the major conference on West Indian Literature hosted by the University of Guyana at the Hotel Tower in 2000. But in 2001, the scale was more public. The first fair was mounted by the University's Berbice Campus. It attracted booksellers, libraries, research centres and other institutions from Georgetown and Berbice, as well as the public and a large school population.

The second was mounted by the Guyana Book Foundation, with very wide participation from several different sectors and special interests. Notably, while the foundation's event was prominent and inspired a Stabroek News' editorial, the usual academic modesty that discourages self promotion, the location far away in Tain, or a deficiency in public advertisement, caused less attention to he paid to the Berbice Campus' fair which preceeded it. Akin to a book fair is a film festival and it was the British High Commission which again provided one during the year, mainly offering screen versions of Shakespeare's plays. The highlight of the series, however, was the feature film, Elizabeth, about the greatest English Queen of the 16th and 17th centuries who was a patroness of Shakespeare.

The Reign of Dance

While 2001 will not go down as a brilliant year for fresh artistry in dance, it saw this discipline maintain its place at the top of the theatrical arts in Guyana. The year witnessed the rewarding hard work put in by some practitioners, the setting of traditions and the survival of dance despite a major slump in local theatre. The major annual productions, which include “Nrityageet,” “Naya Zamana” and the performances of the Indian Cultural Centre, held their own under the leadership of Indira Shah, Vindya Persaud and Nalini Mishra. Dr. Mishra rose to greater prominence as both choreographer and dancer in the major Indian shows as well as in performances hosted by High Commissioner Prakash Joshi, whose own contribution was also noteworthy. But the National Dance Company, led by Vivienne Daniel, was particularly prolific and most consistent in quality. In addition to a good annual season, there were other productions such as a special one to mark African heritage. This high productivity, however, again turned to overwork, although it was very rewarding for a company of committed dancers, and for the systematic training coordinated by Linda Griffith in the National School of Dance, whose students performed in the usual Studio to Stage.

The Decline and Fall of Drama

Dramatic productions, on the contrary, took another battering this year, with productivity falling even below the meagre levels of the year 2000. There were only three full-length plays: Silent Sins and The Hypocrite by Jianna Tyrrell, directed by Fitzroy Tyrrell, and Michael Duff's Crabs in a Barrel. Added to that was the annual Awe Society which included The Mango Tree, a one-act play by Ken Danns as well as the Theatre Company's Link Show and Twenty, a retrospective production to celebrate the company's twentieth anniversary.

This achievement by Guyana's first professional theatre company was the only thing worth celebrating for the year. But to this may be added the rapid ascendancy of the Tyrrells as notable newcomers to local playwriting and directing. Their swift rise is a credit to their enterprise, but a further reflection of the crisis. The year 2001 was Guyanese theatre's annus horribilis. Yet this dramatic crash to six from years when the number of plays easily exceeded twenty can see no promise of an improvement next year.


December 7th, 2001
© 2001