A Guyanese Art Show Explores Images of Migration and Home-Making

Kwesi Abbensetts’s My Dreams Talk About a Place (left) and You Booked Your PassageEXPAND
Kwesi Abbensetts’s My Dreams Talk About a Place (left) and You Booked Your Passage
Courtesy the artist

Two strong threads run through "Un | Fixed Homeland," an exhibition of thirteen Guyanese artists at the Aljira contemporary art center in Newark, New Jersey. One is the show's premise: a gathering of artists with roots in Guyana that addresses the critical role of migration in the country's modern history. The other is photography, both as artistic practice and as an archival language for family memories that most of these artists integrate into their work.

There's a lot to mine. A British colony until 1966, Guyana built its economy on sugar plantations, with labor imported first from Africa, as slaves, and then from India, as indentured workers. But in the past thirty years, Guyanese have emigrated in large numbers, to evade political strife and seek opportunity; in New York City alone, they are the fifth-largest foreign-born population. Few families have members in just one place, and movement (departures, visits, returns) continues.

This state of flux lends the show vitality and keeps it from settling into nostalgia. The artists represent the diaspora in different ways: Some grew up in Guyana, others not; some visit there often, others barely ever. When curator Grace Aneiza Ali went to Guyana to research the exhibition, for instance, it was her first visit in twenty years, since she left as a teenager.

"That diversity of contact mirrors the Guyanese experience," Ali tells the Voice. The role of old photos in the work likewise resonates with her family story. "We came with maybe forty photographs, and they were the most precious thing to us," she says. "I found it fascinating to see how artists used their own collection in their work, not just to talk about Guyana but to talk about the universal experience of migration."

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A particular strength of the show is how it manages this deep dive into Guyanese lives while also offering points of entry for visitors of any origin. An installation by the Brooklyn-based Keisha Scarville is particularly effective. Its centerpiece is a panel dotted with copies of a black-and-white passport photo of a young man, each of which Scarville has altered in a unique way, rendering it tender, elusive, or grotesque. Some of the photos are framed; others are pinned to the wall in clear plastic sleeves.

The man is Scarville's father, age sixteen; the photo was taken in 1955. It forms the basis of more than a hundred pieces Scarville has made since 2012. "I was transfixed by the passport photo as visual currency," she says. "There's something about the formality of the passport photo, these guidelines on how to present yourself to the camera. I wanted to create a body of work that unearthed the narratives that are embedded in it."

Passport-size images, these of different men, taken from newspaper obituaries, also appear within a mixed-media collage by Donald Locke. Locke, who died in 2010, is one of two figures included who represent an earlier generation of Guyanese-born contemporary artists. The other is Frank Bowling, whose vivid Mother's House With Beware of the Dog (1966) includes an image of his mother's grocery store, with two vintage photos of the building hung beside it.

But the show mostly reflects the interests of younger diasporic artists, as well as the rise of a photography scene in Guyana, enabled by digital technologies, that Ali was keen to represent. It's the first international showing of Khadija Benn's portraits of women in pastoral landscapes. And a self-portrait by Karran Sahadeo shows him at night, in a crumbling colonial house on his laptop in bed under a mosquito net — a classic articulation of modern life in a poor, tropical country.

Two strong video pieces lend "Un | Fixed Homeland" further texture, each featuring compelling use of text. One, by Los Angeles–based Maya Mackrandilal, overlays scenes from a river journey to her ancestral village with a poetic narration that links "kal pani" (the "black water" the indentured workers traversed) to "lal pani" (the "red water" of her mother's blood). The other, by Roshini Kempadoo, tells four stories of immigrants in London from various countries in staccato, experimental style; snippets of text flash on the screen, renderings of the SMS and Skype conversations that punctuate their lives.

The show's total effect is cosmopolitan and particular, a bridge slung in either direction as needed. For New York–based Kwesi Abbensetts, who grew up in rural Guyana but hasn't returned since 2001, it has meant a chance to re-engage with the place he left behind. Abbensetts, who gives a talk at the gallery on July 30, made a series of canvases for this show that mix family photos with text, paint, and materials such as rice. "Guyanese, we're not very loud, so we don't really get noticed," he says. "I never expected a show like this would happen in the U.S. But now that it has, anything is possible."


‘Un | Fixed Homeland’
Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art
591 Broad Street, Newark
973-622-1600, aljira.org
Through September 17


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