Caribbean Conversations: Errol Ross Brewster (Part I)

errol-brewster-thirsty-boy

Here we share excerpts from the first segment of a two-part conversation with Errol Ross Brewster published by Veerle Poupeye in Perspectives.

Errol Brewster is a Caribbean artist from Guyana, living in the United States. With more than four decades of a Caribbean-wide, multimedia imaging practice, he has participated in multiple CARIFESTA’s; the EU’s Centro Cultural Cariforo, “Between the Lines”, travelling exhibition, 2000; the First International Triennial of Caribbean Art, 2010; and the Inter-American Development Bank’s “Sidewalks of the Americas” installation, 2018.

Veerle Poupeye: You were born and raised in Guyana. Tell me about your family background there and how your early years put you on track to become an artist. Was your decision to become an artist supported by your family? And do you have any other artists in your family, then or now?

Errol Ross Brewster: I’m the last of 4 children, born in 1953, in Guyana, to a mixed-race family in which my eldest sibling was 17 years older than I, and the youngest 12 years older. They were early sent abroad for further studies, and I found myself as a virtual only child by the time I was 5 or 6 years old and kept from playing with the neighbourhood children, because of my father’s aspirational working class attitude that saw them as a possible influence on me that should be avoided.

It may have heightened my interest in the life of the so-called lower classes, and that interest found expression in my art years later. At the time, I simply turned inwards. I turned gleefully to routinely making an absolute mess of the drawing books and painting sets my elder siblings sent me gifts of. I would entertain myself with drawing what I saw out the window of the other children’s play, and I took a great delight in transferring the comics in the newspapers by coating then with candle wax and burnishing then onto my drawing books.

It was probably having to spend so much time alone that sparked my interest in making art.  In the doing, hours would go by unnoticed. And many years later, in 1974, I would leave my first job after two years to go to a Canadian art school. While I worked as a teller at Barclays Bank DCO, I would at every chance I got draw on my desk pad, those customers waiting to be attended by other tellers. I was not interested in banking, but it was the best paying job a high school graduate could have, and I saved my money with the intention of going away from this problematic country. We’d just experienced CARIFESTA’ 72 – the first ever, and it seemed that being an artist, in addition to being most interesting, was also a viable prospect. I ignored the cautions of my parents, who nevertheless supported me in my decision to go. I had no idea what long term challenges I’d opened myself up to. There were no other visual artists in my family before me, though, my father, it must be said, was a prolific writer of poems, and some were actually published in an American anthology of poetry. [. . .]

VP: You were a young artist in Guyana when the inaugural CARIFESTA was held there in 1972. How did you view that initiative and the cultural vision it represented? Did you participate, as an artist, and, if so, what did it do for you? And what was its general impact on art and culture in the Caribbean, in your estimation? What are your views about how CARIFESTA has evolved over time, and where it is at now? Is it still a useful, galvanizing presence in the Caribbean art world? Is the vision that initially produced it still relevant today?

ERB: CARIFESTA did something for all of the 27 Caribbean and Latin American countries which participated. We had never before seen each other as close up as we did over those 22 days in 1972. Yet, few if any of the thousands of artists who came had any idea of the slow-motion slide into dictatorship that the host country was experiencing. It was, nonetheless, a watershed event. Arising out of the Caribbean Artists and Writers Conference in 1970, when regional luminaries converged on Georgetown, shortly after the first Conference of Non-Aligned Nations, that same year, CARIFESTA was a humongous organisational challenge, to which the cultural leaders of the country rose spectacularly.

Foreign Affairs was a major initiative of a government lacking legitimacy at home and seeking to shore itself up with a grand, progressive, forward leaning, people-centered foreign policy. It was anything but. They backed up this rhetoric that promoted Caribbean unity and which bucked against the dominance in the world of Super Powers with the hosting of CARIFESTA, and the first Conference of Non-Aligned Nations as signals of their progressiveness. Recently declassified documents show that the governing party was continually in receipt of CIA funding whilst spouting socialist rhetoric. The Americans, had nine years earlier, funded the longest strike in Guyana (90 days), against the Jagan government, to the benefit of this party. For the Americans, anything was better than the Communist Jagan. It was the time of the Cold War and Guyana was integral to American fear of communist influence in the hemisphere. The government gave full facilitation to these two events, and they were brought off with great distinction, but not without telling divisions also. Some were fueled by ethnic allegiances, and some ideological differences.

[. . .] The main legacy of the festival for Guyanese was the revelation of the need for training. One unexpected boon was in the housing sector. Hundreds of houses were built to accommodate visiting delegations. Festival city, it was called. It was an entire housing scheme which later was made available for purchase by correctly aligned party people. It also brought several cultural institutions into being. A notable one is the National Dance School. An interesting fact surrounding this institution is that a dancer – Lavinia Williams, who came for the festival as part of the Haitian Delegation stayed in the country the longest of any member of a visiting delegation. She established the National Dance School and directed it. For eleven years, she remained in Guyana. The E.R. Burrowes School of Art is another that came into being three years later. The National Cultural Centre was built for the occasion.

Another interesting fact is that the roof of the Cultural Centre had not yet been put on by the time the festival was put on. It had to have an enormous imported canvas tent installed as a temporary roof. There was serious discontent in some quarters that the government had used monies to build the Cultural Centre that had long been set aside for the repatriation of East Indians back to India. And moreover, it was suspected that the government had canvassed invited delegations to send mostly African type cultural contingents. The Barbados Advocate newspaper’s headline of September 5,1972 screamed “FEARED VOODOO TAKES OVER AT CARIFESTA!”. But the Barbadians had no idea about the internal dynamics of the schism in the Guyanese cultural community. The feeling on the other side – the government supporters, was that those East Indians were long now West Indian and not going anywhere any time soon. These kinds of schisms would in time lead to the establishment of “Little Guyana” – a predominantly Guyanese East Indian community in Queens, NY. Scarborough, in Toronto was a favoured destination for Portuguese Guyanese. Guyanese are now the fifth largest immigrant community in NY. Soon “any port for a storm” drove people, not just Indian and Portuguese, anywhere they could find safe harbour. Nobody runs away from anything good!

CARIFESTA forever changed the character of Guyanese theatre. The Guyanese contribution to the Drama section of the festival was the only non-comedy. “Couvade” by Michael Gilkes was a serious identity play. Every other drama contribution was a comedy, and forever after that, no serious play could succeed in the Guyanese theatre. [. . .]

Though close on its fiftieth anniversary, Caribbean people would still ask, “What is CARIFESTA? [. . .]

[Image above: Errol Bewster’s “Thirsty Boy.”]

For full interview, see https://veerlepoupeye.wordpress.com/2019/11/02/caribbean-conversations-errol-ross-brewster-part-i/? 

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