Word of Mouth (November/December 2012)

Illuminated street processions of Guyana Diwali, experience the work of Frank Bowling at Tate Britain, and dance to the rhythms of Jamaica Jonkonnu

  • Jonkonnu a come. Photograph by Wade Rhoden
  • Rush Green (1977), by Frank Bowling. Photograph by © Frank Bowling
  • Parade of lights. Photograph by Michael Lam

Parade of lights

Neil Marks on the illuminated motorcades of Guyanese Diwali

Every Diwali (or Divali, as Trinis spell it), Hindus turn their homes into re-creations of Ayodhya, the ancient and holy city to which their revered Lord Rama returned from a fourteen-year exile, aeons ago — a story told in the Ramayana. A lot of work goes into the preparations: the cleaning of the house might start weeks in advance, and families stock up on flour, ghee, and whatever else is needed to make sweetmeats for the joyful day. And central to the celebration is the lighting of scores upon scores of deyas, little clay lamps — which is why Diwali is known as the festival of lights.

In Guyana, those who can afford them buy the deyas. But you can still find homes where the older folks engage the youngsters in the process of making the deyas from mud dug from the trench right outside their yard. Just make sure you fetch in the nice “white” mud, and not the blackish-looking type, lest you suffer a good scolding! Once dried, the deyas are filled with oil, and a cotton wick is placed in each one a good few hours in advance.

When dusk falls, the spectacle of lights begins. Lighted deyas neatly line a passage from the gate to the entranceway of the house. Fences are used to arrange deyas in unique designs, and children light up the roadways with swirls of fire coming from burning steel wool, which they place on a piece of wood and dip into the flames of the deyas. As bhajans — religious songs — blare from almost every home, the streets come alive with spectators, and neighbours stop in to greet each other and exchange sweets.

But perhaps the biggest spectacle around Diwali time in Guyana is the annual illuminated motorcade put on by the Hindu Dharmic Sabha — scheduled this year for 13 November. Hindu temples across the country compete for the prize for the best lit and decorated float. On most floats you find a little maiden dolled up in a sari, with crown on head and a smile that seems almost pasted on, as she tries to embody the image of Mother Lakshmi, the goddess of light and prosperity, around whom the celebrations centre.

In Hindu iconography, Lakshmi is most often seen seated on a lotus. So it is with these young girls, who are then elevated onto pickups and bigger trucks, which process through various streets of Georgetown and for several miles along the coast. Enthusiasts walk along for the fun, and temple groups dance to religious or filmi music for part of the journey. Generators are pulled along, to keep the lights shining. For music, the trucks sometimes play bhajans, or else each truck’s entourage sings chowtaals — Bhojpuri folk songs that indentured Indian workers brought with them to the Caribbean.

And these days it’s not just the temples that participate in the parades. Large companies now pour millions of dollars into creating their own floats to join in — so that a “commercial” category has been added to the judging. The event culminates with a grand cultural show and the announcement of the winners, before a crowd of many thousands — like an apparition of ancient Ayodhya on the coast of South America.

Let it come down

Nicholas Laughlin visits an exhibition of Frank Bowling’s poured paintings

On a wall near my desk hangs a three-sheet “Map of the Seacoast of Guyana”, depicting the strip of land along the Atlantic Ocean where most of Guyana’s population dwells. In a sense, it is really a map of waters — more accurately, of the flow of water. Much of the Guyanese coast lies below sea level. It is a man-made landscape, drained by engineers over centuries, through a vast and intricate network of sea walls, dams, trenches, and kokers — a Dutch-derived name for sluice gates. This complex hydrological system is charted in thin blue lines across the map’s surface, densely intersecting with the greys and browns of towns, villages, and roads.

I thought of this map as I stood not long ago in a gallery at Tate Britain in London. I’d come to see Drop, Roll, Slide, Drip, a small exhibition of “poured paintings” by the Guyanese-British artist Frank Bowling, curated by the American art historian Courtney J. Martin. (The show opened in April 2012, and runs until 30 April, 2013.) Born in Bartica in 1936, Bowling left British Guiana when he was fifteen, and was educated at the Chelsea School of Art and the Royal College of Art, where his classmates included David Hockney and R.B. Kitaj. In 1967, frustrated by the British art scene and its narrow expectations for a black or Caribbean artist, Bowling moved to New York. There his earlier figurative painting shifted towards abstraction — in part thanks to exposure to the American Abstract Expressionists, but also because, as he put it in a recent interview, abstraction “isn’t hidebound by colour or race.”

Bowling began making his poured works in 1973, experimenting with techniques for deploying paint across a surface. Eventually he designed and built a special tilting platform that allowed him to pour acrylic paint onto his canvases from six feet above. Sometimes he used tape on the canvas to channel the flow of the paint. The colours swirl and mingle as they move down the canvas, until they pool at the bottom edge.

The Tate show, installed in a “focus gallery,” collects twelve of these paintings, and includes a short video interview with the artist. “I wanted to be the best artist with using colour, line, whatever,” he says. “The paintings should be their own thing” — that is, inspired exercises in painting itself, not thematic or autobiographical statements. And looked at as examples of pure abstraction, they are beguiling works, enticingly tactile: the kind of paintings you must resist the urge to touch.

But gazing into these eddies and cascades of paint, my mind went back to that seacoast chart. I remembered also Bowling’s celebrated map paintings — semi-abstractions in which the shapes of Guyana, South America, or Africa float in fields of colour — which he began making not long before the poured works. And I wondered if the Drop, Roll, Slide, Drip paintings could not also be looked at as maps — perhaps of an imagination shaped by childhood in a landscape where livelihood and indeed life itself depend on controlling liquid flow.

In the flat expanses of coastal Guyana, the pattern of drainage is an immense diagram of human willpower’s negotiations with nature. In a perhaps not dissimilar way, Bowling’s poured paintings are charts of movement and resistance, of the artist’s own negotiations with his medium’s physical limits, with the facts of gravity, viscosity, and friction.

Jonkonnu a come

Tanya Batson-Savage on the surviving tradition of Jamaican Jonkonnu

“Run! Run! Jonkonnu a come!” When as a child I heard that call, accompanied by the sound of the fife and rattling drum, coming across the hillside in rural St Andrew, I did just that. I ran. The result is that I didn’t witness a live Jonkonnu band until I was an adult — having seen only the underside of my grandmother’s bed instead.

What I missed was the spectacle of masked and costumed characters dancing along the roads of the tiny village in total reverie, while collecting contributions from bystanders to pay for refreshments or defray costume costs. Jamaican Jonkonnu — which used to be spelled “John Canoe” — is a vibrant, colourful, and (especially for the young) somewhat scary masquerade of usually male players. The most common characters are the acrobatic motley collection of rags called the Pitchy Patchy, the black-clad fork-toting Devil, and the menacing Horse Head, with its articulated mule’s jawbone. Others include Wild Indian, Cow Head, Belly Woman, Koo Koo (or Actor Boy), Jack-in-the-Green, Policeman, Shaggy, House Jonkonnu, King and Queen, Bride, and the dainty Red and Blue Set Girls and their Madame — but these vary with each band, and some are unique to parts of the island.

Jonkonnu is now recognised as an important aspect of Jamaican culture, the manifestation of the unequal and tempestuous marriage of the country’s European and African influences in the era of plantation slavery. The masquerade was traditionally celebrated at Christmas, when enslaved Africans received their sole holiday and sought release through revelry in music, dance, and satire of their masters. It reached its zenith near the end of the eighteenth century, when it had tremendous support from both the enslaved and the plantocracy, as the latter sponsored the creation of elaborate costumes as a way to showcase their wealth.

In the aftermath of Emancipation in the 1830s, the combination of politics, race, and the campaign to remove African retentions from Jamaican culture and replace them with European ideas of decency and decorum led to Jonkonnu’s near demise. But Jonkunnu did not go without a fight. In 1841, when the mayor of Kingston cancelled the masquerade the masses rioted, forcing him to seek shelter on a ship in the harbour. The masquerade tradition survived, quietly, in pockets across the island, until it was “rediscovered” in the 1940s and 50s as an example of Jamaica’s cultural heritage.

Today, a few Jonkonnu bands are peppered across the island, and at Christmas they take to the streets. But the masquerade, though not as vibrant as in its heyday, is no longer relegated to Christmas, and the characters parade to their audiences’ fright and delight at different festivals and other events throughout the year.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.