Here is the first part of a two part conversation with Errol Ross Brewster. Part II can be found here.
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. My niece, Susan Brewster Taylor is an award-winning architect in Jamaica, and one of my cousins Sandra Brewster, alumna of my old school the Ontario College of Art and Design, is an award-winning artist in Canada.
VP:- Your biography mentions that you were already an exhibiting artist before you went to art school in Canada. Please tell me about your early work. What was your relationship to other emerging artists in and from Guyana at that time?
ERB:- Aa a teenager many of my friends had an interest in art and we would hang our paintings on the fences of public places in the city. We were following the example of other artists older than ourselves, who had loosely organised themselves into a group with a name which I’ve forgotten now, and had written a manifesto for one of their outdoors exhibitions – something unheard of in Guyana, at the time.
Carl Martin was one of the leading lights of that group. We had attended the same secondary school at different year levels, but had the same art teacher – a British expatriate – John Criswick. He remained in Guyana for many years, and was much interested in the folk traditions of the Guyanese people. He schooled a considerable number of Guyanese artists. Angold Thompson and Victor Davson are two others who readily come to mind. I was greatly impressed by all three of these artists. Criswick, was a great portraitist. The portrait he did of the first President of Guyana – Arthur Chung, hangs in the Legislature building. He was also a landscape painter, and his top students – Carl Martin and Angold Thompson also were. Unfortunately, Martin’s career had a premature, tragic end. He was, last I know, living in a men’s home in Georgetown, completely uninterested in art. Thompson, whose father Basil was also an artist, still paints in Georgetown, and Davson, went on to make an international name for himself in America as an artist of acclaim in the USA.
Georgetown, being a small community, was such that everybody knew everybody, and artists, though fiercely competitive, were highly sociable. This made for easy association with big name artists, and I knew Ron Savory, Stanley Greaves, and other leading artists quite well even though they were considerably older than I was.
My contemporaries, however, never really saw ourselves in the same vein. We were having fun, shocking the community, and going around painting murals on the walls of restaurants and discotheques that would engage us. A few did! This, and all the excitement surrounding CARIFESTA, led me to think, contrary to my parents’ understanding, that art could be a viable way of life. My father wished me to be an accountant. He, in fact, trained me in double entry accounting as a ten year old, and was encouraged by the fact that I had gotten in the School Leaving examination, a distinction in Math, as well as in English Literature The world was then in the grip of an oil crisis – OPEC having quadrupled the price of oil, at one stroke – and my painting and drawing reflected the chaotic trajectory of the world’s eco-political system. For me then Dali was a god, as was M.C. Escher.
VP:- Why did you decide to go and study at OCAD in Toronto, which was so far removed, in every sense, from the Guyanese and Caribbean art world. What did you gain from your studies there, and what, if anything, did you lose? What sort of work did you produce as an art student? How was your work received at OCAD and was it substantively different from that of your fellow students? And were there any other Caribbean students there at the time? How did this course of studies shape your artistic course even after you returned and, presumably, readjusted to the Guyanese context?
ERB:- My decision to go to Canada was informed by the fact that I had relatives there. My father’s brother’s last son and his family resided there. I did not think that Jamaica, the only English-speaking Caribbean territory where there was an art school at that time, would be appropriate for me. I did not think that there would be much opportunity for part time work there. OCAD was like a dream come true! It was fully equipped in a wide range of studio areas, and staffed by practicing professionals. It had just emerged from revolutionising its hundred-year-old approaches to the study of art and had rejected much of its own traditions. There was a Department of Experimental arts!
I was given advanced standing on entry, and exempted from taking a number of foundation courses. Their rather free-wheeling approach to curriculum allowed for what they termed ‘Inter-Realm studies’. It permitted the taking of classes in departments of the school that were not one’s declared major, and allowed for the acquiring of a limited number of credits in the final two years of a four-year programme for independent study. My concentration was in Photography, Graphic Design, and Painting.
Two things contributed to that experience not being seen by me as being so far removed from the reality of Guyana. One was that I was, as most all other Guyanese artists were, with the exception of Philip Moore and the artists of Pukari – the largest Arawak village nearest Georgetown, already greatly influenced by books on European art. The entire student body at OCAD also seemed to be, including those from Africa, China, South America and the Caribbean. Another was that Canada was as much a colonial outpost as Guyana was, being both, at one time, colonies of Britain. It was considerably more developed, materially, but their orientation was pretty much like all other colonised peoples are – outward looking and with a suspicion of not being as good as. The Canadians felt that way about the British, and grudgingly so about Americans.
I did feel somewhat out of place and on-guard for slights of a racist nature while I was there, but my brothers had studied in the UK and I knew from their stories what could be expected. Canadians express their racial animus rather differently than Americans do. It was way more subtle. This, in a certain sense, made it harder to deal with. It led to a certain kind of social withdrawal which resulted in same types congregating together. The tables in the cafeteria would invariably be such that Caribbeans sat together, as did the Africans, and the Chinese. Every group stayed mostly to themselves. I can’t remember, specifically, the works that others did, and I left there without forming any ongoing friendships with anyone. I did, in later years, meet in the Bahamas and Barbados and Trinidad with former students. Eric Cadien, whom I never met again, I remember well for the cool, calm certainty with which he responded to the tensions. It was sheltering. My cousin Sandra, many years later, started out there but could not bear it, and transferred to the University of Toronto. I did not win any prizes, or any scholarships, but I did well enough to graduate with a high pass. I did not stay for the graduation ceremony. I also went home for all summer breaks except the last when i went, instead, on a museum and gallery tour with an organised school group to New York. We toured MoMA, and a slew of east end galleries. We also went to the Whitney, and to an art museum in Philadelphia.
My professors were not enthused by my pursuit of politically focused art and encouraged an art of pure aesthetic. I compromised by doing both, with the result that my work began to look like an odd combination of Frankenthaler, Pollock and Kandinsky, for want of a better description. None of these, luckily, have survived. Fungus ate the photo-emulsion of the colour transparencies I took of them, but which I had badly stored over the years. No sooner was I out of there, that I returned to my interest in preferring to engage in an art of social transformation. It would not be for another generation, when I emigrated to America, that I would attempt a return to a painting of pure aesthetics.
VP:- You started teaching at the E.R. Burrowes School of Art in 1977 and later became Director of Studies there. While it is a much smaller operation than the Edna Manley College is today, it is, along with the EMC, one of the oldest art schools in the Anglophone Caribbean. What has been its role in the development of art in Guyana and has that changed over time? What are the main problems and challenges that have been faced by this school over time? What did you bring to the school, as one who was trained elsewhere and whose training had resulted in an artistic approach that was, at least initially, alien to the Guyanese context? And what did you get, artistically, out of teaching and shaping the programme there?
ERB:- I had on principle refused a government scholarship, they were given out by the thousands. Very few recipients returned: I did. The country was in the grip of a severe economic depression and there were shortages of every conceivable sort. Philip Moore’s sculpture students were fashioning their own chisels from pieces of scrap iron. And there I was with surreptitious image projection onto public buildings on my mind, and wanting Ektachrome film and the developers to push its ASA rating for low light photography. Paper, was a problem to get, PAPER! I tried to make my classes interesting with films on foreign artists and technical processes from the British, Canadian, and American embassy libraries, and screening rooms. I would eventually resort to making films on local artists myself. It was all very challenging, the school was completely unlike the art school I knew.
Dr Denis Williams, who had founded the school and named it for E.R. Burrowes, had tried to replicate the school that he had attended in Britain, and the programmes offered there. He was facilitated by the government, more in form than in substance. The scale of the funding was a serious problem. Compounding that problem was the fact that art was very poorly regarded, and anybody with any modicum of academic promise shot off to the university to do something practical. Art wasn’t – and this, a generation after E.R. Burrowes had started in 1948 his Working People’s Art group which for the first-time involved seamstresses and tailors and blacksmiths, ordinary people in art making. It simply wasn’t. The school mostly attracted those students who had failed academically at the secondary school level. Such students made up the majority of the student body, which numbered about fifty in any given year.
The batch of graduating students rarely numbered more than a dozen each year, back then. Incredibly, there would be among each batch two or three gems. Ivor Thom from the 70s, Bernadette Persaud from the 80s, and Winslow Craig from the 90s immediately come to mind. All of them have remained in Guyana, and they have all been involved in the teaching of art. That is mainly what graduates of the school and the department at the University of Guyana, do. Those three have made a national name for themselves, and also have a degree of Caribbean recognition. Some others have gone on to foreign art schools, few have returned, and some have established themselves in other Caribbean countries, a few, wider afield. The school is now entirely staffed by its own graduates, and a certain inbred quality is evident in its output.
My tenure as its Director of Studies was taken up with a great deal of administrative tasks. I was the de facto head of the school. There was no Administrator, so I was taken up with finding new premises for the school – it is now ensconced in a considerably bigger, newly renovated for-purpose building in the National Park; tweaking the curriculum – classes in art history, and small business management were added; developing the library and making it more accessible to students; ensuring the availability of suitable equipment and provisioning for its five studio areas; engaging contracted full-time tutors in all core areas – one of whom, a graduate of the EMC, was invited to return to take up a teaching post; initiating regularised field trips and a paid guest speaker programme; and other such things. Attendance and punctuality rates rose and an Open House end-of-year exhibition was introduced.
It was very satisfying to see students grow from indisciplined youngsters into enthusiastically engaged young artists. It was also frustrating to not be able to do more. And my painting did suffer in that between my duties at the school and to my clients I neglected to pursue it as seriously as I perhaps should. The times called my attention to more pressing concerns.
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 spectacle, though, was so great, thousands attended the opening ceremony, and the reporting on it so effusive, and not only in Guyana, that nobody noticed the schisms. I was many years later to research this festival in the Barbados archives and combine what I found there with the reporting I found in the Guyanese archives into a number of photographically illustrated information panels overviewing the many varied events of the festival.[i]
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. The only thing that Guyanese would tolerate was belly laugh performance. “Jean & Dina” came from T&T years later and was seriously booed. It’s an important social commentary piece for which the Guyanese had no patience, and theater producers dutifully followed the money. Several comedic theatre groups came to prominence after the hosting of CARIFESTA and the Cultural Center came to be known for “belly laff” productions.
I can’t speak with any authority on how this and subsequent editions of the festival impacted other host countries, but cracks in the organisational capabilities of other host countries’ ability to replicate the form of the first edition began to show in Cuba, by 1979. They hosted the third edition, Jamaica the second. I was up North at the time of the Jamaican edition in 1976, but was present on the ground in Cuba, commissioned by the CARICOM Secretariat to videographically document the events of the festival. Bulky 3/4” UMatic video cameras and recorders were the professional standard at the time, and from the voluminous footage, a half-hour programme was edited by the Banyan Studios. I’ve no idea where that video programme is now, and it’s a mystery what happened to the film of the inaugural festival. Despite the fact that it was a government of Guyana, Ministry of Information project, no one, to the best of my knowledge, has ever seen it.
There has been no successful effort to mould this festival into a form satisfying to the evolving needs of the Caribbean people. There has been a lot of unnecessary change – the logo changes with every edition, but not much necessary change – the trimming of the festival down to Discipline Specific/Small Territory Friendly versions which are held with more frequency, and better regularity (there was an eleven-year gap once) is not in the plans. And neither is an orientation away from money-driven mega-concerts towards a professionally enriching collaborative workshop emphasis, as best I’m aware.
Though close on its fiftieth anniversary, Caribbean people would still ask, “What is CARIFESTA?” The developmental responsibility of the corporate sector is unfocused, with the result that the festival’s original developmental objectives for artists are mostly, if not completely, ignored in favour of efforts to monetise aspects of the festival. I spoke, as Guyana’s representative to the symposium of CARIFESTA 2006 T&T, about the worrying practice of changing the logo for each edition. I brought a big, lighted version of that first logo to this edition of the festival to underscore its importance.[ii] It’s my understanding that the festival is now to have a standing logo. But it is not to be the original logo. That is more worrying. One would think that with a regard for history and grounding, the branding of the festival in the authenticity of its original logo would win the day. Maybe it yet might. These things shouldn’t be set in concrete.
Some other words also spoken at that symposium by the CARICOM Officer with responsibility for Culture, Dr Brown, were “We (astonishingly meaning CARICOM) never know who to talk with when it comes time for planning for CARIFESTA.” LeRoy Clarke’s view as expressed at an earlier edition in Suriname 2003, was that “the festival satisfies a small political appetite.” Elements oppositional to the govt of Guyana, at the time of its first staging, thought that satisfying political objectives was at the heart of the government’s motivation.[iii]
Despite all this, it is forever to the country’s credit that it was done. It is for the artists of today to reclaim the influence they had then over its staging, by calling for a new Conference of Caribbean Artists and Writers to chart a new way forward for this festival. It’s easy to let it be, but it can’t be left to bureaucrats!
I was a teenager at the time, and of no consequence as an artist to the organisers. Not that my age is an excuse – the youngest performer at this festival was a three-year-old pan player from Grenada. I was in the camp of those opposed to the alarmingly oppressive political culture which was slowly gaining ground in the country. Martin Carter, who was greatly instrumental in its organisation, to his credit, resigned his post as Minister of Information, in disgust over developments before the launching of the festival. And the Yoruba Singers – the preeminent Afro folk group, to the consternation of the press, never appeared. They were supporters of ASCRIA, then headed by Eusi Kwayana, an African cultural organisation much opposed to the rising culture of governance. Some segments of East Indian religious groups also withheld their participation, and the Indian community largely boycotted attendance at all the events. But it was, nevertheless, a major cultural happening for Guyana, the wider Caribbean and parts of Latin America.
© Errol Ross Brewster art works: Errol Ross Brewster, all rights reserved
[i] They can be found on my [Errol Brewster] Facebook page, under the search for “ONE MINIT PLEASE…CARIFESTA COMING AGAIN” and “HOO SEH DUH”. A fuller understanding of the time can be gotten from a perusal of those posts.
[ii] The logo was created by Billy Ryan Associates of Antigua, and chosen from among entries submitted by artists all over the Caribbean. It depicts, according to the statement that accompanied it, “a brown hand grasping he sunlight, the symbol typical of creative man in tropical areas seeking to create and fulfil his destiny in accordance with the Prometheus myth” (‘CARIFESTA’72’ by the CARIFESTA Secretariat of the Govt. of Guyana, Lynette Dolphin, Director – CARIFRSTA ’72 . )
[iii] For a more detailed understanding of the issues see: “CARIFESTA Issues – A Generation Later”:- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=frMXakdu1iY, and read Andrew Salkey’s Georgetown Journal.
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1. The original CARIFESTA design was commissioned by A.J Seymour and executed by me.
2. FESTIVAL CITY was not built for visitors. The buildings were built by co-op groups with Govt: support of working class families and ‘loaned ‘ to the Festival C/tee for housing guests and later handed over to families.
3. Congratulations on a truly stunning powerful set of drawings. Brewster’s forte.
Thanks for your feedback, Stanley. Much appreciated. The attribution of the logo is taken from the commemorative booklet, in the festival director’s introduction. We have looked at the Carifesta report and you are correct that the houses were not built for Carifesta.. They were provided by the Ministry of Housing as well as the co-ops you mention.
While I am not able to post it in the comments, as the system has no provision for images, I have a copy of the introduction in hand and can send you the relevant page via email if you wish.