I am very pleased to be able to publish this photo essay by Errol Ross Brewster, as a first post on his work. It will be followed by a two-part interview with him (click here for part I).
“BEWARE THE PROMISE TODAY” is a photo essay about the demise in Guyana, in the early 1970s, of the very first trains to be introduced in all of South America in 1846, and the impact on the Guyanese people – in particular the poor and vulnerable, of a peculiar political culture that arose in that time and has continually plagued the country until now.
It is offered as symbolic caution, and a reminder of how the placing of party politics (The Paramountcy of the Party was a much touted doctrine of the ruling party at that time) above country led to ruin then, and could likely, without extreme vigilance, now and in the future, rob the country of its new found wealth. Included is a George Lamming quote, succinctly summing up the tone of the country in the period in which these photographs were made.
They were made in the early 1980s, on B&W film and solarised in the processing to lend them an air of menace, which was a hallmark of the time. One was much later computer manipulated to introduce colour for a different emotional impact. Very few of them have seen the light of day in the four decades since they were made.
The country, at the time, was in a very oppressive mode under a government so paranoid about its legitimacy (of which it had none) that it could not tolerate free speech. Journalists and photographers were routinely harassed and worked under seriously threatening circumstances. I was banned from the national archives; arrested and hauled off to the police station on occasions; suffered equipment seizures; intimidated by police and party thugs on the streets. And it grew so dire I had to have a body guard while photographing protests and disturbances in the city.
But I was lucky: Father Darke wasn’t. He was an elderly, expatriate, Jesuit priest, who was a photojournalist for the Catholic Standard newspaper and he was killed by party thugs in broad daylight as he covered a protest in front of the Magistrate Court in this same period. This is also the period in which Dr Walter Rodney was assassinated.
Errol Ross Brewster
A society partially impoverished by the burden of supporting an unnecessary and alarmingly high ratio of military persons to civilians (an increase of 800 % over ten years) is what Guyana had become by the 1970s.
Compounding the problem was the government’s equally alarming lack of vision. The absence of foresight that attended the demise of an infrastructural support on which the poor and vulnerable depended did not “build”. Its impact was to “destroy”. It disregarded the historically significant value of the first trains to be introduced in all of South America in 1846
Trains propelled America to the status of an economic superpower in the world. The placing of the country’s interests over personal political interests could not in a poor underdeveloped country have driven the choice to scrap them.
It’s fashionable now to regard industry as the engine of growth. We seem not to realise that the fuel for that engine is culture – the very way we are. The adulteration of that fuel gave rise to a lack of regard for history and our engine sputtered and stalled.
The wheels of our economy ground to a halt under the arrogance of blaring sirens announcing the arrival of backwardness, and a dangerous political culture which evolved into a tradition is today still proudly on display.
That absence of vision left and continues to leave strewn in the way forward the carnage of vehicular accidents on the pot-holed roadways, and innumerable other hardships rippling throughout wide swaths of society, with the poor feeling the brunt of that abdication of good sense in favour of relatively small personal benefit.
Impacting people, not as a glancing blow or a side swipe,
but full on, and leaving in its wake a trail of overgrown societal failures.
A persistence of that abdication kept people locked in a disadvantaged state
with such empty sloganeering as “Make the Small Man a Real Man” spewed ad-nauseam in the faces of broken people lying paralysed by poverty on city pavements
and literally sinking into the dark depression of the grave
after the exhaustion of endless protest for bread and water,
and even more prayer.
Prayers to try to stave off the normalisation of that which in an earlier generation, characterised by Martin Carter in poetry as “…the terror and the time” would have been taboo.
People felt that spiritually, they needed to be bathed anew. And George Lamming would in time come to describe the tone in the country thus: “Today we meet in a dangerous land, and at its most dangerous of times. The danger may be that supreme authority, the supervising conscience of the nation, has ceased to be answerable to any moral law, has ceased to recognise or respect any minimum requirement of ordinary human decency”[i]
It was a struggle just to face the dawn and make the day’s catch,
or to reap the riches of labour in the field where was planted what felt like it could be the last batch.
Guyanese faced this daunting struggle with an astonishing spirit of determination to overcome, and with a high degree of innovativeness. Should they, with this experience of leaders putting their personal interests, and that of their party above country, trust their new found wealth to this same culture of governance which gave rise to a regrettable decision to run the very first trains in all of South America into ruin?
Beware the Promise Today!
Errol Ross Brewster is a Caribbean artist living in the United States. With more than four decades of a Caribbean-wide, multi-media imaging practice, he has participated in multiple exhibitions, regional and international – in various editions of CARIFESTA; the EU’s Centro Cultural Cariforo traveling exhibition, 2000; the International Triennial of Caribbean Art, 2010; and the Inter-American Development Bank’s Sidewalks of the Americas Artistic Installation, 2018.
© Text and images: Errol Ross Brewster, all rights reserved
[i] Essays, Addresses & Interviews 1953 – 1990. Edited by Richard Drayton & Andaiye. London: Karia Press, 1992.