Here is part II of my conversation with Errol Ross Brewster. Part I can be found here.
Veerle Poupeye:- You were born and raised at a time when Guyana was entering a period of political and ideological radicalism, which significantly impacted the course of the country itself but which were also connected to and influenced developments elsewhere in the Caribbean and in Africa. What was your position towards/in these early developments, as a young man, and how did this influence your work and general outlook at that time?
Errol Ross Brewster:- Oppositional elements in Guyana’s long struggle for free and fair elections, understood the duplicitous nature of the State’s stance on the international stage with regard to liberation struggles. Leaping forward many, many years, more than a generation in fact, so that the foregoing statement could be better understood, I draw your attention to the leading Guyanese, and Caribbean intellectuals and political activist, whose collective response to the South African Government’s announcement of its intention to confer, posthumously, on President Burnham a high honour for his generous contributions to their liberation struggles was to object. South Africa was made to withdraw their intention to confer this honour under pressure from this group. Charity begins at home and the President was much less than charitable, warning of his “sharper steel,” with dissent in his own country. He could not at the same time be a champion of liberation struggles.
“Until the ignoble and unhappy regime that hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique, South Africa, in sub-human bondage, has been toppled, totally downstroyed…well, EVERYWHERE IS WAR!”, such as that galvanised our understanding of the world. The Guyana government, were not enthused about Rasta messaging. But Count Ossie, and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari were shown the royal treatment because it suited their duplicitous international objectives to appear to be compatible with progressives. It was the time of the Non-Aligned Conference and CARIFESTA. As youngsters, we were not fooled, we understood that President Burnham was not the North Star of solidarity with international liberation struggles. Marley was!
I was of a mind that the visual signification which art afforded was to be used for social transformation. “The Abdication” is one such work. It characterises the crab in a barrel mentality which was at the heart of the fight for scarce resources on the political plane, so the Parliament building is in the background. And in the foreground is the extent to which this abdication of civility and good communal sense would make itself felt. Even the old and poor were not safe! This government had let fall in on itself the home for the aged and indigent – they met it as a grand Colonial mansion which had stood for decades and let it literally fall in on itself of neglect. Any of this is sounding familiar? Does a certain political culture seem to be at work here? Might it be prudent to warn about it?
I thought so, and so the work I made was not what people wished to put on their walls. They’re not in the National Gallery of Guyana collection, despite having being bought by Dr Williams years earlier. And they did not match people’s drapes, nor did they match with the draping of consciousness that people had to engage in to preserve their livelihood in that time. You did not have, actively, to oppose the government to be targeted. You could lose your job for who you associated with; For not attending events at which numbers, drawn from the ranks of teachers and civil servants, were required to. Increasingly, the Garden City became over run by garbage. People fell through the cracks and bedraggled beggars appeared everywhere. The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception attracted beggars by day and prostitutes by night. They could not be ignored. School children became active in anti-government protest and some took to purposeful vandalism.
VP :- You have spent a significant part of your professional life in Barbados, where you lived up to quite recently. How has living and working in Barbados influenced the direction of your work and your professional life generally?
ERB:- My relationship with Barbados goes way back. My great-grandmother on my father’s side – Sarah Seales was born in 1845 at Christ Church. One of her two daughters – Marion Millington, born in 1878 at Christ Church was my grand-mother. They arrived in Demerara. British Guiana, in the 1890s. Arthur Brewster, born 1877, also at Christ Church, married Marion, and my father Eustace was their fourth child. My mother Blanche, was the youngest of three sisters. She was orphaned early when her mother died in childbirth (a frequent occurrence at the time) and her father took his own life. Her (my mother and her sisters) earliest known ancestor in British Guyana was Williem Onderdewyngaard Canzius; born at Delft in the Netherlands in 1802, he arrived in the colony in 1820.
We were the only Brewster family in Guyana, that we knew of, and my father and his brother and their families lived pretty much to themselves. The result for our family was that we were not related to anyone in Guyana but were rooted in the country. In Barbados, there were a slew of Brewsters, but none that ever we knew, so we were related to, possibly, many but we were not rooted in the country.
Barbados was a breeze after having to generate one’s own electricity with regularity, pump all of one’s own water, supplement one’s children’s education with burdensome extra lessons, and defend your family from gun-toting robbers invading your home. This invasion was the last straw, and prompted my wife to insist that we leave. I registered the children in school in Barbados, and Pat left with them in time for the beginning of the new school year in 1999. I remained until my contract with the Government of Guyana ended at the end of the year, refused its renewal, sold our home, and joined my family in Barbados. We loved Barbados. My wife, as a child had frequently holidayed there, as did our children.
Barbados provided me opportunities I would not otherwise have had. The artists community there was very welcoming and encouraging. I was invited to participate in the Omowale Stewart-led “Di People’s Art Movement”, and participated in exhibitions of theirs, and of the Barbados Arts Council, when I could. I was involved in the Botello Gallery of Puerto Rico’s “Fotografia en el Caribe”, in the “Visions +” exhibition in the Dominican Republic, and the “Caribbean in the Age of Modernity” exhibition of the Caribbean Studies Association in Trinidad and Jamaica. My “Flight of the Spirit Bird“, an Art and History programme, was screened at another of their conferences held in Barbados.
The National Cultural Foundation invited me onto the adjudication panel of the photography section of the visual arts exhibition of the National Independence Festival of Creative arts, and to participate in consultations on developments in the arts, to speak at gatherings of artists, and even to give the featured address at the opening of the Photographic Exhibition of NIFCA. The theatre group Stage One, founded by Dr Michael Gilkes, engaged me for promotional work, and set design and construction. I did the camera work on its television adaptation of Dereck Walcott’s “Ti-Jean and his Brothers” play. The UWI’s Language Department, engaged me to contribute to its “Living Text” series on Caribbean writers, audiovisual programmes that were composed of photographic slides accompanied by recorded narration written by Dr Gilkes. I was also a contributor of culturally related content to the Carib Arts on-line newsletter, the Caribbean Intransit on-line arts journal, and the trilingual arts journal – Cariforo, among others.
I continued to be involved with the cultural affairs of Guyana, helping to structure and organise our participation in CARIFESTA Suriname, 2003, and CARIFTA T&T, 2006. My interaction with students in Barbados was considerably minimised as my engagement with the Visual Arts Department of the Barbados Community College was on a visiting basis only, and I was, decidedly, not involved with the island’s political affairs. Life was considerably more relaxed and my work began to reflect that reality. My painting became concerned with fantasies about island living.
Our main reason for coming to Barbados was that our children were failing in the school system in Guyana. Extra lessons were overwhelming their lives, leaving no time for extracurricular activities. They responded very well to the improved educational system in Barbados, graduating from Harrison College and going on in 2003, to the Florida Institute of Technology, whilst swimming competitively and representing both Guyana and Barbados at the Pan Am games in Karate, and medaling in Kumite.
An unexpected and welcome benefit was my introduction to digital technology shortly after coming to Barbados. It extended my capacity for the manipulation and control of photographic imagery. Also, all the equipment needed in analog video editing became a thing of the past, and I turned my attention more in this area. “Flambeau” a ten-minute extract from the “Man Talk” writings of Earl Warner was produced in 2010, featuring Clairmonte Taitt, a leading Caribbean theatre actor. The expectation was that videographic programming for such an under-served area as Men’s issues would be attractive to the gender studies department of the UWI at Cave Hill. That never came into being, however, and I was unable to make any other features from that body of Earl Warner’s Caribbean-wide research into the particular problems of men. It is to be screened by Dr Eva Bullen on November 19, 2019 at the University of Guyana, department of Gender Studies.
VP:- You eventually moved to Florida, in the US, where you now live. In recent years, you have become more active again, artistically. In what direction has your work moved since your relocation?
The birth to our eldest daughter in August of 2012 of our first grandson put Pat, who had already been travelling up and down during the pregnancy, in a mind now to pack up and move again. By December she was gone, and I followed early in 2013, settling at Miramar, Florida, retiring from my professional life.
I could not resist the call of the creative, however, and soon started to produce art again, but primarily for my own enjoyment. I had not drawn portraits since it was required of me at secondary school, but I took now to doing portraits of all my immediate relatives, and to indulge in a painting of pure aesthetics – something I was encouraged to pursue at OCAD, but was not fully engaged by at that time. The latter proved, whilst enjoyable in the doing, to have, in the result, a strange emptiness. A similar turn towards the aesthetic, with elements of my old interest in surrealism, could also be seen in my photography.
Remembrances of my travels in the interior regions of Guyana seemed another legitimate subject for my painting at this stage. The Taylor Commission arose out of conversations with my big brother’s eldest daughter and her husband Mark, whom I met for the first time at my elder brother’s funeral early this year. They are architects in Jamaica and asked if I would be interested in creating twelve images they could use to promote their firm and as a complimentary hand out to their clients. That request brought forth the fanciful foray into the diverse ethnic influences of the Caribbean. With them, I’m attempting to re-image the austere wrought iron work that is a telling architectural feature of the built environment all across the region.
My pursual of the pure aesthetic also got cut short by the entry of a King Midas character into American politics. He proved to have like all petty dictators invariably do, the capacity to turn everything he touches into shoite. And I turned my attention to a new series of politically inspired works in a series called “This Apple is not A Banana, Republikkk”. It’s a take on the New York’s Times’ TV ad attempt to counter the mountain of lies that come from the administration hourly. I have recently also revisited the political photographs from my years in Guyana, of which the publication, on this blog, of the photo-essay “Beware the Promise Today” was one outcome.
My intention to follow up on my new involvement with the Miramar Cultural Centre, which had invited me to participate in one of their three one-man exhibitions in celebration of Caribbean Heritage week, went clean out of my head after the exhibitions concluded. I did though, between imaginative play with my grandson Cam, and dog walking, produce two videographies on Caribbean artists exhibiting in Miramar and Miami.
© Images: Errol Ross Brewster, all rights reserved.