How 13 Artists See Guyana

Featured Guyanese artists Erika DeFreitas (second from left), Kwesi Abbensetts (third from left) , Marlon Forrester (third from right) and Michael Lam with curator Grace Ali (center) during the opening reception of the “Unfixed Homeland” exhibit on July 16th. (Photo by Melissa Noel for Voices of NY)

Featured Guyanese artists with curator Grace Ali (center) during the opening reception of the “Un | Fixed Homeland” exhibit on July 16. (Photo by Melissa Noel for Voices of NY)

What does it mean to have a homeland that is no longer home? That single question has at least thirteen answers represented in the work of the Guyanese artists being featured at the “Un | Fixed Homeland” exhibit in Newark, New Jersey.

These Guyanese artists, both emerging and established, use photography and photo-based art including self-portraits, passport photos and both archival and present day images of Guyana to explore the relationship of what “homeland” means and the complexities of it. 

“I did not carve out a rigid definition for it. I wanted people to come to a definition of what it means to a have fixed or unfixed homeland on their own,” said curator Grace Aneiza Ali, herself a Guyanese immigrant.

Several of these artists no longer live in Guyana and are now part of the Guyanese diaspora. Others were born to a Guyanese parent or parents in the United States, Canada or the United Kingdom, so their ideas of their “homeland” are distinctly different.

“Un | Fixed Homeland”, which is on display at Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art in Newark, New Jersey, uses art to reflect the emergence of the Guyanese and larger Caribbean diaspora in major cities around the world due to migration.

“We framed this exhibition in context of a bigger story and that is the story of migration,” said Ali who is a professor in the department of art and public policy at New York University (NYU). “Very few people have been untouched by this narrative of migration and Guyanese people, including Guyanese artists, have had this experience. They have been negotiating migration for the last 50, 60 years.”

Guyana, a former British colony, is the only English-speaking nation on mainland South America as well as the only Commonwealth or Anglophone Caribbean country on the continent. The country just celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence in May.

Over the last three decades or so, Guyana has seen a mass migration of its citizens — many seeking more economic opportunities. The country’s current population is only about 750,000 and there are actually more Guyanese living outside of Guyana than in the country. In New York City, in particular, Guyanese are the fifth largest immigrant population.

This reality is why Ali felt it important to feature artists who do still call Guyana home as well as those who are part of the large diaspora in cities like New York, Toronto and London. Erika DeFreitas, an emerging Canadian artist of Guyanese heritage, is one of those artists.

DeFreitas’ featured works in the exhibit are self-portraits of her and her mom with handmade face masks made out of green, yellow, and purple icing.

Erika DeFreitas, a Canadian of Guyanese heritage is one of the 13-featured artists in the Unfixed Homeland” exhibit. (Photo by Melissa Noel for Voices of NY)

Erika DeFreitas, a Canadian of Guyanese heritage, is one of the 13 featured artists in the “Un | Fixed Homeland” exhibition. (Photo by Melissa Noel for Voices of NY)

“The cake icing is something that my grandmother had done. My mother learned how to make cake icing from my grandmother. And my mom has been trying to teach me how to do cake icing,” said DeFreitas who has yet to visit her “homeland.”

“I think the work itself and the way I work with my mother is a way of us working on our relationship…but it’s about me learning about her which is essentially then learning about Guyana,” she said.

For artist Marlon Forrester who is Guyanese-born, but now lives in Massachusetts, being a part of the exhibition is inspiring and a way to link the many experiences of migration.

“We are all connected. Each work has it. It has a common thread of that [homeland] experience,” he said. “To be here under Grace’s amazing curatorial and conceptual thinking and how to create a show that has this impact and being here with other Guyanese artists of this breadth and of this talent – it’s humbling.”

“Un | Fixed Homeland,” which opened on July 17, has been so well received at Aljira that the exhibit has been extended through Friday, Sept. 23.

A celebration of the exhibition will follow on Sept. 24 with a dinner party featuring both traditional and new age Guyanese cuisine to be prepared by Guyanese-born chef Marilyn Lawrie-Rogers of Sisters Caribbean Cuisine in Harlem. 

Ali believes the exhibition is relatable for everyone, whether they are Guyanese or not because there is a universal theme to it“It’s not something unique to Guyanese. Everybody can engage this question. What does it mean to have a homeland that is no longer home?” she said.

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