The evolution of Guyana’s Art and Culture over the years

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“Although National Service to my mind was an unfortunate development, coming out of it was an artistic movement, and in fact, one of Guyana’s greatest female poets came out of that,  Mahadai Das;  and then there was Rajkumarie Singh, who was a matriarch of culture, – Creighton


Art and culture are important in any nation, as they serve to give an identity.  While many may not recognise the distinction between the two, experts overtime have been working tirelessly to raise awareness.

One such expert is Mr. Al Creighton.  Creighton is the Director of the Confucius Institute of the University of Guyana, Director of the Guyana National School of Theatre Arts and Drama, and Secretary for the Guyana Prize for Literature. But many would recognise him as a critic, playwright, writer and poet.

During an interview with the Guyana Inc. Magazine, he said that often, culture is used loosely. It, however, has a much wider meaning, and in fact, incorporates the way people live in every respect.

“Architecture is culture; the clothes that you wear is culture. Culture is a very wide thing. It is a social and anthropological thing, but not artistic,” explained a passionate Creighton.

But art, according to him, is very much a part of culture. This is owing to the fact, he noted, that people are able to express themselves through art. In different cultures, there exist different artistic expressions, thereby allowing for art to emerge from culture.

“Very often art is linked to, and rooted in culture, but there is a wide range of different kinds of art. Some of them are not traditional, some of them are traditional and sometimes it is very difficult to define that,” Creighton admitted.

What can, however, be concluded, is that when one speaks of art and culture it usually comes down to: the artistic form, the performance form, the literary form, as well as traditional practices and beliefs.



Our first people, the Amerindians, can definitely take credit for being the pioneers in the promotion of art and culture. But according to Creighton, when it comes to individuals who have been impactful in this regard, due attention must be given to Sir Walter Raleigh. The English scholar, Creighton noted, was responsible for writing about the discovery of Guyana.

It was in fact, this individual, who first promoted the El Dorado notion in his book ‘The Discoveries of Guiana’ (published in 1596). That has been so profound, that since then, and up to now, people have been writing about it and exploring it in art, and they haven’t finished yet, Creighton considered.

There were a number of others, who overtime, contributed as well, including a cadre of foreign writers who visited Guyana and wrote about the Amerindian culture and about their beliefs, their myths and legends.  Those were good contributions. Because the many writers have written it down that is how people know about these things today…at different times there were different people writing, underscored Creighton.

But among the significant contributors, was the founder of modern Guyanese literature, Egbert Martin, who wrote under the pen name ‘Leo’ in the 19th Century.  Creighton is convinced that ‘Leo’ is the first writer who can be deemed an established Guyanese writer. There were, however, several others.

While some created the basis for the advancement of the local literature culture, there were others, the likes of Simon Christian Oliver, a free slave, who, to some extent, did not.  There were others who opted to advance the black culture and others who centred on things India.



As time elapsed, the way was paved for writers themselves to evolve. Arthur James Seymour is undoubtedly one of the great poets who did a great deal to advance the Guyanese culture during the pre-independence period and onwards, Creighton noted.

Some of the modern day writers, such as Wilson Harris, David Dabydeen, Martin Carter, Pauline Melville, among others, emerged and were also able to push Guyanese literature forward. And then there were the contemporary musicians and dancers, such as Helen Tate, who helped to propel the Guyanese culture even further.

Creighton himself is no stranger to advancing Guyanese culture. He has, for a number of years, directed immense focus on developing drama through the National School of Drama and at the level of the University of Guyana. He modestly admitted that at one time he was in charge of creative arts. This saw the introduction of a number of programmes in drama and creative writing at the University.

In addition to this, he has been involved in the directing of many plays and has been both a critique and writer of Guyanese art and culture. “I have done a lot of reviews and extensive research,” recounted Creighton, who has many publications on Guyanese art and culture to his name.

“All of the things I have done I hope would have contributed in some way to the knowledge about art and culture,” said an optimistic Creighton.



While there is always need for more support, Creighton, from an informed standpoint, acknowledged that throughout the years, Governments have been supportive of the arts and culture. This has been the case, he noted, since the dawn of independence (May 26, 1966). This, according to him, was emphasised through CARIFESTA, which was notably developed from a conference held in Guyana and characterised Caribbean artists, writers and musicians being invited here to express themselves. “They were the ones who actually designed CARIFESTA and that was a big contribution…”, said Creighton, as he added, “I have always seen attempts by Government to advance art and culture.”

Then there was Government’s introduction of the History and Arts Council which eventually turned into the Department of Culture among other things that have proven to be instrumental.

Creighton is convinced that even the National Service had its role in helping to advance art and culture within Guyana’s 83,000 square miles.  “Although National Service to my mind was an unfortunate development, coming out of it was an artistic movement, and in fact, one of Guyana’s greatest female poets came out of that,  Mahadai Das;  and then there was Rajkumarie Singh, who was a matriarch of culture,” Creighton recollected.

It was Government, too, that created the Guyana Prize for Literature in 1989, which Creighton described as a major contribution. It is good that all of the Governments since then have supported it so that it was able to grow and continue.

But financing for the advancement of art and culture could never be too much. There is always room for more money to be put towards development and that is not happening, said Creighton who, however, acknowledged that under the previous regime, a way was cleared for increased support through a Ministry of Culture.

Art and culture will play a major part when Guyana celebrates 50 years as an independent nation. The celebration will, however, occur under a regime which Creighton has dubbed “still very young”.

“There is more to be seen, but so far they have continued most of what is going on since they took office…” said Creighton, as he reiterated that there has been a lot done by successive Governments, but there is always room for more, and the cry is always ‘more money’ and of course ideas.



But there are other challenges to the advancement of art and culture. Some areas, according to Creighton, are fading away simply because the younger generation is not interested and some of the older folks have not been making an effort to pass on information.

He directed focus to cultural traditions that the country was formerly rich in but are no more because of this development. The country has lost and continues to lose, said Creighton, as he spoke chiefly of the Amerindian languages and culture.  “A lot has been lost and I don’t know what can be done to revive these things in a large way,” he confided.

While some areas are fading, however, there are others, such as drama, that are proving to be very promising. This he has attributed to the work of the National School of Drama that has been encouraging the involvement of young people.

“We have been seeing results in the national drama festival…this was something else that represent a government contribution that has really been developing drama in Guyana,” added Creighton.

“There is also hope for creative writing, music and particularly dance, which has in fact been flourishing over the years because of the presence of the School of Dance since 1979. Another area that is slowly being advanced is that of ‘spoken-word’ poetry. It is an area that is slightly controversial because some people do not regard it as art…but I think a Guyanese art can develop out of that,” Creighton asserted.

He, however, lamented the fact that technology, though capable of expanding a lot of horizons, has also been a detractor to the advancement of art and culture.  “I don’t know that it has expanded creativity; in fact it might even have limited creativity, because people are not reading and that is a great loss. I don’t know if the gain is greater than the loss.  That could be debated!” said a thoughtful Creighton, who has every intention of using any means possible to continue to advance art and culture in Guyana.



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