Bernadette Persaud: “I’m trying to show that here is beauty”

Guyanese artist Bernadette Persaud tells Ruel Johnson about her work and her quest to reveal the beauty in all things, even in cultural loss, even in the man with a gun

Colours of America (1999), mixed media constructionColours of Self/God (1996), mixed media constructionGuyanese artist Bernadette Persaud

I was born in Berbice, but my father was a teacher, and we moved about a lot. In fact, at one time he was stationed in Linden [a mining town in the interior of Guyana, formerly named McKenzie], and we were there during the racial disturbances, and we had to move.

I started out both my career as an artist and my adult life with a very iconoclastic view of everything, of life and religion and God. My family were Christian — that is, Christian converts from Hinduism. In fact, I belong to one of the first Hindu families that were converted in that area in which I lived, and that is something everyone else was a bit proud about. It took years for my mother to tell me that one of my uncles was a pundit. For me, personally, though, God was not around. For a long time in my youth, I questioned, and it’s not that I was convinced there is no God — I was more agnostic.

Early on, I was very much aware of our political situation, and the thing is that, back then, you tried to get away from it, escape, to seek a retreat from the brutal realities of the time, to get into nature and flowers and so on, but there was no real retreat. Right there in the [Georgetown Botanical] Gardens you’re confronted with certain political realities which nobody admitted to.

Nevertheless, I grew fascinated with flowers, and arising out of this interest I discovered the lotus lily, which became more than just a simple flower for me — it became a powerful symbol. It opened me to ancestral cultural ideas.

I realised that this lily that was so sacred to my ancestors had never held any real significance in my life. It had withered. For me it came to reflect the state of what was happening in Guyana at the time, the decay that was overtaking everything.

From there my artistic outlook was concerned with two issues primarily. One, the political thing, was the gentleman with the gun, who became the international soldier — who became, more specifically, the US soldier. The other, what I call the cultural thing, concerned my own cultural predicament as a Christianised Indian.

That predicament led me to an investigation into Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. I grew up within a Christian home, and I read the Bible very early on, so the next thing I did was to get a copy of the Koran. I wasn’t very impressed then, but I rediscovered Islam in the early 1990s, during the Gulf War. I had just gotten a television at that stage, and when I looked at the news all I saw was the CNN commentators talking about and dealing with the “Other”, and I saw that that is how we look at things in our own society. The music the “Others” make, the songs they sing, don’t impact on us, and the beauty of it is lost.

When I reread the Koran, and saw that every sura began with a tribute to Allah the beneficent, and his mansion among the stars, I couldn’t reconcile that with the image that was portrayed on the television, that of a militaristic, brutal people who only knew war. I painted my first Gulf War picture very soon after that.

As for the cultural aspect of my work, it comes out of concern for the preservation of certain things. For example, a few years ago, the youngest daughter of a relative of mine passed away, and at the funeral the girl’s mother was inconsolable. She kept weeping and crying out, “Who gun do me dead wuk for me? This me last daughter”, and it seems that the woman’s older daughters had all converted to Christianity. Her youngest had promised her mother to remain a Hindu, in order to perform the traditional funeral rites when the old lady died. When I was younger, I used to say that the old people were old-fashioned or narrow-minded, but now I understand more this deep sense of loss. I can understand a bit more now, when you see an old couple crying because their son or daughter has married outside of their tradition.

In all of my work, whether I’m dealing with the ancestral cultural aspect of it, or whether I’m dealing with the man with the gun, I’m trying to show everyone that here is beauty — which, though it may be close to you, you don’t see, you don’t notice, because of your own conditioned blindness and ignorance, your own cultural limitations. This is what motivates me, this is what I try to take on in my art.

You see somebody with a beautiful religious artifact, and you don’t want to touch it — you’re afraid of some obeah jumping out of it to get you. Or another example: I’ve used the symbol of the triangular jhandi flag in some of my work. These flags fly in people’s yards all over Guyana, but they’re often ignored or regarded with disgust. People just see them as tattered old pieces of cloth, but even this is not strictly true. Some flags are embroidered with the most beautiful calligraphy and artwork, and I’ve represented this in my paintings.

On the flip side of this, I don’t believe that people should be forced into accepting other people’s culture. A friend of mine, a non-Hindu, called me up one day during Phagwah, and said that he had forced everyone in his office to eat parsad [a traditional Hindu sweet used as a religious offering], and I was appalled. I wouldn’t have eaten had I been there.

The people I paint for are the people who are part of the cultural tradition from which my painting emerges, and the people who are willing to see beyond the other. Sometimes the person who appreciates what I try to say provides some curious irony. For example, one art critic has repeatedly referred to some of my work as my “Indian” paintings, and there is this sense of condescension within that label — a trivialisation of what I’ve set out achieve.

And then there was the case where I showed a painting to a neighbour of mine, an ordinary working man, a Hindu, and he understood it; and he pointed out what he saw as its one flaw to me. I was trying to make Kali look beautiful, and I painted her with her tongue in her mouth. He pointed this out to me, and said that her tongue should be hanging out.

I think that I’ve been justly recognised for my work. I remember when I was awarded the Arrow of Achievement [one of Guyana’s national honours] a few years ago. I called up the then president, Janet Jagan, and asked her if she had recommended me for the award. She told me that she hadn’t, and I felt so relieved. It meant that when I received the award there would not be the perception I had been given it just for my speaking out against the former regime, that it wouldn’t seem to be a political reward.

In the long run, what I think I’m searching for is a new colour, one that is truly indigenous to the Caribbean, one that truly represents all of us.