Guyana | Ruminations by Carl Hazlewood a ‘Foreign Guyanese’ Artist

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“Pretty Angel Baby,” Carl Hazlewood. Mixed Media Installation. 2012


Carl E. Hazlewood is a Guyanese artist, writer and curator, living in Brookiyn, New York. He is co-founder and former curator of ALJIRA, A Centre for Contemporary Art, in New Jersey. 

There have been several occasions in recent years where I’ve been accused of being a ‘foreign Guyanese,’ that term being used deliberately to suggest, I felt, that I had no right to be involved with things I assumed was within my cultural sphere of interest as a ‘born’ Guyanese. As one might imagine, such encounters induced moments of extreme psychic dissonance for me. What was I? Who am I? Why do I feel such a responsibility to folks who seem so disinterested in whatever I had to offer? And what is the responsibility of that place and those people to me?

I was taken to the United States at around the age of thirteen or so. I was there to have a congenital heart defect repaired. And except for a period of about two or three years when I was a teen, I’ve since resided in America. Thus, I’ve spent only a fraction of my life actually located in Guyana. But what does that mean about the quality of my experience as someone of that place and of that soil? When my little family left Guyana in the 1960s, the country was in the grip of a vital and increasingly violent political and social struggle. Even as a child I could feel that tension present everywhere, for it affected us all. The land was an impoverished beauty, and like the rest of the Caribbean, it remains an ambivalent site of both desire and desperation.

I was away from Guyana before I was old enough or healthy enough to have the common experiences I hear about every time there is a gathering of Guyanese: parties, dancing, drinking. I’ve never climbed a coconut tree or picked a mango off a branch, or went swimming in a ‘punt trench.’ My childhood experiences were circumscribed and mainly focused on intellectual and artistic pursuits: books; whatever presentations the BBC broadcasted, like Lorna Doone or Shakespeare plays; all the international news of far away countries fighting for independence; and tales of Nationalism, bloody wars, and survival.

“The land was an impoverished beauty, and like the rest of the Caribbean, it remains an ambivalent site of both desire and desperation.”

Now I struggle to recall the difference between the fruits jamoon and psydium. I think they are both purple and round and sweet. But I remember Cockabelly, the tiny fish flashing silver in the gutter that ran outside our fence. I remember Hindi popular music on Radio Demerara’s Indian Music Program.

It’s odd how much one can still care about the old homeland no matter how many years fly by. Like the vague image of a long ago lover, the personal Guyana I struggle to hang onto falls apart in the glare of reality, a consequence of passing time, frustrated desire, and failing memory.

In Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables there’s a passage where Hugo speaks of the ways in which physical places from our pasts become holders and place cards for psychological memories and experiences:

But when we are distant from them, we find that those things have become dear to us, a street, trees and roofs, blank walls, doors and windows; we have entered those houses without knowing it, we have left something of our heart in the very stonework. Those places we no longer see, perhaps will never see again but still remember, have acquired an aching charm; they return to us with the melancholy of ghosts…

I suppose it’s all about the continuing need to affirm roots, our stubborn wish to be planted in the ground, which we imagine has always been ours—by nurture and by blood. This lingering emotional dependency, the immigrant yearning to retain something that’s truly our own is perhaps understandable. When we left the land of origin, we looked forward to having a secure future in that other place where we hoped to establish a new life for our families and ourselves; it would be a place where we could be safe, somewhere we might thrive emotionally and economically.

But no matter how we adapt and speak the language and intone words with the perfected accent of the native-born, there remains a nagging sense, at least for first generation immigrants, that we are abiding among strangers. The habits and tastes of the homeland, masked though they may be, remain.

So, after a lifetime of desire and distance, home becomes an abstract zone of yearning; a need for tropical heat, an irrational wish to suck on a mango, obtained not from the corner supermarket, but plucked from the backyard tree of our hot myth of childhood, which is perhaps a memory, but probably only another artifact of desire. Despite our established presence here in the ‘other place,’ we know what we are, and hope that we understand WHO we are. But does our old country care? What are we to IT?

I exist now in an extended global Guyana village along with lots of inhabitants: intellectuals, artists, novelists, poets; people like Stanley Greaves, Wilson Harris, Donald Locke, Frank Bowling, Fred D’Aguiar, and a host of ordinary others.  Despite my often-unrequited love, desperation, and disappointment, I find myself still actively engaged in constructing that hybrid culture that may ensure the survival of what is most vital and important about my distant homeland.


The essay above is excerpted from Carl Hazlewood’s lecture on “Nuanced Fragments from the Global Village,” presented to the Ninth Annual Symposium of the Guyana Cultural Association of New York in 2010.

Image: "Le Repentir." Carl Hazlewood. Oil on Hardboard. ca 1966-67.

____________________________________Of Note Magazine is a sponsored organization of Artspire, a program of the New York Foundation for the Arts, a 501 (c) (3), tax-exempt organization. All donations are 100% tax-deductible to the full extent of the law.

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7 Responses to “Guyana | Ruminations by Carl Hazlewood a ‘Foreign Guyanese’ Artist”
  1. Dear Carl,
    There are many of us who do fall within the established category of “Foreign Guyanese” but how does this matter in the 21st Century. Remember that the tender age at which you had Surgery for the medical cardiac condition in the States, was due to the fact that a life threatening condition in the area of Cardiac technology was non existent in the land of Guyana. This was a time when out of compulisive necessity people were fleeing the land of their birth in herds and droves,if only to find and breathe an air of freedom and freedom from fear of the Gestapo that ruled the land of Guyana. Today in the Budget Debate in the Guyana’s Parliament, it is not nostalgic nor nostalgia to hear the leader of the political party with the largest number of seats say that many Guyanese do not know who is Jagan and who is Burnham. He says to the country that Burnham died 27 years ago and Jagan also died 15 years ago.So I take it that the people of Guyana who were born after the 1961 general election of that year and in 1962, after the great riots,arson and looting of stores in Water and Regent street, Guyana do not read or study the history of Guyanese politics in pre and post Independence period of 1961-1966 and in the 28 years of Burnham’s and Desmnond Hoyte’s rule of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana. Whether you sucked a mango or climed a coconut tree it does not matter but what is that compelling attraction to the land of your birth is the solemn fact that your nevel string is buried under some mango tree there. This is also true for all those who fled from the dear land of Guyana of rivers and streams, the word foreign may add a twist to the reality of your being a Guyanese but it does not subtract from the fact of who you are and your contribution to the historical, cultural, religious plethoria of another Caribbean rainbow country. If history is to be retold those hundreds of thousands Guyanese who fled Guyana during 1961to 1970 and continues to do so even today, must simply answer to their siblings why they fled Guyana of 83,000 square miles and never looked back. The generations who were born after 1961 need to know what caused people to flee from the murder, mayhem, rape and looting and beating that was so characteristic of the Burnham’s political dynasty. Thank Hoyte for agreeing to the President Carter’s Intervention that a new Guyana was born with an old but deserving face at of the Country after Hoyte conceded to the Victors of the Sanitized Voters Registration and electoral listing of that era. Generations to come must also ask the question who were the real heroes of the Freedom struggle in Guyana. Were they the conglomeration of Anti Jagan forces operating as the Anti-Communist forces in Guyana and wanting to bring down the government of Cheddi Jagan after the 1961 general elections? Who were the heroes of our freedom struggle which eventually enslaved Guyanese and suffocated their thinking and took away their freedom. You and many like us would have been in that land of our natural birth had it not been for the years of racial, political, and economic turmoil that Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham and his political cronies unleashed on Guyana and the Guyanese people. Today it saddens every heatr to remember the savage and untimely death meted out to Prof Walter Rodney and Father Drake of the Catholic Standard newspaper. It saddens all of our hearts to know that an American Fugitive Rabbi Washington,was the hit man of the then ruling party which was likened to the Gairy of Grenada’s Mongoose gang.
    We are free at last! let us live our future and remember our past years 1961 to 1992 and make sure that the historians will not forget the Wismar holocaust of 1961-1962. Our children and grand children will not forgive us for the lack of enlightenment of the years of turmoil, mayhem, political intrigue, murder and the mass exodus of Burnham ruled Guyana. The population of inside Guyana is some 751,000 people It has remained so for forty years due to outward migration. There are some one million Guyanese and foreign Guyanese living in foreign lands that they adopted as their new homes and took the oat of allegiance to those lands. God bless you Carl for inspiring me to remember the sad past of the home land and to educate some who will not talk or write of those years 1962-1992. God Bless Guyana!.

  2. Jan says:

    Thank you Mr. Hazlewood for saying so eloquently, what some of us feel deep in out hearts. Thanks also for the apt quote from Hugo, especially ‘…we have left something of our heart in the very stonework.” In the case of guyana, the woodwork.

    Mr. Hazlewood you are Guyanese. Your navel string is buried there. (I am deliberately using the present tense.) Thirteen years was a long enough time for you to “…have left something of (your) heart.” Your art reflects the “aching charm.”

    Perhaps the nonchalance you experience from the diaspora is the mechanism used to mask the deep pain of longing, to escape “the melancholy of ghosts.”

  3. Very well said Carl. What we as West Indians living outside our home countries have all struggled with is that reception from our countrymen, who have come to view us as foreigners in our own land. It is ironic that many Caribbean institutions have now focused their energies on increasing the input of our Diaspora across the globe in the region’s development process. Hopefully the attitudes will converge and understanding and respect will be the result.

  4. Shelly Daniels-Obermuller says:

    Hi Carl:

    Here is one person who validates you as a person and thrillingly, as an artist. Since I last saw you as a child in N/E, hoping and praying that your surgery would be successful, I am now reviewing your extensive resume. INCLUSION, must remain the theme of our collectiveness. No one’s story is more valuable than another’s – each is simply different. I am thankful that you chose to faithfully embrace the land of your birth. Now, we all witness your achievements. We all need each other. GUYANA needs you. GUYANA needs us all. Blessings to you and the family.

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