George Simon (artist and archaeologist)

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George Simon
George Simon.jpg
Born (1947-04-23) April 23, 1947 (age 67)
St. Cuthbert's Mission, British Guiana (now Guyana)
Nationality Guyanese
Ethnicity Lokono (Arawak)
Alma mater
Occupation
  • Artist
  • Archaeologist
  • Lecturer
Known for His paintings, the Berbice Archaeology Project, founding the Lokono Artists Group
Notable work(s)
  • Universal Woman (2008)
  • Palace of the Peacock: Homage to Wilson Harris (2009)
Awards
Notes

George Simon (born 23 April 1947) is a Lokono Arawak artist and archaeologist from Guyana.[1][2] He is the founder and mentor of the Lokono Artists Group, a group of Lokono artists from Guyana, based primarily in Simon's hometown of St. Cuthbert's Mission.[3][4][5] Simon is widely regarded as one of the leading Guyanese artists of his generation, and his paintings (acrylic on canvas, paper or twill fabric) are notable for their explorations of Amerindian culture and the Guyanese environment.[6][7][8] He has also been recognized for his achievements as an educator, his efforts to develop opportunities for Amerindian artists in Guyana, and for his work as an archaeologist.[1][2]

Life[edit]

Early years[edit]

Photograph of George Simon at school in St. Cuthbert's Mission, Guyana
George Simon (far left) at school in St. Cuthbert's Mission

George Simon was born on 23 April 1947 to Olive and Mark Simon in St. Cuthbert's Mission on the Mahaicony River in British Guiana (now Guyana). His father was a woodcutter, and his mother was a housewife. Simon attended school at St Cuthbert's Mission up until the age of 12.[1] Discussing his early years in an interview from 1994/5, Simon recalled the way in which the Mission school stifled expressions of Amerindian culture: "Anyone found speaking Arawak in class was flogged [...] In general, Amerindian culture was discouraged and we were made to feel inferior".[9]

When he was 12 years old, Simon was adopted by James William Pink - an English Anglican priest who was serving in the Mahaica-Berbice region at that time. He subsequently moved with his foster-father to Linden and then to Georgetown, where he studied English, Mathematics, Geography, Hygiene, Physiology and Art at Christ Church Secondary School.[1]

England[edit]

In 1970, Simon and his foster-father moved to Essex, England. From 1972 to 1974 he studied A Level Art at Thurrock and Basildon College in Grays, Essex. In 1975, Simon enrolled at the University of Portsmouth where he studied for a BA in fine art, with a special focus on art history and nineteenth-century art. He graduated with honours in 1978.[1]

Guyana[edit]

In 1978, Simon returned to Guyana and began working as a lecturer in art at the Burrowes School of Art, and then at the University of Guyana.[2] During this time, Simon formed a close friendship with the Guyanese archaeologist, anthropologist and novelist, Denis Williams, and in 1985 Williams invited Simon to work as his research assistant at the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology. Simon worked at the Walter Roth Museum until 1992, and it was during this time that he began his training in archaeology and anthropology, under the tutelage of Williams.[1][10]

As part of his work at the Walter Roth Museum, Simon took part in numerous anthropological expeditions to various parts of Guyana. These expeditions had a profound impact on his life and his artistic development. Shortly after joining the Walter Roth Museum, Simon was asked to lead an expedition to a Wai-Wai community in the south of Guyana. The expedition stayed at the Wai-Wai village of Sheparyimo for a month, conducting anthropological work amongst the community. Simon produced a number of sketches of Wai-Wai peoples, architecture and artifacts during his visit to Sheparyimo, and his experiences there provided the inspiration for a collection of paintings entitled the Wai-Wai Series. Many of the expeditions in which Simon took part involved journeys on the Essequibo River; and his fascination with that river resulted in his Essequibo Series.[11]

Speaking of his experience in Sheparyimo some years later in an interview with the art critic and historian, Anne Walmsley, Simon reflected: "This was my first experience of being in the Amazon and of being with the indigenous peoples of the Amazonas, from whom I could draw parallels with my own early life". He also spoke more generally of the way in which all of the expeditions in which he took part transformed his perspective and particularly his relationship to Amerindian culture in Guyana. He explained that prior to this period he had traveled very little in Guyana, and had felt "partially cut off from [his] people and that kind of life" due to the time that he had spent in England. His work at the Walter Roth Museum, therefore, enabled him to be "reunited with [his] people" and to explore his "Amerindianness".[12]

Lokono Artists Group[edit]

Photograph of George Simon and the Lokono Artists Group
Simon with members of the Lokono Artists Group. Left to Right: "Puffy" Clenkien, Telford Taylor, Ossie Hussein (standing), Foster Simon, George Simon and Lynus Clenkien

During these years, Simon also worked hard to improve the training and development opportunities for Amerindian artists in Guyana. Concerned about Amerindians from his village "not going very far in their education", Simon founded a drawing and design workshop in St Cuthbert's mission in August 1988.[13] The workshop fostered a number of artistic talents who have since achieved artistic recognition in their own right, including Oswald ("Ossie") Hussein, Roaland Taylor and Lynus Clenkien.[14][15] These artists - including Simon - are known collectively as the Lokono Artists Group.[3][4][16]

In February 1991, Simon organised an exhibition of his own work along with the work of nine other artists from the Lokono Artists Group at the Hadfield Foundation. The exhibition was entitled "Contemporary Amerindian Art". According to University of Guyana lecturer, Alim Hosein, the exhibition constituted a "ground shift in Guyanese art": "The exhibition [...] broke all boundaries and all conceptions of Amerindian art in Guyana, and indeed made the serious claim that there was such a thing as "Amerindian art," a claim which was based on far more than the appearance of Amerindian motifs in artwork by persons of Amerindian descent. The abundance of excellent work, the new visual imagination and the sheer number of artists [...] from this small population of Guyanese, introduced the Amerindians as a serious force in local art and added a new dimension to it at a time when expressions by other artists were scarce".[3] "Contemporary Amerindian Art" launched a tradition of exhibitions of Amerindian art that are organised most years as part of Amerindian Heritage Month.[17]

Further study in England[edit]

In 1992, Simon returned to England to study for an MA in Field and Analytical Techniques in Archaeology at University College London. Simon completed the MA in 1994, when he returned to Guyana.[18]

Travels in Chad, France, Canada and Haiti[edit]

In December 1998, Simon left Guyana and embarked on a series of journeys that would last until 2002. On leaving Guyana, Simon first moved to Chad where he worked with the United States Embassy Public Affairs Department's Language Centre.[1][14] During this time he worked with a group of Chadian artists to found an art studio and gallery in N’Djamena called the House of African Art. Together they organised an exhibition of their art work, at the gallery, in 1999. Simon also worked as manager for a local musical group, H'Sao, who won a bronze medal at the Jeux de la Francophonie in Quebec in July 2001.[1][14]

In 2001, Simon moved to France where he took up the position of Artist in Residence at the Galerie Epices et Arts (Arts and Spices Gallery) in Lyon.The gallery staged an exhibition of his work in December of that year.[1][14]

In 2002 Simon moved to Montreal in Canada. Whilst in Canada he organized a performance of Amerindian dancers and musicians as part of a Guyana Festival that was organised by the Guyana Consulate in Toronto in May 2002.[1][14]

In July 2002, Simon traveled to Haiti. Whilst in Haiti he set up a small school called Escola Nueva where he taught English, Art and Music.[1][14] Although he did not stay in Haiti for long, his time there was artistically very productive because, in his words, "Haiti is full of vibrations; full of replicas of Amerindian heritage with museums dedicated to artefacts. It is buzzing with art displayed on the streets".[14] Simon left Haiti to travel back to Guyana in mid-August 2002.[14]

Return to Guyana[edit]

On his return to Guyana, Simon took up a position as lecturer in art, archaeology and anthropology, and coordinator of the Amerindian Research Unit, at the University of Guyana. He also began work on the construction of an Arts Centre in his hometown of St. Cuthbert's Mission, which was opened in September 2002. The Arts Centre was designed to allow local artists to exhibit their work. In the same month, Simon took part in an exhibition of Amerindian art at Castellani House (the home of Guyana's National Art Gallery) entitled "Moving Circle".[1][14]

The Berbice Archaeology Project[edit]

Photograph of George Simon at work in the Berbice Archaeology Project in 2009
Simon at work on the Berbice Archaeology Project, 2009

In 2009, Simon began working on a major archaeological project in the Berbice region of Guyana with Neil L Whitehead at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Michael Heckenberger at the University of Florida.[19][20][21] Aimed at investigating the remains of ancient settlements and agricultural networks in the Berbice region, the project had its origins in an initial sighting of numerous small mounds by retired Major-General, Joe Singh, during one of his flights to the Guyana Defence Force Battle School at Takama. Singh's initial observations were pursued by Simon, who discovered terra preta soils (evidence of human inhabitance) in the area in 1987.[19] In 1992, Whitehead and Simon revisited the sites and undertook preliminary field investigations of cultural and geological remains in the area. These investigations uncovered a "vast complex of agricultural mounds in the area" and a large terra preta site named Hitia. Initial radiocarbon tests of samples taken from the site places the construction of the agricultural mounds at approximately 1800BP.[22]

Composite image showing George Simon receiving the Anthony N. Sagba Caribbean Award for Excellence in May 2012, and celebrations following Simon's receipt of the Award in his hometown of St. Cuthbert's
The Anthony N. Sagba Award: (left to right) Simon receiving the award on 5 May 2012; Celebrations in honour of Simon and his award held at his hometown of St. Cuthbert's Mission on 11 May 2012

In 2009, Simon, Whitehead, Heckenberger and David Steadman (Florida Museum of Natural History) undertook a pilot archaeological study of four occupation sites along the Berbice River. Testing of ceramic and organic materials from the sites gave a radiocarbon date of ca. 5000BP (3,000 years BCE).[23] These dates placed the materials amongst the oldest recovered in the greater Amazonia region.[24] As such, Whitehead explained that the Berbice Archaeology Project (ongoing) promised to "substantially change" current understanding of "long-term human occupation in the tropics, and particularly the important role that Arawakan peoples may have played in that process".[25] Michael Mansoor, chairman of the ANSA Awards' Eminent Persons Panel, said that the project "might cause history books about the pre-Columbian past of the Americas to be radically rewritten".[26]

Recognition[edit]

Simon was awarded Guyana's Golden Arrow of Achievement in 1998.[1] In May 2012, he was awarded the Anthony N. Sabga Caribbean Award for Excellence for his work as an artist and an archaeologist.[2][26][27]

Art[edit]

Style and technique[edit]

Composite image showing George Simon with his painting Bimichi I and working on his painting Bimichi II
Simon and the Bimichi paintings (2009): (left to right) Simon with his painting, Bimichi I; Simon working on Bimichi II.

Simon paints primarily with acrylics on canvas, twill fabric, or paper.[28][29] He builds contrasts and depth into his paintings by applying thin layers of acrylic, one on top of the other, "very gently and very tediously".[29] In the late 1990s he started to experiment with the use of gesso in order to create texture and three-dimensional patterns of relief in his paintings.[14]

Conceptually, Simon deploys a very intuitive approach to his paintings. He often begins by deciding on a dominant colour for his work, "throw[ing] paint haphazardly" at the canvas, and then responding to "imagery [that] comes up". In 1994/5 Simon explained: "I have great faith in the subconscious. So I would let the paint remain on the canvas and look at it and gradually images come out and I would develop those images".[30]

According to Simon, his archaeological work had a profound effect on his artistic style. His research into prehistoric art in South America and Latin America encouraged him "to look inwards" and to become "much more confident in using [his] own private language" and in his explorations of Amerindian culture and mythologies.[31]

Themes[edit]

Simon's work is most well known for its explorations of Amerindian cultural traditions in Central and South America.[7] Shamanism, in particular, is a recurrent theme in his work.[14] Important too are his repeated engagements with Amerindian timehri - ancient petroglyphs (rock-carvings) that are found throughout Guyana. These Guyanese timehri have been the object of numerous archaeological studies (most notably by Denis Williams), but Simon suggests that in his artwork he tries to "decode" them in his own "particular way", asking himself "why they were written, and what they are trying to say".[32]

Environment is also a major, and related, theme in Simon's work. In an article on "Arts and the Environment" in Stabroek News, Al Creighton described Simon as an artist who engaged with the environment in a particularly "profound" way, especially through his representations of "Arawak co-existence with the land and the water".[7] In an interview from 2011, Simon remarked: "My work is now concentrated on drawing attention to the indigenous people and how they have lived with the environment in mind. I hope this will lead to a general acceptance that man is related to the environment; that the environment is not just bland, but is full of life and has deep meaning".[1]

Notable works[edit]

Universal Woman (2008)[edit]

Photograph of George Simon and Anil Roberts at work on the Palace of the Peacock mural at the University of Guyana (2009)
George Simon (left) and Anil Roberts (right) at work on the mural, Palace of the Peacock: Homage to Wilson Harris at the University of Guyana (2009)

Universal Woman is one of Simon's most well-known artworks, and is currently displayed at the National Cultural Centre in Georgetown. The painting is a triptych composed of paintings of the water-goddesses or water-spirits of the three main cultures of Guyana: African, Indian and Amerindian. One depicts the Mami-Wata of African and African-diasporic traditions; another Gaṅgā (or Ganga Mai), the female deity of the river Ganges in Hindu; and another the Oriyu - a female water-spirit who features in a number of Amerindian mythic traditions.[33]

Writing for Stabroek News, Al Creighton described the painting as "a major work in Guyanese art", adding: "The triptych is as majestic and powerful as the female deities that it studies".[33] Philbert Gadajar praised Simon for having achieved "a great synthesis" and a "powerful portrait" with the painting. Gadajar characterized the painting as "a map of the psyche, the vaporous interior realm where thought and emotion fall weightlessly and vertiginously, tumbling out of the unknown past into the knowable future".[33] Desrey Fox, who was then the head of the Ministry of Education in Guyana, described Universal Woman as "an inspiration from the Amerindian perspective": "[T]hinking spiritually", she said, "from the traditions of our Amerindian people, a lot of what he has put on canvas can teach you about our spirituality".[34]

Palace of the Peacock: Homage to Wilson Harris (2009)[edit]

Palace of the Peacock: Homage to Wilson Harris is a mural situated on one of the walls of the Turkeyen Campus of the University of Guyana. It was jointly painted by Simon (main artist), Philbert Gajadhar, and Anil Roberts. The painting is a tribute to the Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris and his first novel, Palace of the Peacock (1960). The mural was unveiled on 25 June 2009.[8][35]

Palace of the Peacock is both a representation of the Amazonian rainforest and a painting that explores characteristic themes in Harris's work: the environment, spirituality, and Guyanese mythologies. The painting incorporates a mixture of symbols and Guyanese landmarks that appear in Harris's novel, including the peacock of the title of the novel, and the Kaieteur Falls.[8]

Golden Jaguar Spirit (2010)[edit]

Golden Jaguar Spirit is an acrylic painting on canvas that presents the jaguar through a perspective that focuses on the rich significance of this animal in Amerindian culture and myth. The markings on the jaguar can be interpreted in various ways: as eyes, as timehri markings, and as leaves of the forest. Critic Al Creighton suggests that the painting portrays the jaguar as a "shamanistic animal" and foregrounds the association of the jaguar with shamanic and kanaimá practices in Amerindian culture. He also notes the suggestions of shape-shifting - the "merging" of animal, forest, spirit and man - in the work.[36]

Appraisal[edit]

Simon is widely recognized as a major Guyanese artist.[1][7] In an essay from 1996 Sir Wilson Harris described Simon as "a gifted painter to be cherished" and suggested that his work was part of an artistic "renascence". "I celebrate George Simon's arrival", Harris wrote. "He possesses a sure touch, I find, in the veined tapestry, the evolving tapestry, of worlds he and his ancestors have known".[37] In their introductory book on Art in the Caribbean (2010), Stanley Greaves and art critic and historian, Anne Walmsley, present Simon as "a gifted and accomplished painter" and a notable Caribbean artist.[15] In 2002, Guyanese lecturer and art critic, Alim Hosein, applauded Simon's work for its "searching, individualistic exploration of his Amerindian heritage".[3] Al Creighton has described him as one of Guyana's "most distinguished artists", who is notable, in particular, for his preoccupation with "the cosmos of the Lokono" and for his "profound" engagement with environmental themes.[7][8] In an article about "The Rise of Amerindian art" in Guyana, he wrote: "[Simon] very eloquently demonstrates some of the most exciting developments in Guyanese Amerindian art. More than that, he is a leader in charting its directions".[36]

Awards[edit]

References[edit]

Notes[edit]

Sources[edit]

External links[edit]