Unlabelled – The underappreciated art of Turkeyen Campus

As you walk down the main road of the Turkeyen Campus, you too may overlook one of its least appreciated features. Art is everywhere. Murals adorn the fronts of some building and students’ paintings hang in familiar offices. One mural –  a life-like representation of Guyana’s forest ecosystem – is even indoors, sprawling over the inner sanctum of the Biodiversity Centre.

Biodiversity centre
A fraction of the large, seemingly unfinished mural within the Centre for Biological Diversity at the University of Guyana. It is so large, a single shot cannot fully capture its magnitude.

If you are curious enough to appreciate these pieces, enthralled enough to approach, examine, and search for the artists’ names, you may be disappointed. Many of these pieces have no credits, or they are incomplete.

“Let’s start with the [mural] in front of the [Humanities] building here,” said Dwayne Alexander, “That one has been labelled with the name of Philbert Gajadhar, Anil Roberts and George Simon. But if I give you a little inside, I’m one of the artists that painted that painting, but my name is not on the plaque. When the plaque actually put up, I asked them ‘Why?’. They said they ‘forgot’.”

Alexander is the studio director of the Art Department, and he is not the only artist whose campus beautification has gone uncredited by the university.

The “Palace of the Peacock” mural in front of the Humanities Building

“The one by the Vice-Chancellor building was done by students of the Creative Arts [Division]. But again, they didn’t put their name,” Alexander said. In reference to the smaller pieces decorating the offices around campus, he said: “Persons might [come] in and see a piece, and they don’t know what it is or what it entails. They in got nothing, no lil write up on it to say anything. They would have to investigate who work it is.”

One reason for the lack of labelling is that most of the works are students’ examination pieces, and thus the intellectual property of the university. Philbert Gajadhar, the director of the Creative Arts Division, noted that students are only required to put their Unique Student Identification (USI) number at the back of the artwork when they submit them assessments. After the work is marked, they are encouraged to return to the department to put their full names on the pieces. Oftentimes, Gajadhar laments, students tend to leave the university before updating their credits. As a result, lecturers take up the mantel to credit the student’s work in their absence.

Copyright and Intellectual Property

One of the most vocal champions for copyright legislation in Guyana is Ruel Johnson, a cultural advisor within the Ministry of Social Cohesion. Johnson is an author whose work is at risk because of the lax copyright laws in Guyana. He has been using his platform and office to advocate for copyright legislation revision in Guyana. Thus far, he has been making strides to get the legislation upgraded to modern, international standards. When asked about the unlabelled artwork around campus, he says that he believes the problem reflects the nation’s relationship with copyright.

 “What seems to be going on at the University of Guyana is just poor ethical practice,” Johnson said. He claims that the University of Guyana came up with a copyright policy several years ago. However, Mr Gajadhar and the Registrar, Nigel Gravesande, have both refuted this claim. Since the country does not have a copyright policy, the university cannot have one either. The most that they can do is discourage plagiarism among the student population by teaching them ethical practices.

Conflicting recommendations

Students have complained that they receive conflicting advice from lecturers about how to safeguard their work. One student, who preferred to not be identified, confirmed Mr Gajadhar’s statements about the exam pieces. She further noted that some lecturers discourage students from putting their names on their non-exam pieces as well, saying that the students’ artistic style should speak for itself.

Alexander holding up one of his paintings

 Alexander, on the other hand, encourages students to sign their pieces in some way. From his 18 years working for the university, he remembers at least one incident when a student stole their colleague’s paintings, put their name on the work and claimed it as their own. Without a  proper labelling system, the rightful owner only had their lecturers’ memory and student allies to defend their intellectual property. From this experience, Alexander has started cautioning the students.

“The exam pieces, we insist that they put their name, cause those piece[s] will stay with the university,” he said, seconding Gajadhar’s claims. He always puts his initials and the date on one of the corners of his completed works so that they are easily identifiable. One of his students – Elodie Smith – says that she started with just the initials, then changed her mind. Now, she integrates her full name into all her works, sometimes even opting to put her name multiple times.

Elodie Smith’s new and old signature styles

“People are looking for the name. The name is the brand. It is your name. It is your passport to success,” she said as she waved her paintbrush around, passionately gesturing to her thesis piece. She combines both philosophies circulating in the art department, believing that her style should speak for her, but that her name should still be a part of the piece’s identity. “The signature and the work goes hand in hand. When people meet you, they ask you for your name. When people meet my art, they should meet me.”

Elodie Smith working on her thesis painting

The university’s amendments

Currently, the University of Guyana has a project in place to properly credit all the artists in an official record, even if they do not label the pieces themselves. “They are taking an interest in safeguarding the collection. They frame them, and now they’re starting a catalogue, a pictorial catalogue,” said Michael Khan, one of the lecturers in the department, “Students can come and look at the catalogue, and see, and get an idea as to what the quality of the work, the type of work, where the work is situated.”

According to Hilton Chan, the photographer contracted to work on the catalogue, Alexander was the acting curator throughout the initial stages of the project. During the first two weeks of March, the two have been working on the digital edition of the catalogue for Mr Gajadhar. “I been going around the Registry, the Vice Chancellor building, even in the Vice Chancellor [public] home have pieces that I’ve been recording, all of them,” Alexander noted.

“The collection is in the custodianship of the university,” Hilton Chan said, “I think everybody would like to know that their work is there somewhere.” According to him, the photographs for the catalogue have been completed, but the catalogue has not been fully compiled and revised. He is unsure when it will be finished, and says he is not sure why the university has only started this compilation now even though the department has been in existence for over twenty years.

“If it’s now they start it, well, now is as good as any time,” Chan said, with a light sigh. “I guess the professors figure that they should do it to protect the students’ work … Either that or the students want to be remembered.”

Hilton Chan, the catalogue photographer, sitting among students’ works in the art department

Advice for students

Although Johnson’s claim about the university’s copyright policy is incorrect, he still has some good advice for the students. “First of all, look up the university’s copyright policy [to see] if it covers representation of artistic works etc. Make sure it’s enforce[d]. If it’s not, make sure it’s updated,” Johnson said, “But more importantly, you need to get ‘woke’ [in] regards to the larger national and then international issues of copyright legislation.”

Johnson and Chan both complained that many artists do not represent themselves in the discussions surrounding copyright legislation but continue to complain about the problems they face. “One of the ironies of artistic representation in Guyana is that the people who are most equipped to represent themselves are usually the least inclined to do so,” Johnson lamented.

“I don’t think [copyright legislation] is being supported that widely. I don’t know why,” Chan added, “Are we a little backwards here? We find other people who are not professionals are fighting for [intellectual] property rights, but the people who are the artists, they don’t come forward … But how would I know that you need rights if you don’t ask for it?”

Nevertheless, the struggle for acknowledgement and accreditation is moving forward both on and off campus. Lecturers and supporting staff within the art department are now working to ensure that the students are properly credited. Separately, the Ministry of Social Cohesion is also trying to solidify all forms of intellectual property rights countrywide. The art on campus may still be unlabelled for now, but the future looks brighter for all Guyanese artists.

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