Article by Tony Rajer
Located on the northern fringe of South America, Guyana is a land of seeming contradictions. Upon first seeing its man-made dams and canals, green fields and razor-sharp horizon cleaving an expansive sky, you might think that you have arrived in Holland. But as your eye focuses against the shimmering humidity, you see that the green fields contain rice and beans and that scattered villages lie between groves of cocoanut trees gently swaying in the warm breezes of the Atlantic Ocean. This is Guyana, a land that bears the imprint of many cultural and historical influences. From this environment comes Philip Moore, one of the most original and creative artists of the region.
Born in 1921, in what then was known as British Guiana, Moore had little formal education but received a school-leaving certificate in 1938. His childhood was filled with images of friends and neighbors working hard in the fields by day and playing animated games of cricket in the evening. Moore sometimes accompanied his father, a rubber-gatherer, on his expeditions into the tropical forests. The forest was an enchanted place, said to be filled with a sentient spirituality. Today, looking into Moore’s cherubic face surrounded by gray peppercorn hair, you might think that you have been given an audience with an African chief rather than a South American artist. Moore himself believes that his is an ancient spirit reincarnated in a modern body.
About 1940, Moore converted to Jordanite Christianity, which teaches self-help, personal pride, communal life, hard work, and study of the Bible. But his intense love for God by no means conflicted with his belief in the influence of spirits. About 1955, Moore dreamed that a large hand reached down to him from the heavens, and a voice commanded him to begin his career as an artist. This is the reason Moore considers himself “spirit-taught.”
The dream was a decisive moment in his life. He began modestly, refining his skills by carving wooden canes and quickly developed proficiency in manipulating tropical hardwoods such as purple heart and cocobolo. His early subjects included portraits, animal figures, sports heroes and stylized magic drums. Eventually, he turned to other forms of art, such as painting and poetry. By 1964, his intuitive carving abilities came to the attention of local authorities at the Department of Culture, who hired him to teach craft and arts.
Motivated by love for his native Guyana and assisted by the government, he got the chance to create what would be the largest bronze sculpture in the region. Moore’s 1763 Monument, nearly 25 feet tall, dominates the Plaza of the Revolution in Georgetown, Guyana. A defiant African warrior, with pre-Columbian-like helmet and African breastplate, stands at the ready to march against any enemy who dares to desecrate his homeland. It reminds one of the pervasive African belief that the spirits of oneâs ancestors continue to exercise influence upon the living. Though controversial at first, and neglected more recently, the sculpture is a powerful though enigmatic work ÷ combining traditional African motifs such as the stylized masks used for leggings and breastplates as well as its non-Western sculptural proportions.
Fellow artists in Georgetown often treated Moore with some hauteur, amused as they were at seeing him carry paintings and sculpture to his classes in a converted donkey cart. But he gradually won the respect of his colleagues. They recognized that he was creating a radically new kind of art, independent of the usual academic models. His reputation slowly expanded beyond the confines of Georgetown, until one day he was invited to Princeton University as a guest professor.
By the 1970s, Moore had gained a degree of fame, but he has never lost touch with his native land. In his painting, Canje Bridge, angelic figures stream across a gently rising and sloping bridge, above ordinary people who carefully fix the bridge into place. Through many of his works he expresses his continuing concerns about such issues as race relations, the fate of the younger generation, God and politics. He even memorialized the untimely death of Princess Diana by “singing” Elton John’s tribute to the People’s Princess through his poetry, which he called his “cry-singing.”
Moore laments the fact that younger Guyanese have been forced to eke out a living by mass-producing art for the tourist trade. He has managed to a certain extent to escape this fate. In spite of his reputation, he only occasionally has sold his works to the general public. Moore sold the bulk of his work to the Department of Culture, which installed it in the National Art Gallery, Castellani House, in Georgetown. He always felt that his art was meant to be enjoyed by the masses, and he, therefore, was pleased to hold exhibitions in local cultural institutions. In addition, recognition has come to him by way of international exhibitions, most recently in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic.
In Moore’s Cooperation, a man and a woman pound a stick into a large pestle while a child watches. Although the man wants to hunt, he has chosen instead to assist his wife in her work. We can imagine that the child is enriched by this act of selflessness on the part of his father. In the background, shadowy ancestral figures look on approvingly. In many respects, works such as this epitomize the contribution of Philip Moore, the self-made visionary, the spirit-trained artist of humble roots, whose works link the generations.
ANTON (TONY) RAJER is a professional art conservator who specializes in preservation of folk art. He holds degrees from Harvard University, the University of Wisconsin, and the Sorbonne in Paris. Most recently, he has been the UNESCO consultant to the government of Guyana.
The late TONY RAJER was an art conservator, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a member of the FASA’s National Advisory Board.
As seen in the Folk Art Messenger: