Apocalyptic Themes in Guyanese Art

Ian Dudley

‘to paint antecedents and unborn worlds’
Wilson Harris, The Tree of the Sun1

‘paintings with no death in them’
Aubrey Williams, statement2


Introduction: Prolepsis Now

Commentators on Aubrey Williams (1926–1990) often link the painter’s practice to the writings of Wilson Harris (1921–2018).3 These connections reflect how the formative experiences of both artists in Guyana’s interior catalysed a similarly complex dialogical address towards the precolonial, colonial and postcolonial histories of Amazonia, the Caribbean and wider Americas in their works. This essay extends these discussions around the apocalyptic themes structuring this volume. As poet and critic Nathaniel Mackey identifies in an illuminating interview with Harris, which concludes art historian Kobena Mercer’s 2006 collection, Discrepant Abstraction, fictional and real-world artists play a key role in the novelist’s persistent attention to the dynamics and dialectics of creative histories. Such treatments should necessarily inform understandings of his engagements with Williams and their shared contexts.4 Accordingly, one of Harris’s artist characters, the painter Da Silva da Silva, provides a viewpoint for developing the revelatory discussion with Williams here. The text takes an anfractuous route drawing on many sources beyond da Silva as it weaves its way towards an essential shared core amidst a plateau of elemental vitality and expressive collectivity. While Harris’s comments on Williams were multiple, little exists of the latter’s appraisal of the former. However, discussion with the artist’s daughter Maridowa Williams suggests a strong sense of kinship felt by Aubrey Williams for Harris’s experience and vision. It is hoped that through these pages the paintings can be seen as speaking, or rather singing for themselves alongside the texts.5


Approaching the Colonial Apocalypse6

In 1987 the Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris was the subject of an experimental documentary called Da Silva da Silva.7 Directed by Colin Nutley (1944–present) to emulate the significative multivalency, narrative layering, and historical poly-vocalism of Harris’s prose, the film intercut critical and biographical material about the author with dramatized scenes from his 1977 work, Da Silva da Silva’s Cultivated Wilderness, a semi-visionary, semi-realist novella depicting a Brazilian diaspora artist living in contemporary London.8 Reflecting Harris’s interest in colonial cross-culturality, expansive temporal connections, and quantum irony, da Silva is described as an ‘orphan’ of European and African ancestry – that is of ‘Spanish and Portuguese parents, invisible black antecedents as well’, who, ‘at the age of four and a half to five’ is charitably adopted by the British Ambassador, Sir Giles Marsden-Prince, and paternalistically carried to England by plane, after the orphanage where he had been deposited aged two ‘collapsed under a cyclone and a flood’.9

Amidst the film’s multifaceted montage portraying the fictional postcolonial artist, Harris makes his own on-screen appearances journeying between the Holland Park area of Kensington in London and Chelmsford in Essex. Harris lived in the latter when the film was made, but resided in the former when writing the novel, which was also home to his da Silva character.10 Harris moves briskly via the streets, cabs and trains of the metropolitan transport system, pausing occasionally at significant sites. One stoppage occurs in Holland Park before the statue of Lord Holland (1773–1840), an aristocratic Whig politician and owner of enslaved African peoples in Jamaica (Fig. 1).11 In the novel his statue features amidst evocations of colonial slavery in Berbice, Guyana, particularly the 1763 uprising of the enslaved led by Coffij, a significant ancestral presence in the narrative.12 Coffij had been represented symbolically squeezing the life out of colonizer greed in his own statue by the artist Philip Moore (1912–2012) atop a major national monument erected in Guyana in 1976 to celebrate ten years of Independence, which was achieved in 1966 after a long and bitter struggle against British imperial power.13 The Berbice river was also the location of Harris’s birthplace, New Amsterdam, a name reflecting Guyana’s earlier period of Dutch colonialization from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries when the 1763 war took place.14

Wilson Harris looking at statue of Lord Holland
Fig. 1: Wilson Harris looking at statue of Lord Holland, Da Silva da Silva (1987), dir. Colin Nutley. Film still. © Bandung Productions, Tariq Ali Archive.

Alongside fictional episodes, Nutley interrupted Harris’s mobile stalking with short monologues by the author, which frame the portrayal of the creative and existential struggles driving his da Silva character as he contends with the myriad layers of present and historical disaster, which implicate him. Among these interjections, the opening monologue is especially striking. Harris speaks directly to the camera addressing the collective human predicament in the late twentieth century:

We have come to a very serious time in our history, in which we have to ask ourselves whether the direction we are pursuing is wrong. Whether the sails we have put up, under which we move, are orientated to the wrong trend, the wrong wind, the wrong tide? Whether we have to turn and go in a different direction, a completely different direction? The questions we have to ask ourselves about nature – nature ails. If one looks for example at the fantastic films of outer space which are simulated, what do you see? You see meteors striking planets, gauging out great bits of planets, causing explosions as if those planets are vomiting their ill. There is an ailment running through nature and we have to see that all of us in some degree have caught the virus.15

Harris’s references noticeably mirror their time. The sense of a looming human-caused environmental crisis reflects the increasing urgency around such issues during the 1980s, which were starkly summarised by the United Nations report Our Common Future the same year.16 Meanwhile, imagery of planetary annihilation recalls the infamous world-destroying ‘Death Star’, a central technological character within George Lucas’s (1944–present) Star Wars film trilogy, whose consecutive releases in 1977, 1980 and 1983 parallel the gap between the Da Silva da Silva novel and its film adaptation.17 Finally, the metaphorical language of pandemic channelling these anxieties suggests the viral currency of the AIDs crisis in the period. Beyond such immediate preoccupations, this apocalyptic premonition echoes thinking present in Harris’s work since the 1950s, although it occurs increasingly consistently in novels and critical writings from the 1970s. An example of the former is a brief meditation upon themes of human self-destruction and community recreation located in a tribute to the Guyanese artist E R Burrowes (1903–1966) that appeared in Kyk-Over-Al journal in 1954.18 Harris recalled a conversation between himself, Burrowes and another Guyanese artist, Denis Williams (1923–1998), which took place in London in 1950, when the British Council Scholarships that Burrowes and Williams had to study in Britain overlapped.19 Whereas Burrowes felt inspired by the ebullient colours of paintings by Georges Rouault (1871–1958) seen while visiting Paris, Harris was preoccupied with the heavy impression left after encountering the imposing Moai figures of the Rapa Nui people of Rapa Nui, or ‘Easter Island’ (‘Isla de Pascua’), in London’s ‘Museum of Man’, since incorporated in the British Museum.20 He recalled: ‘I do recollect my own dwelling on the strange and terrible genius in these unsmiling forms that seemed to look into a historyless pit of times past or generations drowned or lost’.21 Harris described the ensuing discussion as leading to a stark conclusion about the social function of art:

that there were only two ways open to human society – that of self-destruction when there remains only the cold flame of the seasons like a congealed stone the spirit retains to warn passersby near the fatal spot – or the community of re-creation, the spirits of optimism and renewal and noble discipline.22

Though less concerned with the shady imperial origins of the Museum’s ‘acquisition’ of the Rapa Nui ancestor stones, or the devastating impact of European colonialism on the island and its people, their stereotypical moralistic appropriation as icons of a supposed ‘self-destruction’ exhibits a flavour of the widespread existential anxieties occupying artistic imaginations in the wake of the Second Imperialist War (1939–1945).23 The shadows of the Holocaust and the Atom bomb loomed heavily inside this consciousness, alongside prior colonial traumas, which were redoubled and complicated by overlapping contexts of the Cold War, decolonization, protracted civil rights struggles, and endless booms and busts within industrial, economic and technological spheres. Such intensifications of malaise are evident in recurrent references to notions of cosmic sickness and wounding in Harris’s 1985 novel Carnival, which appeared two years before the Da Silva film with its striking diagnostic monologue.24 The novel revisits conversations between a fictional Guyanese author, Everyman Masters, who has recently deceased, and his anonymous English biographer, who is still living. Within this dialogue between the dead and the living, Masters’s own lifetime (1917–1982), which, not unlike Harris’s, stretches between colonial-era Guyana and postcolonial Britain, specifically Holland Park in Kensington, is constantly positioned as haunted by ‘the spectre of a wounded age’.25 The fictional biographer recalls that ‘we sat in Holland Park and discussed the psychology of power and the nature of Ambition at the heart of diseased politics around the globe’. Elsewhere, the writer is reported to declare ‘it is as a tormented colonial age that the twentieth century will be remembered’, or refers to ‘conventions of fame within which the so-called great actors or statemen of history mimic universal death or love as they pursue statistics of world hunger, world charity, nuclear wealth, nuclear poverty’.26 Despite Harris’s deliberate indeterminacy, but consistent with other works, these allusions cumulatively suggest that capitalist modernity and its attendant political cultures, variously conjoining fascist and liberal tendencies, were inextricably bound up with colonial and neo-colonial histories. Their underlying logic of what Harris called ‘progressive realism’ had set humanity on the wrong course, entrapping consciousness and creative production on the way, as he explained soon after in a 1990 lecture series entitled ‘Cross-Cultural Crisis: Imagery, Language and the Intuitive Imagination’. Here Harris outlined his diagnosis while identifying possible escapes through creative work:

when Cortez burnt his ships before the conquest of ancient Mexico he burnt his bridges with Europe. He was prepared to do that in order to seize the gold of ancient Mexico. He burnt the ships in an image of progressive realism, of linear bias – in which everything is directed straight to a specific target. There is no way back. The bridges have been burnt. A century or two later we see ships coming through the Middle Passage – slave ships. In the nightmare sanctuaries afforded by these ships we see another image of progressive realism. In opposition to this runs the opportunity to perceive intuitively that a sailing vessel, that one’s craft, has to be linked in some way with some unconscious force, some sacramental energy, that has been suppressed and lost. The revisionary strategy therefore discloses the deprivations within progressive realism, the deprivations of linear bias, deprivations endemic to a ruling story-line by which historical conquest (sometimes refined into a model of absolute persuasion) gains its cultural and material ends at the expense of all other perspectives. … It seems to me that progressive realism erases the past. It consumes the present and it may very well abort the future with its linear bias. That is why I think that the threat of pollution which exists now on our globe will not be solved simply by believing that we can make mechanical adjustments, we can do this, we can do that. Our civilisation is geared to progressive realism and therefore the solutions to the pollution of the globe will be mechanical. They won’t address the psyche … A civilization which is geared to progressive realism cannot solve the hazards and dangers and the pollution which it has inflicted upon the globe in terms of progressive realism.27

References to pollution and sailing-directionality recalled the then-recent figurative admonitions from the Da Silva da Silvamonologue. The monologue’s sailing metaphor can consequently be re-understood as alluding to the colonial and neo-colonial histories inherent within ‘progressive realism’, which were not voiced explicitly but carried by implication through the imagined vessel that was itself haunted by the imperialist spectre of the Death Star. This reflects the centrality of such themes in the Da Silva da Silva novel and Harris’s wider writings. In the former, they are linked to a psychoanalytic-archaeology of the artistic-oneiric visions generated by the protagonist’s background, experience and consciousness in their intersections with the complex histories of ‘circumnavigational flight’, as imperialist mobility is semi-euphemistically termed, a technique recurrent in other authorially-themed works like Carnival.28 For Harris, the ship was the emblematic means through which ‘progressive realism’s’ global subjection and erasure of cultures was enacted by successive waves of genocidal European imperialism from the fifteenth century onwards, but also concealed hidden inextricable potentialities. This thematic centrality echoed contemporaneous works by other Guyanese artists, including Grace Nichols’s (1950–present) poem cycle, I Is A Long Memoried Woman (1983), which variously mobilised ships, vessels and journeying within its poignant mnemonic excavation of colonialism and slavery.29 In Harris’s Carnival, ‘the ship of Night’ appears on the horizon off the Guyana littoral as another form of spectre, an ominous emblem of colonial modernity from Columbus to the Cold War, that docks at the harbour of the reader’s historical consciousness:

I looked through the blackened fire into the ships the Arawaks had seen. Night fell in consistency with the ship of Night moored to the Market-place of the globe. The Spanish came in that Night, then the French, then the Dutch, then the English, then the Americans, and in 1926 – on the very dream-day, dream-night, of the burning schooner and the capsized basket of eggs – a Russian vessel appeared and anchored in the New Forest mid-river.30

The arrival of this ship constructed from compressed historical vision announces the dark night of modernity as the ‘time of imperialism’ – the epoch, rhythm and historicity through which ‘progressive realism’ proceeds. The linear biases of the colonial monoculture it carries as cargo erases all other pasts, all other perspectives and all other temporalities in their relations with nature and cosmos.31 Here the Other-perspectivalism is embodied in the imagined viewpoint of the Arawak, who were among the main Indigenous peoples of the Guayana coastal regions and connected populations of the Caribbean islands at the point of European ‘contact’. Today their descendants, self-identifying as Lokono in their own language, meaning ‘the people’, constitute significant parts of the Indigenous populations in Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana.32 Beyond this geographical-historical specificity, their presencing evokes other victims of ‘progressive realism’ that Harris elsewhere signalled, including the abovementioned 1990 lecture series highlighting the Nahua and adjacent peoples, whose worlds were shattered by the Spanish, alongside enslaved African peoples violently torn from their own cultural spheres.33 The layered imagery of ‘blackened fire’ and Spanish arrival recalls the brutal scenes of annihilation described by Dominican monk Bartolomé de las Casas (1484–1566) in his account of the post-Colombian Indigenous genocide, Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (1552).34 In his estimation, this genocide encompassed 3–4 million dead across the Caribbean islands and 12–15 million across the American mainland in half a century.35 Its fiery bloody scenes of murder and torture executed within the larger context of abuse, disruption, dispossession and disease-spread, were gruesomely visualised by Theodor De Bry (1528–1598) in his 1598 Latin translation of the Relación among other works.36 Closely following Las Casas’s text, the image of Hispaniola’s invasion foregrounds thirteen Indigenous women and men being hung and burned alive while a baby is smashed against a nearby building and other victims are massacred in the background by the Spanish, whose ship is anchored offshore (Fig. 2).37 Rare corresponding accounts by Indigenous voices portray a similar picture, such as Guaman Poma’s El Primer Nueva Corónica I Buen Gobierno (c.1615), which the Andean author wrote and illustrated under Spanish occupation in the ‘Viceroyalty of Peru’.38 A characteristic drawing such as Coregidor De Minas: en las minas shows the Spanish colonial administrator overseeing the brutal systematic torture of Andean bodies in pursuit of extractive profits (Fig. 3).39 Despite its polemical dramatisation, the disastrous and far-reaching scale of the ‘infiernos’ (‘hells’), which Las Casas described being unleashed across the new ‘American’ space, has been reiterated by contemporary scholars in their assessments of the impact of successive European invasions across the hemisphere.40 The cumulative effects of lethal epidemics alongside the direct violence of warfare and forced labour, interruptions to traditional social-economic systems and attendant lowering birth rates, caused a demographic collapse with reductions of over 90 per cent from first contact-point to average nadirs in the mid-seventeenth century affecting pre-Columbian populations estimated to have totalled between 50 to over 100 million.41 A recent scientific study examining this collapse in relation to the history of human-caused climate change, estimates that, in the context of a pre-contact population of 60.5 million, ‘55 million indigenous people died following the European conquest of the Americas beginning in 1492’, sufficient to cause a global cooling event by the early 1600s.42 These unfathomable numbers are the background to the parallel disaster of African slavery. Between 1500–1865 around 12 million captive African people were purchased by Europeans for transportation into slavery, with around 2 million dying through the ‘Middle Passage’, leaving 10 million to be sold into the forced labour, torture and death of the plantation regimes and wider colonial economy. There were about 6 million enslaved people across the Americas by the mid-nineteenth century.43 Alongside Indigenous genocide, De Bry visualised Spanish exploitation of enslaved African labour in mines and sugar plantations, incorporating scenes of punishment and executions of escapees.44 It is however famous Abolitionist-inspired imagery that has provided the most impactful visual accounts of this horror, including variations of the slave-ship Brooks (1788–1789), which rendered plain the industrialised scale of this genocidal dehumanisation, and William Blake’s closeup visions of sadistic torture in the plantation zone, which illustrated John Gabriel Stedman’s account of colonial Suriname (1796).45 The former underlay Harris’s reference to the ‘nightmare sanctuaries’ of the Middle Passage in the ‘Cross-Cultural Crisis’ lectures, while the latter appeared as visions of ‘the furies of history’ emerging from the Guyanese landscape in his 1970 novel, Ascent to Omai.46

engraving of a public hanging
Fig. 2: Theodor De Bry, De Insula Hispaniola (c.1598), from Bartolomé de las Casas, Theodor de Bry and Johanne Saur, Narratio Regionum Indicarum Per Hispanos Quosdam Devastatarum Verissima (Frankfurt: John Theodor and John Israel de Bry, 1598). Engraving. Photo courtesy Library of Congress, Jay I. Kislak Collection, Washington.
illustration of various punishments
Fig. 3: Guaman Poma, Coregidor de Minas: en las minas, Drawing 211 in El Primer Nueva Corónica I Buen Gobierno (c.1615). Manuscript. Royal Danish Library, Copenhagen, GKS 2232 kvart, p. 525 [529]. Photo © Royal Danish Library, Copenhagen.

Considering the histories encompassed by these capitalist-imperialist crimes against humanity, it is unsurprising that Harris defined them as the arrival of and tormented passage through an enveloping shadowy darkness. The euphemistic shield of nocturnal journeying suggests oneiric allusions to psychoanalytic ideas of ongoing repression connected to such magnitudinous trauma and guilt. The association of colonialism and the attendant monoculture of ‘progressive realism’ with an enclosing darkness chimes with Enrique Dussel’s contemporaneous refashioning of the so-called ‘discovery’ of the Americas, not as descubrimiento, but rather as encubrimiento, or ‘covering’, and more particularly ‘the covering of the other’, precisely in relation to the lack of recognition connected to its violent erasures.47 Walter Mignolo’s similarly conceived The Darker Side of the Renaissance (1995) or The Darker Side of Western Modernity (2011) provide equivalent counters to European cultures’ self-presentation of these epoch’s of ‘progress’ as moments of ‘Enlightenment’.48

While literary-philosophical accounts such as Harris’s constitute a speculative historical tradition, the forms of obscurity and erasure they imply resonate with concrete examples of colonial monoculture described by other Guyanese writers. Historian Walter Rodney (1942–1980) identifies the centrality of economic monoculture in colonial Africa as an imperialist tool for the control and domination of social relations and environment towards intensifying resource and produce extraction for increased European profits, which distorted the diversity of traditional socially-orientated economies and left the continent exposed to threats of famine, economic insecurity and ultimately, postcolonial dependency. As Rodney underlines ‘monoculture was a colonialist invention … there was nothing “natural” about monoculture’.49 This mirrored the broader system of imperialist monoculture in the Americas and beyond through plantation slavery, mining, and like areas. Harris echoes this in Carnival, when he centres plantation monoculture as grounding relations between Imperialist West and Global South: ‘The plantation is the cornerstone of the economy of the poor world. The factory is the cornerstone of the economy of the rich world’.50 Returning to the Guyanese context in his 1996 novel Jonestown, Harris also stressed the environmental dimension of this human tragedy, recording how successive applications of a rationalised geometry to the rich ecosystems of coastal rainforests by the Dutch and British in the construction of their plantation field and drainage systems had ‘smothered the breath-lines in a living landscape’, causing ‘disfigured catchments, in the coastal river systems, that would occasion excessive floods and droughts’.51 As Michael Niblett suggests, this landscape desecration can also be understood within conceptions of colonial trauma across the region.52

These practices of imperialist-materialist efficiency overlapped with connected forms of ideological conditioning as Rodney and others describe.53 A related use of the term ‘monoculture’ by the Guyanese author, pedagogist and psychotherapist Beryl Gilroy (1924–2001) occurs in her description of the experience of colonial higher education in the imperial metropolis of London during the 1950s:

We were token students on a monocultural trip. We had to fit ourselves into the text offered us. The seminars did not even hint at the difference of culture, class, socio-economic status and race, all of which affected life-chances and educational outcomes. The books were written by Europeans for Europeans, and we were expected to paint ourselves into various corners of the findings.54

Notably, Harris concluded ‘the ship of Night’ vision and its sequence of colonial monocultures in 1926 with the ambiguous appearance of the ‘Russian vessel’. Initially, its presence hints towards disruption of the historical trend by Marxist-inspired revolutions within Guyana and the Caribbean, most famously in Cuba. These hopeful glimmers are however countered by related ideas of menace evoked via the spectre of ‘Soviet domination’, exemplified by the near-miss of the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’ and the apocalyptic threat of the Cold War nuclear arms race, which the event highlighted and is likewise foretold in Harris’s final image of foreign ship arrival. The mid-1920s date of its appearance accordingly floats between the optimism generated by the 1917 Revolution and descent into the totalitarian nightmare of ‘Stalinism’. When Harris wrote Carnival, the Soviet Union, a transformation of earlier Russian imperialisms, was rapidly approaching collapse, opening the way for the Pyrrhic ‘victory’ of Western neoliberalism and military-backed consumerist democracy. Harris implies that the former, through its militarism, hyper-industrialised relationship to nature and peoples, its culture of propaganda, individual and artistic constraint, operated in a dialectical complicity with the latter, which it was not so removed from as a variant of monocultural power and still distanced from the cultivation of healthy psychic life and material relations, which the author envisioned as a basis for liveable, convivial futures.55 When Carnival was published, the Chernobyl disaster was just a year away. Its 1986 occurrence and blowing of radioactive fallout across surrounding regions adds another significant layer to Harris’s phrase the ‘the wrong wind’ spoken a year later in the Da Silva da Silva monologue. Immediate references to the disaster in Carnival’s 1987 sequel, The Infinite Rehearsal, reinforce this.56

What was needed to break from these phases of ‘imperialist time’ is what Harris referred to above in his Cortez indictment as a ‘revisionary strategy’ of psychic culture. Creative artistic practices, the arts of originality, imagination and intuition offered a decolonizing antidote to this psychological conditioning. In the passage out of colonial monoculture, their interruptive potential, complex revelations and alternative temporalities were essential for generating new forms of consciousness that might uncover and recover erased pasts while envisioning new possibilities to steer towards away from the pathological trajectory of ‘progressive realism’. The same lecture described:

there is another necessity: to come to grips with the intuitive potential that may reside in an image and to find links, links with the past. The thing to note is this: there is no mechanical formula for those bridges which I spoke of between the craft and the sacrament. We have to rediscover it in every century. We have to find protean ways of visualising what those links are.57

These notions renewed earlier theorisations such as ‘History, Fable and Myth in the Caribbean and Guiana’, which Harris delivered in post-Independence Guyana in 1970, where he unveiled similar ideas underlying his ambitious utopian confidence in artistic-creative practices. He stated, ‘I believe a philosophy of history may well lie buried in the arts of the imagination’. Harris linked this philosophy to potential forms of cross-culture and ideas of sovereign inner time existing within artworks themselves, encompassing radical connections with diverse and deep pasts, as well as futures unborn, and operating across different perceptual planes, in a manner that would enjoy recurrent simulation in novels, such as Da Silva da Silva, Carnival and others, during the interim before the ‘Cross-Cultural Crisis’ lectures.58 One particularly resonant legacy of Harris’s 1970 lecture was his quoting the warning offered to the decolonizing Caribbean by Guyanese historian Elsa Goveia (1925–1980): ‘we are courting defeat when we attempt to build a new heritage of freedom upon a structure of society which binds us all too closely to the old heritage of slavery’.59 This anticipated Harris’s 1990 statement that the problems of ‘progressive realism’ cannot be addressed by ‘progressive realism’. The key difference is that Goveia’s warning and its use by Harris addressed Caribbean Independence, whereas Harris’s later adaption expanded the structural crisis globally. This underlined how legacies of colonialism were not discrete problems of the formerly colonised but implied all humanity in their continued operation and expansion, just as the history of globalised capitalism is inseparable from imperialism. This underpins conscious overlapping and remapping of ‘colonial’ and ‘non-colonial’ spaces in Harris’s novels from the 1970s, and reiterative reconfiguration of cross-culture as a disruptive counter to ‘progressive realism’ precisely as the immediate postcolonial moment slid into the jubilatory atmosphere of the post-Cold War neoliberal democratic consumerist boom with the millennium’s close. In 1998 he continued:

Cross-culturality, in my view, begins in perceiving how one-sided and biased are the targets that seek to condition our sensibility. There is, so to speak, an inner and outer chorus and theatre and narrative of realities that diverge from, and break, the monolithic domain of absolute individualism and parochialism.60

Harris made this cross-cultural comment in connection with Aubrey Williams on one of several occasions writing about his fellow Guyanese artist during this transition period. Harris saw in Williams’s protean, metamorphic visualisations, a unique orchestration of dynamic perceptual events, which overlapped visual, sonic and haptic planes through an address of the historical-aesthetics of Indigenous America, which set connected phenomenological, ontological and cosmological aspects in relation to themes of collapse and renewal across precolonial, colonial and postcolonial contexts. The staggering, dramatic density of Williams’s ‘living canvases’, as the painter framed his late practice, appealed to Harris’s complex conceptions of cross-culture and through their implicit critique of neocolonial materialism, realism and temporality, aligned symbiotically with the authors’ own theoretical-textual revelations.61

Aubrey Williams, Hymn to the Sun V
Fig. 4: Aubrey Williams, Hymn to the Sun V (Olmec-Maya and Now) (1984). Oil on canvas, 119 x 178 cm. Private collection. © Estate of Aubrey Williams. All rights reserved, DACS 2021. Photo courtesy October Gallery, London.
photograph if the exterior of the Commonwealth Institute
Fig. 5: Robert Matthew Johnson-Marshall & Partners, Commonwealth Institute (1962). Photograph by Sarah J Duncan. London. © Sarah J Duncan Photography. Photo courtesy The Twentieth Century Society.

Paintings like Hymn to the Sun V (1984, Fig. 4), with their characteristic evocations of astronomical forces, planetary collision and primordial elemental reactions, are reminiscent of Harris’s diagnostic psychologising of science fiction cataclysm in the opening Da Silva da Silva monologue. This accords with the apocalyptic, eschatological and entropic themes that were essential concerns of the Olmec-Maya series, which it belonged to. Williams first showed its forty paintings at the Commonwealth Institute Art Gallery, London in 1985, his tenth occasion exhibiting at the Kensington venue since its 1962 opening.62 Designed by Robert Matthew Johnson-Marshall & Partners, its building formed part of the cultural rebranding of the British Empire in its terminal phase (Fig. 5).63 Harris had lived near the Institute like the protagonist of his Da Silva da Silva novel. The venue provided the architectural setting for its climactic chapter, where, during a frenzied painting session, the artist undertakes a dramatic psychic journey through a wasteland of colonial history and memory. Da Silva ascends the gallery floors as the decks of a ship while it makes a sweeping global tour around the fossilised remains of derelict plantations, extractive industries, and imposing engineering infrastructure, including a hydroelectric dam, sailing over the ‘violated bodies of history’ as it goes. The artist visualises this floating modernist cathedral as the ‘skeleton stage of dying empire’, but also a ‘cradle’ of renewal.64 Harris’s fascination with the architectural-institutional concept extended to his including a curiously annotated diagram, in which the building’s tent-like structure is pictured as a microcosmic memory-map of the rapidly fading British imperial space (Fig. 6). Harris’s, or rather da Silva’s ‘painter’s note’ intuits a yet to be detected ‘mutation’ as having taken place, through which future worlds transcending colonial and neocolonial conditioning might unfold.65 Like Harris and fictional characters such as da Silva, Williams viewed art as a last resort of human freedom and a vital source of cultural recovery and renewal in the postcolonial age. Yet by the time of the Olmec-Maya series’ exhibition at the Commonwealth Institute, an anxious pessimism had similarly arisen.66

Wilson Harris, Painter’s Sketch and Note on Commonwealth Institute’s Insoluble Cross-Cultural Deity / Soluble Uniform
Fig. 6: Wilson Harris, Painter’s Sketch and Note on Commonwealth Institute’s Insoluble Cross-Cultural Deity / Soluble Uniform (detail), from Da Silva da Silva’s Cultivated Wilderness (London: Faber and Faber, 1977), p. 69. Book illustration. © Estate of Wilson Harris, Faber and Faber.

These factual-fictional overlaps reflect close parallels and interconnections between Harris’s and Williams’s trajectories. During the 1940s and 1950s, both had civil service jobs working on ‘development’ projects in pre-Independence British Guiana. Harris was a surveyor in the coastal regions where sugar and rice production dominated the economy, but also, as he described in one Da Silva da Silva monologue, ‘led many expeditions into the heartland of the Guyanas’.67 Williams worked as Field Officer for the Department of Agriculture, first on coastal sugar estates, but between 1947–1949 headed an experimental agriculture station at Hosororo in the colony’s remote North-West district, sent as ‘punishment’ for attempting to help poor farmers against the interests of the corporate power structure of the dominant colonial elite.68 Such occupations afforded both extensive experience of Guyana’s imposing interior environment of rainforests, rivers, cataracts, mountains and savannas, while directing their consciousness towards Indigenous peoples and their deep cultural engagement with the landscape despite colonialism’s ongoing impacts. These experiences resonated across the work both produced after moving to London in the 1950s to pursue their artistic careers against the backdrop of the independence struggle and subsequent decades of national formation. Giving clues to the development of his psycho-geographical-archaeological writing, Harris described how boat journeys up Guyana’s rivers implanted a sense of the ‘divine’ meaning of quest as searching for value itself, but noted his surprise that ‘many members of the crew were oblivious of the great voyages that had occurred that had in a sense deposited them in the Americas’.69 Williams described his experience of Hosororo’s Warao Amerindian community as providing an aesthetic epiphany through their integration of art, myth, religion, cosmology, social and environmental practices. He was suspicious of the Warao’s increasing assimilation into the colonial economy via missionary influence and the labour demands of the area’s expanding plantation culture.70 Though concentrating on citrus cultivation in Williams’s time, the Hosororo experimental station’s original establishment in 1907 was connected to failed attempts by the British colonial government to capitalise on the global rubber boom of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which was notorious for its devastating impacts upon Indigenous peoples across Amazonia and beyond, before imperialist markets and technologies moved on.71

Abstract painting of shapes in mustard, red, white, red and blue
Fig. 8: Aubrey Williams, Logos (The Warwick Logus) (1985). Oil on canvas, 61.1 x 45.7 cm. University of Warwick Art Collection, Coventry. © Estate of Aubrey Williams. All rights reserved, DACS 2021. Photo courtesy University of Warwick Art Collection.

Williams’s early painting Hosororo III (1957) epitomises the overlapping physical and cultural histories that he and Harris transformed into a vital insurgent synthesis against the destructive forces of ‘progressive realism’ (Fig. 7). The dancing white lines between the pile of black irregular polygonal marks evoke water cascading through the dark rocks constituting the fall after which Hosororo is named. In Warao, the noun ho means ‘water’, and sororo ‘that which gushes or is gushing’, from the verb sororó, ‘to gush’ or ‘to squirt’, from which come translations of Hosororo as ‘gushing water’ or ‘falling water’.72 Williams lived next to the fall and bathed in its waters, and aptly rendered the name as ‘noisy water’ after these sensorial experiences.73 The idea of musicality, which Williams linked to this feature and echoes in the wider rainforest chorus evoked by the painting, was a characteristic that Harris identified as the essence of the painter’s abstraction.74 The importance of cataracts and waterfalls as symbolic sites of lifegiving fertility, renewal and transcendent passage into eternity via their divine oracular music was regularly thematised in Harris’s novels, from the early Palace of the Peacock (1960), composed close to Hosororo III, to later works, such as Carnival and its sequels.75 These ideas of cosmic fertility resound with Julio Lavandero’s rendering of the Warao name for their homeland, jobaji, as ‘fertile land’ or ‘fertile earth’ – combining jo (‘water’), ba/bu (‘abundant/plentiful’), and ji/je (‘fire/light’), which is said to refer to the fertilising power of the sun upon the damp riverine environment of the coastal rainforest. Lavandero writes: ‘Jo is the passive element, the support, the material; ji, the active, dynamic, distinguishing element, the form’.76 The combination in Hosororo III of a fiery solar centre enlivening the glistening surrounding of watery lightness and verdant vegetal greens echoes these vital elemental relationships.77 Williams discussed connected ideas in his descriptions of later paintings incorporating Guyanese Indigenous iconography, such as Logos (The Warwick Logus) (1985, Fig. 8). Here he referred to the Sun as ‘the giver of life’ and the river water as ‘the maintainer of life – the blood of the earth’.78 Equally, there is a similar correspondence between Hosororo III’s elemental structuring and Williams describing the rituals carried out by the Warao, which he witnessed, as being organised around the use of four elements, fire, earth, water, and a changeable fourth component.79 The relation to the numinous forces involved within these cosmological conceptions and ceremonial actions are strengthened by the animated appearance of the painting’s structuring rock elements, on account of this recalling Indigenous viewpoints, which perceive geological formations as the abodes of powerful spirits.80 This is intensified by the character of the marks simultaneously evoking the abstract calligraphy of Guyana’s ancient Indigenous petroglyphs, known as timehri. Though varying in form and antiquity, it is suggested that some timehri examples may date back as far as 5000–7,000 BP.81 The word originates in the Karinya (Carib) language, where tymeremeans ‘having figures’ or ‘decorated’.82 Williams described timehri as ‘the word for art’ and translated it poetically as ‘the mark of the hand of man’, whereas Harris interpreted it as ‘the hand of god’ after their associations with divine ancestors and shamanism.83 These definitions and timehri themselves emphasise the deep continuity of Indigenous presence and resource usage within the Amazonian landscape. Alongside other archaeological monuments, like the ancient shell mounds littering Guyana’s coastal regions, they underline this landscape’s long status as a ‘cultural artefact’ rather than a ‘pristine wildness’.84 Timehri was a key form of Indigenous art that Williams reconfigured through his paintings, though he drew on many others, including basketry, pottery and featherwork. One of Williams’s familiar motifs, featured in The Warwick Logus and other works, shows a snake chasing a frog, and was likely taken from Warao, Karinya and Lokono basketry patterns illustrated in the studies of colonial anthropologist Walter Roth (1861–1933) (Fig. 9).85 His motif source, Roth, also featured in Harris’s novels among a pantheon of figures from Guyana’s historical geography, including surveying predecessors like Robert Schomburgk (1804–1865).86 Their presence implied the shadow of imperialism as continuing to condition environmental vision and imagination. Countering such viewpoints, Williams linked the motif to Indigenous conceptions of cosmic fertility and reproduction, connecting human, plant and animal worlds. The snake was referred to as ‘phallus’, and the frog as the ‘female symbol of fecundity’.87 These links were influenced by mythical aetiology alongside aforementioned ideas concerning the existence of controlling spirits within and beyond the visible and material world.88 Various accounts of the Warao and neighbouring peoples speak of figures like Wauta, the shaman frog woman, who practised cassava agriculture, an important staple, while Nanyobo, also a frog, produced fire from her mouth or vagina, and starch from her neck.89 Snakes often have phallic and masculinist associations and connections to ideas of regeneration and time arising from their abilities to shed their skin.90 Though generally deployed in later paintings, sexual themes connected to the motif were central to Williams’s work from early on, as Donald Locke emphasised during the 1960s, and as Hosororo III abstractly illustrates.91 This echoed contemporaneous literary representations of Guyana’s interior in the work of Jan Carew (1920–2012), whose 1958 novel, The Wild Coast, the cover of which Williams illustrated, described the rainforest in similar bodily terms: ‘The forest is a womb in which life is lived in an eternal, dark gestation, only the undulating belly of the treetops is exposed’.92 These themes of life-creation and continuity, as they developed across Williams’s protean abstraction, activated a paradigm of transformation and genesis running throughout Indigenous mythologies in Guyana and beyond, which he was influenced by, particularly from his time with the Warao. Williams described the ‘surrealistic’ mythology he became familiar with as having a ‘profound philosophic content’.93 In explaining this content, anthropologist Johannes Wilbert underlines the importance of the etiological concept of namonina, or ‘transformation’:

Warao mythical geography, transmitted from one generation to another in oral lore, is a lesson in human ecology and resource management. … a particular genre of Warao folk literature, known as namonina a re, transformation stories, … delineates the etiology of a large number of plants and animals and the physical features of Warao land. Namoninadescriptions of life-forms are often quite detailed. They explain, for instance, where a particular tree originated, why it grows in one spot rather than another, why it looks the way it does, what special properties it has as food or as raw material, and who are the tree’s companions – birds, animals, insects, snails and so on. In other words, namonina lore expresses the Warao conception and interpretation of the physical, botanical, and zoological environments and their interrelationships in the Warao universe.94

Antonio E Vaquero Rojo similarly underlines the fundamental importance of namonina, which he defines in terms of an essential significative duality. Namonina can mean both ‘transformation’ as a sudden and magical mutation as typically found in myth, but also ‘the beginning of life through fertilisation and growth’, both ‘vegetable or animal’.95 This definitional duality resonates interestingly with one of Williams’s key statements about the influence of Warao philosophy upon his artistic awakening, which he made to the art and literary historian Anne Walmsley:

It was in the North West District, with the Warrau Indians, that I realised art. When I heard the Indians talking about colour and form, and how man makes things according to his own image, I started to understand what art really is. It is at once the creation of something that has never been in the world before – and yet nothing new, just a rearrangement.96

This paradigm of transformation and genesis became a foundation for the consistent dynamic of being as continual difference, which adorns Williams’s ‘living canvases’ in non-figurative and figurative modes in dialogue with other forms of morphological discourse and abstraction.97 It clearly encapsulates his experiencing art as a cultural transformation of natural materials, which Warao creative practices exemplified as an illustration of their wider traditional resource usage.98 This accordingly engendered Williams’s celebratory rendering of alternative ways of seeing and interacting with the world beyond the cerebral grave of what he called the ‘colonial brainwashing’, or ‘progressive realism’ in Harris’s terms.99 Investigating how such ontological questions and their relationship to the eternal might be reconciled with historical process, especially relating to colonialism and the interactions of continuity and discontinuity within it, consequently emerges as a core theme within the artist’s painting and its overlaps with Harris. These interests resonated with, but also challenged, the apocalyptic discourse framing Claude Lévi-Strauss’s (1908–2009) account of the historical destruction of Brazil’s Indigenous peoples in Triste Tropics, which was published in 1955 and translated into English as A World on the Wane in 1961. Lévi-Strauss’s pessimistic conclusion describes anthropology as the study of processes of cultural disintegration that would be better known as ‘entropologie’ (‘entropology’), after the thermodynamic concept of entropy, which establishes the horizon of the universe’s ultimate heat death.100

snake basketwork
Fig. 9: Anonymous, Snake Following a Frog (from a selection of Warao, Karinya and Lokono basketwork), in Walter Roth ‘An Introductory Study of the Arts, Crafts and Customs of the Guiana Indians’, Thirty-Eighth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution 1916–17 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1924), p. 359, Fig. 173D. Smithsonian, Washington.
Aubrey Williams, Night and the Olmec
Fig. 10: Aubrey Williams, Night and the Olmec (1983). Oil on canvas, 126 x 185 cm. Private collection. © Estate of Aubrey Williams. All rights reserved, DACS 2021. Photo courtesy DACS.

Among Williams’s oeuvre, Harris selected the Olmec-Maya series to address such questions, specifically through one painting, Night and the Olmec (1983), which he wrote about several times (Fig. 10).101 The oneiric floating of fragments of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican art over a protean abstract background is characteristic of the more figurative examples in the series, which complemented more abstract works like Hymn to the Sun V. Here an Olmec colossal head sculpture appears in the lower left, while a profile of a Mayan relief orbits in the upper right above a red and yellow graphic sign. The relationship between the elements emerging over this glistening nocturnal abyss pertains to lineage. The Olmec existed in Mexico’s southern Gulf coast area during the early pre-Classic period around 1450 to 400 BC and were represented within mainstream archaeology as the regional ‘mother culture’, or first ‘civilization’. This reputation was due to early site dates and associated innovations within integrated systems of monumental architecture, writing, astronomy, agriculture, religious ceremonialism, and rulership, that became defining characteristics of Mesoamerican cultural development preceding the Spanish invasion. The Maya to the south and east were recognised as flourishing after the Olmec demise from the later pre-Classic onwards and consequently considered inheritors and refiners of their legacy.102 Williams’s focus on these pre-colonial Indigenous worlds celebrates the hemisphere’s ancient foundations but also reflects upon their waxing and waning. This acknowledgement had postcolonial political resonance as symbols of cultural autonomy, especially in terms of their material and spiritual embeddedness within what Williams called ‘their living environment and ecology’, which was outside of and preceded European colonialism, while simultaneously memorialising their disruption by its violent arrival.103 The ‘Night’, which Williams uncovers, resonates with both aspects. Firstly, the calendrical hieroglyph, possibly a stellar symbol, recalls integrated cycles of astronomical observation, temporal marking and agricultural practice shared by the work’s respective Mesoamerican entities.104 Secondly, the void aspect clearly indexes the erasures of colonial genocide, anticipating Harris’s vision of ‘the ship of Night’. The living animated qualities of the Olmec and Mayan presences relatedly connect with the aforementioned psychoanalytic notions of uncovering suppressed voices and events. This names not only Indigenous pasts, but equally the work’s present and the ongoing oppression and dispossession of contemporary descendants of the historical cultures, which Williams represented, within the context of Guatemala’s civil war during the 1980s, as recorded in testimonial literature like I, Rigoberta Menchú, published the year that Night and the Olmec was painted.105 The fragmentation, which Williams depicts, suggests the violence directed towards Mayan cultures and the peoples and bodies through which they are lived, as Menchú (1959–present), a member of the K’iche’ Mayan people, painfully describes. Simultaneously the evocation of ancestral landscapes recalls the sustaining and restorative powers of the community of nature and tradition running throughout Menchú’s account.106

Harris’s reading of the painting in the ‘Cross-Cultural Crisis’ lectures and connected theorisations similarly addressed colonial legacy. Particularly, he saw the Olmec head as channelling themes of complex ancestry inflected by the human and environmental devastation wrought by ‘progressive realism’. Conventional archaeological understandings, he suggested, were complicated by traditions of pseudo-archaeological interpretation, which claimed the Olmec heads recorded a pre-Columbian African presence in the Americas. Despite robust rejection by mainstream archaeology, such ideas enjoyed a resurgence during the 1970s through works like Ivan Van Sertima’s (1935–2009) They Came Before Columbus (1976). Harris’s interest was not the truthfulness of the claims, but their consequent rendering of Williams’s Olmec head motif as a complex interweaving of precolonial, colonial and postcolonial histories and identities across Atlantic spaces and temporalities. The ‘New World Olmec’, as Harris named this dawning universal being, symbolised both Indigenous and African (and potentially other) heritage in the American context – the shared histories of loss, trauma, resistance and survival through the Colonial Apocalypse, but also the combined living potentiality and agency emerging from this complex inheritance.107 Williams himself alluded to the Olmec head in these terms and in relation to personal identity. Though Guyanese of mainly African heritage, he described the essential multiculture of his background, including Indigenous ancestry on his mother’s side.108 Harris’s biographical notes also underlined diversity, referring to his ‘mixed parentage (Amerindian, European, African)’.109 Such lineages obviously recall the complex of ‘New World’ identifications, which Harris attached to his fictional diasporic artist da Silva, and even suggest re-reading his biographical description as containing hints towards Indigenous ancestry also. These are immanent within descriptions of his European and African heritage as ‘seminal shadows … in the madonna pool extending back into the Andes where fire was snow’, and of his being ‘orphaned by the sun’.110 The primal Andean allusion towards the Incas is reinforced by the solar reference, which recalls mythological conceptions of their descent from the sun.111 The latter simultaneously indicates the Guyanese Indigenous context, specifically accounts of divine ancestors, the Makunaima, embarking on a quest to find their father, the Sun, who departs leaving them orphaned.112 Like da Silva, Harris was himself twice paternally-orphaned by the death of his father and later step-father.113 Looking aside to Mayan conceptions, Menchú also refers to the sun, ‘the heart of the sky’, as a benevolent father or grandfather figure.114 The Makunaima link extends into references to da Silva’s being reborn from a tree, in which he hid during the flood caused by the cyclone that destroyed his orphanage. This account recalls the massive flood event unloosed by the Makunaima irresponsibly chopping down the World Tree to access its abundant food resources. They and various animal helpers similarly use trees to escape until the water subsides. The fragmented remnants of this disastrous felling remain visible as various of the Pakaraima mountains around the border of Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana, an idea alluded to in Harris’s reference to a ‘Trunk parallel to the Andes’.115 Readings of Hymn to the Sun V in terms of intergalactic cataclysm imagined in Harris’s da Silva monologue might accordingly be re-visioned and re-heard as sun reflecting on the water’s surface in echo of the primal imagery and song of the ‘madonna pool’. In the series’ Mesoamerican context this recalls the Mayan Cenote, from dz’onot in Yucatec Mayan, the sacred life-sustaining wells found across the Yucatan peninsula, in which sacrificial offerings were deposited.116 Williams referenced Cenote as a utopian image of the rich cultural well of ancestral American histories from which new lifeways and identities could be built out of the colonial wreckage. Indigenous traditions and landscape connections should be the grounding model for this reconstruction.117

The catastrophic deforestation theme carried within the Makunaima cycle anticipated Harris’s ecological reading of the Olmec head, which he linked to Indigenous forest associations permeating the painting’s glistening nocturnal abstraction:

The Olmec head is ancient but alive, it becomes a living presence, and the strange rebuke it brings summons a chorus born of diverse Self. Not only Olmec but tree-gods from which we fashion tools and become insensible to the silent rhythms with which they still address us.118

The Olmec monument’s framing as spirit-protest against a deforestation driven by globalised consumerist economy remembers Harris’s earlier interpretation of the Rapa Nui Ancestor Stones as icons of self-destruction. It should be noted, however, that in the interim the Moai had more appropriately reappeared in Ascent to Omai in the context of post-Columbian devastation rather than self-imposed fall.119 Ideas of resource exhaustion and premonitory channels between the living and the dead accorded with Williams’s conceiving a ‘warning’ within the ancient Mayan presences in the series. This followed conceptions of their suffering a catastrophic decline at the end of the so-called Classic period, around 900 AD, often termed the ‘Maya collapse’ or ‘Classic collapse’. In his catalogue statement and again hinting towards a rainforest-corporeal, Williams suggested this resulted from ‘their inability to cope with their technology and the changes their achievements engendered within the metabolism of their living environment and ecology’, which was ‘exactly the position we find ourselves in today’.120 Williams saw this contemporary failure to keep up with technology evidenced in ozone depletion, environmental pollution, deforestation, species loss and global pandemics, describing them as the essence of the ‘modern human predicament’ and the source of ‘anxiety’ informing his work. Like Harris, these anxieties reflected the broader picture of post-war environmentalist concern but were sharpened through exposure to the exploitative realities of colonial capitalism in contrast with traditional Indigenous resource practices and modes of existence.121 Speaking in 1987, Williams criticised the neo-colonial extension of the trans-Amazonian highway: ‘We have now also punctured the last source of oxygen which is the South American Selvas by building that stupid road through Amazonas’.122 Sketches dating from the same year, which probably depict Yanomami Indigenous people, may respond to the impact of this roadbuilding.123 A goldrush in the north Brazilian state of Roraima, which borders Guyana, and the invasion of the Yanomami’s territory to devastating effect on people and landscape, garnered considerable international attention towards the end of the decade.124 An estimated 15% of the Yanomami population died within a period of just a few years, and as Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa (c.1956–present) has explained, the harmful xawara spirits unleashed through mining and other extractive activities of the polluting outsiders, not only bring sickness and death to the Yanomami, but undermine relations between their shamans and protective xapiri spirits, which maintain the forest and hold up the sky, and consequently apocalyptically threaten the end of the world itself.125 Such themes inform a much earlier 1959 sketch showing two Indigenous people looking over a rainforest landscape stripped of vegetation by a road and mining or logging infrastructure (Fig. 11). The work illustrated lines written by Carew in a review connected with Williams’s solo exhibition at London’s New Vision Gallery the same year: ‘The Indians say that when the green skin of the living world is peeled off, then the earth becomes a coffin for the dead’.126 These ideas pre-echo Harris’s readings of Night and the Olmec and Indigenous accounts like Menchú’s that relate human and environmental abuse and the deleterious effects of Western technologies.127

Sketch of two boys looking out over a landscape with some forms of industrial activity taking place. Sketch of two boys looking out over a landscape with some forms of industrial activity taking place
Fig. 11: Aubrey Williams, Sketch of two Indigenous people looking out over a landscape with some forms of industrial activity taking place (undated [1959]). Ink on paper, 15.7 x 9.1 cm. Tate, London. © Estate of Aubrey Williams. All rights reserved, DACS 2021. © Photo: Tate.

Final aspects of the cross-culture uniting Harris’s and Williams’s postcolonial-apocalyptic visions are highlighted by a poetical treatment of Night and the Olmec by Grace Nichols, called ‘Guyana Dreaming’ (2009).128 Developing Harris’s reading, the poem imagines a world-tree of rainforest references, interconnecting ornithology, hydrology, geology and cosmology through ascending layers of pre- and post-Columbian history intertwined with artistic biography. These references recall various overlapping interests, which Williams expressed through his painting alongside Indigenous sources, from birds and agronomy to astronomy and music. Via an apt image of the bone-flute, a key Harris motif representing the idea of ancient conceptual crossovers between Amazonian and Mesoamerican Indigenous worlds, Nichols sings the inner musicality of Williams’s painting repeatedly highlighted by the novelist.129 Remembering the implicit threat to these forest worlds, Nichols describes this musicality as ‘sometimes growing apocalyptic as your love of Shostakovich’.130 This refers to the artist’s major series of 30 paintings made after the Russian composer’s 15 symphonies and 15 string quartets, which Williams also premiered at the Commonwealth Institute Art Gallery in 1981, before the Olmec-Maya series exhibition.131 Williams noted ‘there is a great apocalypse in Shostakovich, all the time. That is why I say, there are parallel anxieties involved in both our work’.132 Nichols’s reference in relation to Guyana’s majestic waterfalls, such as Kaiteur, also remembers illuminating sequences in Bakari’s The Mark of the Hand, which powerfully mixes shots of the falls and the paintings overlaid with the mobile drama and emotive crescendos of Shostakovich’s music.133 It also echoes Williams’s comment from the following year that waterfalls, like lightening, have an essentially ‘free-form’ nature, from which visual abstraction could be deduced.134

abstract painting of Shostakovitch 3rd Symphony Opus 20
Fig. 12: Aubrey Williams, Shostakovich 3rd Symphony Opus 20 (1981). Oil on canvas, 138.6 x 209.6 cm. Tate, London. © Estate of Aubrey Williams. All rights reserved, DACS 2021. © Photo: Tate.
Feather crown with macaw feathers
Fig. 13: Anonymous, Feather crown with macaw feathers (Waiwai, c.1980s). Feathers, basketwork and cotton. Walter Roth Museum, Georgetown. Photographed with permission by the author (2011).

This synthesis of apocalypticism, sonic dynamism and Guyanese interests is variously embodied in Williams’s Shostakovich 3rd Symphony Opus 20 (1981, Fig. 12). The beautiful primary colour arrangement of red, blue and yellow gathered into the central triangular form resonates with Amerindian featherwork headdresses made from macaws and other birds, just as the background emerald greens, ochres and browns over charcoal depths suggests their rainforest home (Fig. 13). Headdresses have strong celestial associations through their avian connections, but particularly symbolize the sun as divine order and continuity.135 A simultaneous discontinuity is implied however by the way these four red macaw feathers strike down at and penetrate the black ground like lightening-bolts or arrows, in simulated image of a radical destruction event with its accompanying powerful reverberations. Warao origin accounts relate their living in the sky until a strong primordial archer-ancestor pierced the ground with an arrow while hunting for birds. The arrow’s difficult extraction opens a hole revealing a world of abundant food resources below, which they decide to access. As people descend, a pregnant woman gets stuck in the hole, which closes up, permanently separating those on earth, who became the Warao, from those left behind, who were transformed into angry spirits and sources of sickness requiring constant propitiation through shamanic intervention. In this respect, these events have continued underpinning fundamental aspects of Warao religious practices, as Vaquero Rojo emphasises. As a reminder of this division between visible and invisible worlds, the pregnant woman’s backside remains present in the sky as the Morning Star.136 The postcolonial painting of this dramatic rupture also evokes the destructions and traumatic separations founding American colonial time – from invasion to slavery. The red macaw feather lightning-bolt arrows remember two stages of Guyanese history preceding British involvement. Firstly, they recall the four oblique notched red branches of the Aspa de Borgoña (Cross of Burgundy), flag of the Spanish American Empire and emblem of the brutal original fracturing of Indigenous America (Fig. 14). Its emerging use is closely tied to the period of Spain’s early imperial expansion in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries through its connection to the marriage of Juana I of Castille (1479–1555) to the Duke of Burgundy, Felipe I (1478–1506).137 Juana was the daughter of the Catholic monarchs Isabel I of Castille (1451–1504) and Fernando II of Aragon (1452–1516), who had commissioned Cristóbal Colón (c1451–1506), and mother of Holy Roman Emperor Carlos V (1500–1558), whose reign oversaw the invasions of Nahua and Inca territories among others. These red elements also evoke Dutch genre painting’s mobilisations of macaws and other parrots as exotic symbols of American imperial possession in Guayana and beyond (Fig. 15). According with Dussel’s concept of ‘encubrimiento’, such exoticisation was itself another form covering that obscured such possession’s underpinning by slavery and dispossession, Indigenous and African. The transformation of a people and dramatic rupture with the past accords perfectly with the theme of Shostakovich’s Third Symphony, subtitled the ‘First of May’, which climaxes with a stirring libretto declaring the rebirth of the new Soviet people from the revolutionary fire, a partial antecedent of the complex struggles for political, aesthetic and spiritual identity that take place within the postcolonial contexts concerning Williams and Harris.138 Dynamic glimmers of Constructivist artist El Lissitzky’s (1890–1941) Red Wedge (1920) balancing flashes of Cold War nuclear missile strike reinforce these Soviet thematics with the loaded ambiguity of Harris’s ‘Russian vessel’. Indeed the historical sequences, ruptures and spatio-temporal syntheses suggested by Williams’s painting, from Guyana’s Indigenous foundations to the Russian Revolution can be seen as pre-echoing the compressed vision of ‘the Ship of Night’ in Carnival, as its evocation of generative separation follows the multiple births and rebirths of Da Silva da Silva. It recalls Williams, Harris and others transforming their separation from original sources of inspiration into vital visionary art from the ruins of the Colonial Apocalypse. The living canvas is adorned with the luminescent shimmering music of the eternal waterfall that flows out from the revelatory walls of the Palace of the Peacock.139 As Williams remarked, ‘this Guyanese diaspora is active in the arrowhead of change in strange countries they find themselves in’.140

Flag with the Cross of Burgundy Ningyou 2006
Fig. 14: Flag with the Cross of Burgundy. Image file created by Ningyou (2006).
painting of a red macaw and other birds
Fig. 15: Willem Henrik Wilhelmus van Royen, Red Macaw with Other Birds (c.1665–1723). Oil on canvas, 121.7 x 112 cm. The Wallace Collection, London. © The Wallace Collection. © Photo: The Wallace Collection/Bridgeman Images.


1 Wilson Harris, The Tree of the Sun (London: Faber and Faber, 1978), p. 5.
2 Ian McDonald et al., ‘In Memoriam – Aubrey Williams’, Kyk-Over-Al 42 (1991): pp. 43–44.
3 Errol Lloyd, ‘Aubrey Williams: Myth and Symbol’, Artrage 9:10 (1985): pp. 4–5; Errol Lloyd, ‘The Olmec–Maya and Now’, Race Today 16:5 (1985): p. 26; C.L.R. James, ‘Search for the Guyanese Reality’, in Anne Walmsley (ed.), Guyana Dreaming: The Art of Aubrey Williams (Sydney, Mundelstrup and Coventry: Dangaroo Press, 1990), pp. 79–80; Anne Walmsley, ‘Bridge of Sleep: Continental and Island Inheritance in the Visual Arts of Guyana’, in Hena Maes-Jelinek, Gordon Collier & Geoffrey V. Davis (eds.), A Talent(ed) Digger: Creations, Cameos, and Essays in Honour of Anna Rutherford (Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 1996), pp. 261, 269–270; Kobena Mercer, ‘Black Atlantic Abstraction: Aubrey Williams and Frank Bowling’, in Kobena Mercer (ed.), Discrepant Abstraction (London and Cambridge: Institute of International Visual Arts (inIVA) and The MIT Press, 2006), pp. 183, 187–192; Leon Wainwright, Timed Out: Art and the Transnational Caribbean (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011), pp. 46, 48, 49–50.
4 Nathaniel Mackey, ‘Quantum Ghosts: An Interview with Wilson Harris’, in Mercer, Discrepant Abstraction, pp. 206–221.
5 My deepest thanks and appreciation to Maridowa Williams, Anne Walmsley, Errol Lloyd, Ishaq Imruh Bakari, Kobena Mercer, Chili Hawes, Gerard Houghton, Michael Mitchell, Tim Cribb and Rasheed Araeen. Sincere gratitude also to the Editors, Eddie Coomasaru and Theresa Deichert, for their extraordinary efforts and vision. Additional thanks for images to Liz Dooley and Sarah Shalgosky at the University of Warwick Art Collection, Thomas Hvid Kromann at the Royal Danish Library, Sarah J. Duncan at Sarah J. Duncan Photography, Margherita Manca at the Twentieth Century Society, Jennifer Wishart at the Walter Roth Museum, Tariq Ali and the Tariq Ali Archive, and Paige Ashley and Alex McNamee at October Gallery.
6 The phrase ‘Colonial Apocalypse’ is adapted from the poem ‘The Border’ in Ishaq Imruh Bakari, Without Passport or Apology (Ripon: Smokestack Books, 2017), pp. 90–91. I thank Eddie Coomasaru for pointing out a connected claim made by Christopher Columbus in a letter from 1500, where he wrote: ‘Of the new heaven and earth, which our Lord made, as St. John writes in the Apocalypse (after that which was said by the mouth of Isaiah) he made me the messenger, and showed me the way’. My translation from Giovanni Spotorno (ed.), Codice Diplomatico Colombo-Americano (Genoa: Ponthenier, 1823), pp. 296–299. Columbus’s imposition of Biblical temporality onto the ‘new’ ‘American’ space had a geographical equivalent relevant to this essay in his referring to his reconnaissance of the Orinoco delta region of the Guayana littoral as the rediscovery of the Garden of Eden. See M. Fernández de Navarrete (ed.), Viajes de Cristóbal Colón (Madrid: Calpe, 1922), pp. 279, 286–292.
7 Colin Nutley (dir.), Da Silva da Silva (London: Bandung Productions, 1987); Wilson Harris, ‘An Autobiographical Essay’, in Joyce Sparer Adler, Exploring the Palace of the Peacock: Essays on Wilson Harris (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2003), pp. xxix–xxx.
8 Wilson Harris, Da Silva da Silva’s Cultivated Wilderness and Genesis of the Clowns (London: Faber and Faber, 1977).
9 Harris, Da Silva da Silva, p. 6.
10 Harris, Da Silva da Silva, pp. 8, 13, 76; Harris, ‘Autobiographical Essay’, pp. viii, xxix–xxx.
11 ‘Henry Richard Vassal-Fox, 3rd Baron Holland, Profile & Legacies Summary, 1773-1840’, Legacies of British Slave-ownership, UCL, accessed 10 August 2020, https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/person/view/46368; Catherine Hall, ‘Troubling Memories: Nineteenth-Century Histories of the Slave Trade and Slavery’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 21 (sixth series, 2011): pp. 153–157.
12 Harris, Da Silva da Silva, pp. 9, 31–32, 53–54, 59–60. Rather than Harris’s ‘Cuffey’, my spelling follows Marjoleine Kars, Blood on the River: A Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast (New York: The New Press, 2020), pp. 67–69.
13 Moore’s visionary sculpture was accompanied by five plaques, entitled Seeking Inspiration, Uniting the People, Destroying the Enemies, Control, and Praise and Thanksgiving. They collectively narrate the 1763 Revolution as an archetype for twentieth century Guyanese anticolonialism. For a description of the work’s complex iconography, see the commemorative leaflet, Denis Williams et al., The 1763 Monument: Unveiled on Sunday 23rdMay, 1976 To Mark the 10th Anniversary of Independence of Guyana (Georgetown: Guyana Printers Ltd, 1976). For Guyana’s Independence struggle, see Cheddi Jagan, The West on Trial: My Fight for Guyana’s Freedom (London: Joseph, 1966).
14 Wilson Harris, The Guyana Quartet (London: Faber and Faber, 1985), p. 1; Harris, ‘Autobiographical Essay’, p. x; Tim Cribb, ‘T.W. Harris – Sworn Surveyor’, Journal of Commonwealth Literature 29:1 (1993): pp. 39–41.
15 Nutley, Da Silva da Silva.
16 World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (New York and Oxford: United Nations and Oxford University Press, 1987).
17 George Lucas (dir.), Star Wars (San Raphael: Lucasfilm, 1977); Irvin Kershner (dir.), The Empire Strikes Back (San Raphael: Lucasfilm, 1980); Richard Marquand (dir.), Return of the Jedi (San Raphael: Lucasfilm, 1983).
18 Harris et al., ‘Bouquet for Burrowes’, Kyk-Over-Al 6:18 (1954): pp. 8–9.
19 Harris et al., ‘Bouquet for Burrowes’, pp. 3–14; Evelyn A Williams, The Art of Denis Williams (Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2012), pp. 10–39.
20 Two basalt figures approximately dated 1000–1600 are held in the British Museum: ‘Hoa Hankananai’a (‘lost or stolen friend’)/Moai (ancestor figure)’, ‘Moai Hava (‘Dirty statue’ or ‘to be lost’)/Moai (ancestor figure)’, Museum numbers Oc1869,1005.1, Oc1869,1006.1, The British Museum, accessed 10 August 2020, https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/E_Oc1869-1005-1, https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/E_Oc1869-1006-1.
21 Harris et al., ‘Bouquet for Burrowes’, p. 8.
22 Harris et al., ‘Bouquet for Burrowes’, p. 8.
23 ‘Imperialist wars’ follows Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Washington: Howard University Press, 1981), pp. 183, 187.
24 Wilson Harris, Carnival (London: Faber and Faber, 1985).
25 Harris, Carnival, pp. 9, 12–13, 17.
26 Harris, Carnival, pp. 13, 26, 28, 30–31, 35–36, 125.
27 Wilson Harris, The Radical Imagination: Lectures and Talks (Liège: Department of English, University of Liège, 1992), pp. 71–73.
28 Harris, Da Silva da Silva, p. 6.
29 See poems ‘One Continent/To another’, ‘Web of Kin’, ‘Each Time They Came’, ‘Eulogy’, ‘Of Golden Gods’, ‘Epilogue’, in Grace Nichols, I Is A Long Memoried Woman (London: Karnak House, 1990 [1983]), pp. 5–7, 8–9, 15, 16–17, 59–60, 87. For similar thematisation, see Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (London: Verso, 1996 [1993]); Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being(Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016).
30 Harris, Carnival, pp. 46–47.
31 ‘Imperial time’ is elaborated from Cheddi Jagan, Forbidden Freedom, The Story of British Guiana (London: Hansib Publishing Limited, 1989 [1954]), p. 104. For connected discussion of alternative temporalities and Indigenous America in Harris’s work, see Michael Mitchell, ‘Introduction’, in Wilson Harris, Ascent to Omai (Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 2018 [1970]), pp. 11, 20–21.
32 On historical and present Arawak, see Neil L. Whitehead, ‘Arawak Linguistic and Cultural Identity through Time: Contact, Colonialism, and Creolization’, in Jonathan D. Hill and Fernando Santos-Granero (eds.), Comparative Arawakan Histories: Rethinking Language Family and Culture Area in Amazonia (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002), pp. 51–73; Jonathan D. Hill and Fernando Santos-Granero, ‘Introduction’ in Hill and Granero, Comparative Arawakan Histories, pp. 1–22; Konrad Rybka, ‘State-of-the-Art in the Development of the Lokono Language’, Language Documentation & Conservation 9 (2015): pp. 111–114.
33 ‘Nahua’ over ‘Aztec’ follows historical and present patterns of Indigenous self-definition as described in James Lockhart, The Nahuas After the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico, Sixteenth Through Eighteenth Centuries (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), p. 1.
34 Bartolomé de las Casas, Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias, (eds.) José Miguel Martínez Torrejón and Gustavo Adolfo Zuluaga Hoyos (Medellín: Editorial Universidad de Antioquia, 2011 [1552]).
35 Las Casas, Brevísima relación, pp. 12–18.
36 Bartolomé de las Casas, Theodor de Bry and Johanne Saur, Narratio Regionum Indicarum Per Hispanos Quosdam Devastatarum Verissima(Frankfurt: John Theodor and John Israel de Bry, 1598).
37 Las Casas, Brevísima relación, pp. 18–22.
38 Guaman Poma, El Primer Nueva Corónica I Buen Gobierno Conpuesto por Don Phelipe Guaman Poma de Aiala, Señor I Principe (c. 1615), Royal Danish Library, Copenhagen, GKS 2232 kvart, accessed 5 August 2020, http://www5.kb.dk/permalink/2006/poma/info/en/frontpage.htm; Rolena Adorno, ‘Waman Puma: El autor y su Obra’, in Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, Nueva crónica y buen gobierno, (eds.) John V. Murra, Rolena Adorno and Jorge L. Urioste (Madrid: Historia-16, 1987), vol. 1, pp. xvii–xlvii.
39 Poma, Nueva Corónica, p. 525 [529], accessed 5 August 2020, http://www5.kb.dk/permalink/2006/poma/529/es/text/.
40 Las Casas, Brevísima relación, pp. 41.
41 Linda A. Newson, ‘The Demographic Impact of Colonization’, in Victor Bulmer-Thomas, John Coatsworth, Roberto Cortes-Conde (eds.), The Cambridge Economic History of Latin America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 143–148; David E. Stannard, ‘Disease and Infertility: A New Look at the Demographic Collapse of Native Populations in the Wake of Western Contact’, Journal of American Studies, 24:3 (1990): pp. 325–350.
42 Alexander Koch et al., ‘Earth Systems Impacts of the European Arrival and Great Dying in the Americas after 1492’, Quaternary Science Reviews 207 (2019): pp. 17, 30.
43 Robin Blackburn, The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights (London and New York: Verso, 2011), pp. 16–17.
44 See illustrations 1–4 in the Second Section of Theodor de Bry, Americae Pars Quinta (Paris, 1595).
45 Stowage of the British Slave Ship “Brookes” under the Regulated Slave Trade Act of 1788 (Plymouth: Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1788); Plan and Section of a Slave Ship, and Description of a Slave Ship (London: James Philips, 1789); William Blake, ‘The Execution of Breaking on the Rack’, ‘A Negro Hung Alive by the Ribs to a Gallows’, and ‘Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave’, in John Gabriel Stedman, Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam in Guiana, on the Wild Coast of South America; from the year 1772, to 1777 (London: J Johnson and J Edwards, 1796), vol. 1, pp. 107–110, 325–327, Plates XI, XXXV, and vol. 2, pp. 294–298, Plate LXXI.
46 Harris, Ascent to Omai, p. 42.
47 My translation from Enrique Dussel, 1492 El encubrimiento del Otro: Hacia el origen del “mito de la Modernidad” (La Paz: Plural editores, 1994).
48 Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011); Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality, and Colonization (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995).
49 Rodney, How Europe, pp. 232–238.
50 Harris, Carnival, pp. 128.
51 Wilson Harris, Jonestown (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), pp. 171–172; Harris, ‘Autobiographical Essay’, pp. xvii–xviii; Harris, Radical Imagination, pp. 74–75; Cribb, ‘Sworn Surveyor’, pp. 36.
52 Michael Niblett, ‘“When you take thing out the earth and you en’t put nothing back”: Nature, Form and the Metabolic Rift in Jan Carew’s Black Midas’, The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 46:2 (2011): pp. 238–243, 251–253; Michael Niblett, ‘The “impossible quest for wholeness”: sugar, cassava, and the ecological aesthetic in The Guyana Quartet’, Journal of Postcolonial Writing 49:2 (2013): pp. 150–152.
53 Rodney, How Europe, pp. 199–200, 205, 225, 229–230, 238–275.
54 Beryl Gilroy, ‘Living, Learning and Working in Fifties London’, in Joan Anim-Addo (ed.), Leaves in the Wind: Collected Writings of Beryl Gilroy (London: Mango Publishing, 1998), p. 196.
55 Mitchell, ‘Introduction’, pp. 18–21.
56 Wilson Harris, The Infinite Rehearsal (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), pp. 45, 54–55, 59; World Nuclear Association, ‘Chernobyl Accident 1986’, updated April 2020, accessed 4 August 2020, https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/chernobyl-accident.aspx.
57 Harris, Radical Imagination, pp. 72–73.
58 Wilson Harris, ‘History, Fable and Myth in the Caribbean and Guiana’, Caribbean Quarterly 16:2 (1970): p. 7.
59 Harris, ‘History Fable Myth’, p. 29; Elsa Goveia, Slave Society in the British Leeward Islands at the End of the Eighteenth Century (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1969 [1965]), p. 338. Harris’s endorsement of Goveia was limited by its being set amidst his lectures’ wider criticisms of what he described as the prosaic and constricted character of Caribbean political and philosophical historiography, which also encompassed C.L.R. James, Eric Williams and Cheddi Jagan.
60 Wilson Harris, ‘Aubrey Williams’, Journal of Caribbean Literatures 2:1/2/3 (2000): p. 27.
61 Harris, ‘Aubrey Williams’ (2000), pp. 26–27. ‘Living canvas’ is adapted from Williams’s statement to critic and curator Guy Brett that ‘the canvas is becoming more and more alive for me’, which is the final resonant line of Imruh Bakari’s (1950–present) 1986 documentary about the artist, The Mark of the Hand. See Imruh Bakari (dir.), The Mark of the Hand (London: Kuumba Productions, 1986).
62 Guy Brett and Aubrey Williams, The Olmec-Maya and Now: New Work by Aubrey Williams (London: Commonwealth Institute, 1985); Anne Walmsley, ‘Chronology’, in Andrew Dempsey, Gilane Tawadros, and Maridowa Williams (eds.), Aubrey Williams (London: Institute of International Visual Arts, 1998), pp. 94–95, 102–105.
63 Mark Crinson, Modern Architecture and the End of Empire (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), pp. 100–126.
64 Harris, Da Silva da Silva, pp. 61–77. Harris had in fact briefly written about Williams in a catalogue text for the Commonwealth Institute’s inaugural exhibition, Commonwealth Art Today, in 1962. See Wilson Harris, ‘British Guiana’, in Eric Newton, Commonwealth Art Today (London: Commonwealth Institute, 1962), pp. 25–26.
65 Harris, Da Silva da Silva, pp. 69–70.
66 Aubrey Williams, ‘The Olmec-Maya and Now’, in Brett and Williams, Olmec-Maya and Now. On the struggle for post-Independence identity and cultural renewal, see Harris, ‘History Fable Myth’; Aubrey Williams, ‘The Predicament of the Artist in the Caribbean’, in Walmsley, Guyana Dreaming, pp. 15–20; Aubrey Williams, ‘Caribbean Visual Art: A Framework for Further Inquiry’, in Walmsley, Guyana Dreaming, pp. 21–28; Anne Walmsley (ed.), Transcript of Interview with Aubrey Williams for Guyana National Radio (1970), 5–6; Rasheed Araeen, ‘Conversation with Aubrey Williams’, Third Text 2 (1987/88): pp. 49–52.
67 Nutley, Da Silva da Silva; Harris, ‘Autobiographical Essay’, pp. viii–x, xvi–xx, xxii; Anne Walmsley, The Caribbean Artists Movement, 1966–1972 (London and Port of Spain: New Beacon Books, 1992), pp. 24–26; Andrew Bundy, ‘Introduction’, in Wilson Harris, Selected Essays of Wilson Harris (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 1–7, 16–19; Cribb, ‘Sworn Surveyor’, pp. 33–46.
68 Walmsley, ‘Chronology’, pp. 68–69; Araeen, ‘Conversation’, pp. 28–31; Bakari, Mark of the Hand; Anne Walmsley (ed.), Typescript of Interview with Aubrey Williams for book Great West Indians (1972), pp. 3–6; Anne Walmsley (ed.), Typescript of Interview with Aubrey Williams for book Great West Indians with corrections/additions by Aubrey Williams (1972), pp. 3–5, 7.
69 Nutley, Da Silva da Silva; Harris, ‘Autobiographical Essay’, p. x.
70 Walmsley, Typescript, pp. 3–4, 6; Walmsley, Typescript with corrections, pp. 3–4, 7; Araeen, ‘Conversation’, p. 30.
71 E.B. Martyn, ‘Experimental Cultivations in the North West District – 1928–1938’, Agricultural Journal of British Guiana X:3 (1939): pp. 124–138; W.E. Harden, The Putumayo: The Devil’s Paradise: Travels in the Peruvian Amazon Region and an Account of the Atrocities Committed Upon the Indians Therein (London and Leipsic: T Fisher Unwin, 1913).
72 My translations from Basilio de Barral, Diccionario Warao-Castellano, Castellano-Warao (Caracas: Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, 2000), pp. 141, 204, 407; S.J. Cooksey, ‘The Indians of the North Western District’, Timehri 2:1 (third series, 1912): pp. 330, 333–334.
73 Bakari, Mark of the Hand; Walmsley, Typescript, p. 3; Walmsley, Typescript with corrections, p. 3.
74 Harris, ‘History Fable Myth’, p. 18; Harris, ‘Aubrey Williams’ (2000), pp. 26–27; Wilson Harris, ‘Aubrey Williams’, Third Text 10:34 (1996): pp. 79–80; Wilson Harris, ‘The Amerindian Legacy’, in Harris, Selected Essays, p. 162.
75 Wilson Harris, Palace of the Peacock, in Harris, Guyana Quartet, pp. 32, 62–63, 79, 100–110; Harris, Ascent to Omai, p. 35; Harris, Carnival, pp. 128, 131, 135–136, 144, 147, 170; Wilson Harris, The Four Banks of the River of Space (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), pp. 33–39, 43–46, 122–123, 132–134, 143; Harris ‘Autobiographical Essay’, p. xvi; Harris, Genesis of Clowns, pp. 114–115, 124–125, 128–136; Tim Cribb, ‘Kaieteur: place of the pharmakos and deconstruction’, Journal of Postcolonial Writing 49:2 (2013): pp. 198–208; Tim Cribb, ‘The Two Anchors’, in Gordon Collier et al. (eds.), The Cross-Cultural Legacy: Critical and Creative Writings in Memory of Hena Maes-Jelinek (Leiden: Brill and Rodopi, 2016), pp. 49–65.
76 My translations from Julio Lavandero Pèrez, Noara y otros rituales (Caracas: Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, 2000), pp. 41–44. Barral defines jobaji as meaning ‘the earth’, ‘the first plane’, ‘the vegetable earth/land’, literally ‘surrounded by water’, combining jo (water) and baji (to turn, to surround, to encircle). My translations, from Barral, Diccionario Warao-Castellano, pp. 49, 204, 207. See also Johannes Wilbert, Mystic Endowment: Religious Ethnography of the Warao Indians (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 10; Johannes Wilbert, Folk Literature of the Warao Indians (Los Angeles: Latin American Centre, University of California, 1970), p. 220.
77 A similar colour scheme occurs in Waterfall (1943) by Arshile Gorky, the Abstract Expressionist whose ‘perception’ Williams said resonated closest with his own. See Araeen, ‘Conversation’, p. 36.
78 Aubrey Williams, The Warwick Logus, handwritten note (1985), University of Warwick Art Collection; Aubrey Williams, Dalhousie Murals, typescript (1978), p. 2.
79 Araeen, ‘Conversation’, p. 30.
80 Peter Rivière (ed.), The Guiana Travels of Robert Schomburgk 1835–1844, Volume I: Explorations on Behalf of the Royal Geographical Society 1835–1839 (London: The Hakluyt Society, 2006), p. 53; Peter Rivière (ed.), The Guiana Travels of Robert Schomburgk 1835–1844, Volume II: The Boundary Survey 1840–1844 (London: The Hakluyt Society, 2006), pp. 78, 158; Walter Roth, ‘An Inquiry into the Animism and Folk-lore of the Guiana Indians’, Thirteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution 1908–1909(Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1915), pp. 235–240; John Gillin, The Barama River Caribs (Cambridge: Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, 1936), pp. 154–160; Davi Kopenawa, The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman(Cambridge: The Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), pp. 62–64.
81 Mark Plew, ‘The Archaeology of Iwokrama and the North Rupununi’, Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 154 (2005): pp. 8, 11; Rafael A Gassón, ‘The Archaeology of the Orinoco River Basin’, Journal of World Prehistory 16:3 (2002): p. 285; Denis Williams, Prehistoric Guiana (Kingston and Miami: Ian Randle Publishers, 2003), pp. 91–97, 147–206, 238–240, 301–302, 410. The difficulties of dating regional rock art are underlined in Philip Riris, ‘On Confluence and contestation in the Orinoco interaction sphere: the engraved rock art of the Atures Rapids’, Antiquity 91:360 (2017): pp. 1610–1612, 1616.
82 Henk Courtz, A Carib Grammar and Dictionary (Toronto: Magoria Books, 2008), p. 400.
83 Bakari, Mark of the Hand; Harris, ‘Aubrey Williams’ (1996), pp. 79–80; Harris, Ascent to Omai, pp. 30, 37; Harris, Genesis of Clowns, p. 144; Roth, ‘Animism and Folk-lore’, p. 237; Cesáreo de Armellada, Tauron Panton, Cuentos y Leyendas de los Pemon (Quito: Ediciones Abya-Yala, 1989 [2nd edition]), p. 57. Early Williams paintings like Death and the Conquistador (1959) or Untitled (1956) show clear correspondences with illustrations of typical timehri examples. See Everard Im Thurn, Among the Indians of Guiana (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, & Co., 1883), pp. 392–393, 400; Richard Schomburgk, Reisen in British-Guiana in den Jahren 1840–1844 (Leipzig: J.J. Weber, 1847), vol. 1, pp. 320–321.
84 Williams, Prehistoric Guiana, pp. 8–10; Neil L. Whitehead, ‘Three Patamuna Trees’, in Neil L. Whitehead (ed.), Histories and Historicities in Amazonia (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), pp. 61–64, 70–72; Gordon Macmillan, At the End of the Rainbow? Gold, Land, and People in the Brazilian Amazon (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), pp. 6–10.
85 Walter Roth, ‘An Introductory Study of the Arts, Crafts and Customs of the Guiana Indians’, Thirty-Eighth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution 1916–17 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1924), pp. 354–361, Figure 172D, 173A–D. Conversations with Maridowa Williams suggest the artist may have seen such examples also.
86 Harris, Jonestown, p. 33; Harris, Four Banks, pp. 135–137.
87 Williams, Dalhousie Murals, p. 2; Williams, The Warwick Logus; Aubrey Williams, Notes on Guyana Tryptych, typescript (1976).
88 Gillin, Barama River Caribs, pp. 154–180; Wilbert, Mystic Endowment, pp. 87–181.
89 Wilbert, Mystic Endowment, pp. 15–16, 18–19, 22–23; Wilbert, Folk Literature, pp. 103–104, 231–232, 281–296, 301–307, 354–362, 440–442; Daisy Barreto and Esteban E. Mosonyi, Literatura Warao (Caracas: Ediciones del Consejo Nacional de la Cultura, Coordinación de Literatura, 1980), pp. 146–147; Roth, ‘Animism and Folk-lore’, pp. 122–125, 130–135, 370; William Henry Brett, Legend and Myths of the Aboriginal Indians of British Guiana (London: William Wells Gardner, 1880), pp. 77–78; Colin Henfrey, The Gentle People: A Journey Among the Indian Tribes of Guiana(London: Hutchinson, 1964), p. 56.
90 Roth, ‘Animism and Folk-lore’, pp. 139, 143–144, 149–150, 369–370; Wilbert, Mystic Endowment, pp. 15, 23, 65, 174, 177; Wilbert, Folk Literature, pp. 78–82, 198–199; Johannes Wilbert, Mindful of Famine: Religious Climatology of the Warao Indians (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 37, 71–73; Neil L. Whitehead, ‘The Snake Warriors – Sons of Tigers Teeth: A Descriptive analysis of Carib Warfare. Ca. 1500–1820’, in Jonathan Haas (ed.), The Anthropology of War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 148; Brett, Legends and Myths, pp. 64–74; Henfrey, Gentle People, p. 56; Gillin, Barama River Caribs, pp. 187, 192–194; C.H. De Goeje, What is Time? (Leiden: E J Brill, 1949), p. 35.
91 Donald Locke, ‘Contemporary Guyanese Painters: Aubrey Williams’, in Walmsley, Guyana Dreaming, p. 72. For discussion of Indigenous Amazonian conceptions of cosmic fertility and reproduction, including the Warao, see Wilbert, Mystic Endowment, pp. 133–182; Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, Amazonian cosmos: the sexual and religious symbolism of the Tukano Indians (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971); Kopenawa, Falling Sky, pp. 32, 381–400.
92 Jan Carew, The Wild Coast (London: Secker & Warburg, 1958), p. 112; Walmsley, ‘Chronology’, p. 72. A manuscript in Aubrey Williams’s archive contains an unfinished six-page poem entitled Hosororo, possibly dating to the latter 1940s, which describes the waterfall’s magical formation and musicality in similar mytho-corporeal terms.
93 Williams, Dalhousie Murals, p. 2; Walmsley, Typescript, p. 4; Walmsley, Typescript with corrections, p. 4
94 Wilbert, Mystic Endowment, p. 19–20.
95 My translations from Antonio E Vaquero Rojo, Manifestaciones religiosas de los Warao y mitología fundante (Caracas: Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, 2000), pp. 102–103, 176–177.
96 Walmsley, Typescript with corrections, p. 4; Walmsley, Typescript, pp. 3–4. For similar comments on the Warao influence upon his aesthetic perception and sensibility, particularly relating to colour, spirituality and the organic, see Aubrey Williams, Untitled Statement, typescript (May 4, 1967).
97 Locke, ‘Contemporary Guyanese Painters’, p. 72; Jan Carew, ‘Portrait of the Artist – Aubrey Williams’, in Walmsley, Guyana Dreaming, p. 67; Guy Brett, ‘A Tragic Excitement’, in Dempsey, Tawadros, and Williams, Aubrey Williams, pp. 30–31.
98 Walmsley, Typescript with corrections, pp. 3–4; Walmsley, Typescript, pp. 3–4; Araeen, ‘Conversation’, p. 30.
99 Williams, ‘Caribbean Visual Art’, p. 22; Araeen, ‘Conversation’, p. 52.
100 Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (Paris: Librairie Plon, 1955), p. 496; Claude Lévi-Strauss, A World on the Wane, (trans.) John Russel (London: Hutchinson and Co, 1961), p. 397.
101 Ian Dudley, ‘Olmec Colossal Heads in the Paintings of Aubrey Williams’, Art History 43:4 (2020): pp. 828–855.
102 Dudley, ‘Olmec Colossal Heads’, pp. 840–841.
103 Williams, ‘Olmec-Maya and Now’; Guy Brett, ‘Aubrey Williams’, in Brett and Williams, Olmec-Maya and Now; Dudley, ‘Olmec Colossal Heads’, pp. 845–849; Brett, ‘Tragic Excitement’, p. 31.
104 The sign evokes an array of celestial symbolism found across Mayan architecture (e.g. Uxmal) and codices (e.g. Madrid, Dresden) of the Classic and Post-Classic periods, which connect Venusian, rain and solar cycles, although it may be adapted from Olmec sculpture. Its use in the painting Olmec Stasis (1984–1985) suggests additional associations with sacrifice and Chacmools. See Iván Šprajc, Venus, Lluvia y maíz: simbolismo y astronomía en la cosmovisión mesoamericana (Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 1998 [1996]), pp. 75–79; Jeff Karl Kowalski, The House of the Governor: A Maya Palace at Uxmal, Yucatan, Mexico (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987), pp. 182–202; Miguel León-Portilla, Tiempo y Realidad en el Pensamiento Maya: Ensayo de Acercamiento (México D.F.: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2003 [1968]), pp. 36–43, 70, 79–80, 91–92, 138–139; Dudley, ‘Olmec Colossal Heads’, pp. 836–838.
105 Rigoberta Menchú and Elizabeth Burgos, Me Llamo Rigoberta Menchú y Así Me Nació La Conciencia (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1993 [1983]). Aubrey Williams’s archive contains a copy of a four-page article kept by the artist, entitled ‘Olmec Maya Civilisations’, by John Phillips. It quotes Menchú’s book amidst its summary description of a continuous Mayan history from the pre-Columbian period to the Guatemalan genocide of the late 1970s–early 1980s. While the originating publication remains unknown, the article’s reading list suggests its likely dating from around 1984.
106 Menchú and Burgos, Me Llamo Rigoberta Menchú, pp. 22, 25–28, 32, 34–35, 69, 80–83, 86, 92, 98, 107, 176–178, 195, 214, 220–226, 237, 245, 267.
107 Ivan Van Sertima, They Came before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America (New York: Random House, 1976); Harris, Radical Imagination, pp. 89–91; Dudley, ‘Olmec Colossal Heads’, pp. 829–833, 841–843, 845–853.
108 Araeen, ‘Conversation’, pp. 42–43; Dudley, ‘Olmec Colossal Heads’, pp. 842–843.
109 Harris, Guyana Quartet, p. 1; Harris ‘Autobiographical Essay’, pp. xiv–xv. Jan Carew’s biographical note describes similar diversity, see Carew,Wild Coast, back-matter.
110 Harris, Da Silva da Silva, p. 6.
111 Sabine MacCormack, ‘From the Sun of the Incas to the Virgin of Copacabana’, Representations 8 (1984): pp. 35–41.
112 Armellada, Tauron Panton, pp. 27–69, 245; Roth, ‘Animism and Folk-lore’, pp. 130–136. 
113 Harris, ‘Autobiographical Essay’, p. ix; Harris, Da Silva da Silva, pp. 6, 64.
114 Menchú and Burgos, Me Llamo Rigoberta Menchú, pp. 34–35, 81-82.
115 Harris, Da Silva da Silva, pp. 6–7; Armellada, Tauron Panton, pp. 51–57; Roth, ‘Animism and Folk-lore’, pp. 144–148; Theodor Koch-Grünberg, Vom Roroima zum Orinoco (Stuttgart: Verlag Strecker und Schröder, 1924), vol. 2, pp. 33–38. Similar allusions to World Tree mythology occur among other Indigenous Guayanese, Andean and Mesoamerican references in the sequel to Da Silva da Silva. See Harris, Tree of the Sun, pp. 3–12.
116 Robert J Sharer, The Ancient Maya, Fifth Edition (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), pp. 42, 129, 359–361, 368, 388, 397–401, 411, 415, 479, 534, 540–546.
117 Williams, ‘Caribbean Visual Art’, p. 28; Walmsley, Transcript of Interview, pp. 5–6. Williams’s catalogue notes describe the Hymn to the Sun paintings as ‘a series to the Maya symbol of life’ and V particularly as ‘Sun emblems and heat atmosphere.’ See Aubrey Williams, ‘Exhibits’, in Brett and Williams, Olmec-Maya and Now.
118 Harris, ‘Aubrey Williams’ (2000), pp. 29–30; Cribb, ‘Sworn Surveyor’, p. 37.
119 Harris, Ascent to Omai, pp. 32–33.
120 Williams, ‘The Olmec-Maya and Now’; Dudley, ‘Olmec Colossal Heads’, p. 845.
121 Araeen, ‘Conversation’, pp. 30, 38–46, 50–52; Bakari, Mark of the Hand; Walmsley, Typescript, pp. 3–6; Walmsley, Typescript with corrections, pp. 3–5, 7; Dudley, ‘Olmec Colossal Heads’, p. 845. On contrasting cultures of colonial sugar and Indigenous cassava in Harris’s work, see Niblett, ‘impossible quest’.
122 Araeen, ‘Conversation’, p. 51.
123 See Tate Archive, Taruma (1987); Sketches of Amerindians, including a woman carrying a child (1987); Sketch of two Amerindian women, one with facial piercings breastfeeding a baby (1990). See also Sketch of three men, two holding weapons or staves (c1970s) showing Yanomami sacred narcotic usage connected to seeing powerful xapiri spirits, as described in Kopenawa, Falling Sky, pp. 19–21, 31–33, 42–45, 55–60, 64, 70, 77–96, 492, 495. The label ‘Taruma’ may be a poetic allusion to an idea of an erased culture, although it remains possible that these sketches represent other peoples than the Yanomami.
124 Macmillan, End of the Rainbow?, pp. 1–54; Kopenawa, Falling Sky, pp. 19, 221–239, 252–253, 261–281.
125 Macmillan, End of the Rainbow?, pp. 48–51; Kopenawa, Falling Sky, pp. 19, 22–23, 26, 29–33, 55–74, 83, 94, 150, 159–163, 287–296, 310, 350–351, 389, 391, 394, 397–398, 401–411, 493. I thank Dr Arthur Valle, whose epigraphic use of the ‘Falling Sky’ prophecy at the Imagining the Apocalypse conference directed my attention towards Kopenawa’s vital text.
126 Carew, ‘Portrait of the Artist’, p. 67. Though listed as undated by Tate the sketch seems to be an alternative version of the first of two illustrations on themes of environmental and cultural destruction made by Williams that respectively accompany two articles by Carew published in The Listener in 1959. The first of these shows that Carew’s review statement is adapted from a quote attributed to an unnamed Warao village leader at Warrimuri. The Listener version is particularly interesting for containing additional ideas that resonate strikingly with the Yanomami ‘Falling Sky’ prophecy: ‘All that lives must wear green … and when you peel off the green skin from the land then the sky will close in and the earth will be a coffin for the dead’. See Jan Carew ‘The Forgotten Province’, The Listener, LXII:1590 (September 17, 1959): pp. 435–436; Jan Carew, ‘Klautkys, Allicocks, and Hamiltons’, The Listener, LXII:1591 (September 24, 1959): pp. 479–480.
127 Menchú and Burgos, Me Llamo Rigoberta Menchú, pp. 26, 51–60, 70, 86, 92–98, 115–117, 132–133, 150, 184–185, 193–194, 215, 220–226.
128 Grace Nichols, Picasso, I Want My Face Back (Tarset: Bloodaxe Books, 2010 [2009]), pp. 21–24.
129 Nichols, Picasso, p. 23; Wilson Harris, The Sleepers of Roraima: A Carib Trilogy (London: Faber and Faber, 1970), pp. 61–81; Harris, Radical Imagination, pp. 74, 77–78, 83–86, 93–94, 113.
130 Nichols, Picasso, p. 23.
131 Robert Atkins and Aubrey Williams, Shostakovich: An Exhibition of New Paintings by Aubrey Williams (London: Commonwealth Institute, 1981); Walmsley, ‘Chronology’, pp. 91–94, 102.
132 Araeen, ‘Conversation’, p. 48; Bakari, Mark of the Hand. Different ideas of time counting, creation and destruction represent key pathways of interaction between Williams’s musical and Mesoamerican series. Given his related comments to Brett in The Mark of the Hand about his sensing Shostakovich’s music in visual colour terms, as well as Wilson Harris’s aforementioned emphasis on the painter’s musicality, it may be interesting to note two further complementary discursive examples. These include, in the context of Indigenous Guyana, George Mentore’s discussion of overlaps between the eye and ear within Waiwai epistemology and social ontology, and, following Williams’s astronomical interests and Mercer’s connected discussion of them in the context of astrophysics, the understanding within that field of light and sound as being two forms of wave. They are both energy. See George Mentore, ‘Tempering the Social Self: Body Adornment, Vital Substance, and Knowledge among the Waiwai’, Archaeology and Anthropology 9 (1993): p. 29; Michael Zeilik, Astronomy: The Evolving Universe, Ninth Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 201; Kobena Mercer, ‘Aubrey Williams: Abstraction in Diaspora’, British Art Studies 8 (2018), accessed 10 November 2021, doi.org/10.17658/issn.2058-5462/issue-08/kmercer/p17.
133 Bakari, Mark of the Hand. The film uses the opening of Symphony No.8 and the fourth movement of Symphony No.7.
134 Lorraine Griffiths, ‘Bridging the Artistic Gap’, in Walmsley, Guyana Dreaming, pp. 91–92.
135 Koch-Grünberg, Vom Roroima, vol. 2, pp. 11, 51–53, 230–238, vol. 3, pp. 282–283; Barral, Diccionario Warao-Castellano, pp. 161–162, 215–216, 473, 489; Niels Fock, Waiwai: Religion and Society of an Amazonian Tribe (Copenhagen: The National Museum, 1963), pp. 33–35; Cesáreo de Armellada, Diccionario Pemón (Caracas: Corpoven and Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, 1981), pp. 20, 78; Mentore, ‘Tempering the Social Self’, p. 26–28. Various macaws and other species used for featherwork, such as toucans, appear among lists connected with Williams’s Bird Paintings series.
136 Vaquero Rojo, Manifestaciones religiosas, pp. 86–98, 152–157, 159–162, 197–207; Wilbert, Folk Literature, pp. 216–220, 290–296, 307–311; Roth, ‘Animism and Folk-lore’, p. 142. Winslow Craig’s wood-carving Discovery (1989) provides a powerful figurative portrayal of this story. See Alim Hosein (ed.), Panorama: A Portrait of Guyana, Images from the National Collection of Guyana (Georgetown: Castellani House, The National Gallery of Art, 2014), p. 17. A version of the myth recounted by Roy Heath also appears in Andrew Salkey’s 1980 compilation Caribbean Folk Tales and Legends, to which Williams contributed text and illustrations. See Andrew Salkey (ed.), Caribbean Folk Tales and Legends (London: Bogle L’Ouverture Press, 1980), 119–126.
137 Juan Álvarez Abeilhé ‘La Bandera de España’, Revista de Historia Militar: El Origen Militar de los Símbolos de España (Extraordinary Number, Year LIV, 2010): pp. 16–68.
138 Dimitri Shostakovich and Semen Kirsanov, Symphony No. 3: “First of May”, Opus. 20, (Moscow: State Publishers, Music, 1975).
139 Harris, Palace of the Peacock, pp. 99–117. In the context Guyana’s historical geography, given the celestial allusions, which, alongside alchemical symbolism, Harris associated with the Peacock image, it is worth noting the existence of the Peacock constellation (Pavo) in the southern sky, which was first named in print alongside other ‘new’ constellations, such as ‘Dorado’ and ‘Toucan’, in Johann Bayer’s 1603 celestial atlas, based on observations from Dutch colonial voyages of the 1590s. See Harris, ‘History Fable Myth’, p. 20; Wilson Harris, Tradition, the Writer and Society (London and Port of Spain: New Beacon Publications, 1967), pp. 32–33; Johann Bayer, Uranometria: Omnium Asterismorum Continens Schemata, Nova Methodo Delineata, Aereis Iaminis Expressa (Augsburg: Christoph Mang, 1603), table 49.
140 Araeen, ‘Conversation’, p. 49.

DOI: 10.33999/2022.89