Castellani House: The safe haven for Guyanese Art since 1993
Even after twenty-three years, the historic Castellani House still remains a safe haven for some of Guyana’s most thought-provoking pieces of art and craft.
With some of its old features still in place, this landmark still exhibits much architectural appeal in a fast-paced society and continues to serve as a platform for the growth of imaginative and artistic ingenuity in Guyana.
The nineteenth-century building, which can be found on the corner of Vlissengen Road and Homestretch Avenue in Georgetown was actually designed and constructed by the Maltese architect, Cesar Castellani, between 1879 and 1882.
He was considered one of the most prominent and prolific architects of the colonial era in British Guiana. But before it became the respected gallery it is today, it served as the residence for colonial government officials.
In 1942, the house was extended with the addition of a third storey to the original two. In 1965, further changes were made to the structure of the house by the Guyanese architect, Hugh McGregor Reid.
From 1965 to 1985, Castellani House was the official residence for Prime Minister Forbes Burnham and First Lady, Viola Burnham. During this time it was known simply as “the Residence”. For Burnham, it was the perfect, huge wooden house, bordered by the country’s National Zoo. After a major refurbishment, Castellani House was re-opened as the home of the National Art Gallery in 1993. The Gallery’s first curator was Everley Austin (1994-1996). Austin was followed by Elfrieda Bissember.
Since 1993, the National Art Gallery has seen been the home of priceless Guyanese art and remains forever eager to serve as a platform for newcomers in the industry and even old friends.
After ten years, the Art Gallery saw, for example, the return of selected works by one of its dear friends, Bernadette Indra Persaud, under the theme ‘As New and As Old’ which happened to be one of the poems written by renowned Guyanese poet Martin Carter.
Her paintings are bursting with life, vibrant colours and exhibit allusions to her East India heritage. Even the Guyana Women Artists’ Association’s (GWAA) had its works on display at the famous Castellani House.
Reflective works by 12 members of the association, joined by a young guest artist, provided a plethora of interesting styles which showcased stunning views of Guyana’s interior landscapes and interpretations of Caribbean scenes and memories.
The Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport, which has responsibility for the Castellani House, also enjoys hosting exhibitions there too. In fact, the Ministry had held there, its “Spirit of Revolution” expose.
It was said to be in keeping with the intellectual aspect of the Mashramani celebrations. Each year, the exhibition focuses on a different aspect of Guyana’s Republic status, and for 2014 last, attention was on the resistance and revolts by slaves.
According to the Ministry, the choice of February 23 as the date for Guyana’s achievement of republican status makes a clear reference to resistance and the achievement of freedom through personal struggle.
That date also commemorates the Berbice Slave Rebellion which was led by slaves of Plantation Magdalenenburg in collaboration with the slaves on nearby Plantation Providence in 1763. That revolt was finally quelled in April of 1764 with the capture of Atta.
The Ministry also noted that even though this rebellion was short lived, it is regarded by historians as one of the major acts of slave resistance in the Caribbean.
Based on the numerous art exhibitions it has hosted, the Culture Ministry observed that “Resistance” in Guyanese art has been quite evident and is seen in a number of ways. It noted however that the depiction of physical conflict is not a popular motif.
The Castellani House saw from the Ministry’s exhibition, 45 paintings and sculptures by notable artists such as E.R. Burrows, Stephanie Correia, Stanley Greaves, Phillip Moore, and Winslow Craig.
New artistic groups such as Bravo Arts also displayed their confidence in the Art Gallery as it selected the venue for its exhibitions which saw eye-catching body art models.
There are still many more who continue to benefit from the use of the art gallery whether it is to showcase their work or to observe the astounding beauty of Guyanese art. Either way, the Castellani House, remains a cherished landmark as it captures hearts through the exhibition of untamed art.