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The Painterboy of Demerara - Analysis

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Paintings fascinate me because my childhood in Guyana was devoid of secular art.  There were no art galleries in the colony, no art classes at school, no art books in the library.  I never saw African sculpture; the Indian pictures were gaudy images of gods; and there were illustrated Bibles.  Once, aged about nine, ill with tropical fever, I spent two weeks in bed, mostly in a state of unconsciousness.  My mother put a picture of Jesus on the bedroom wall.  His exposed heart was garlanded with thorns and He looked utterly sad.  In periods of waking I would gaze at the picture and be deeply affected by a sense of the sacred (Sunday school was obligatory so I knew the Christian story).  Soon after recovery I came across a children's book of illustrated Greek myths.  One picture in particular aroused me, of a half-naked, blonde, distressed Andromeda tied to a stake awaiting the beast's approach.  This brief period in my life awakened me to the sacred and the erotic.  At university, I was drawn to William Hogarth, who painted harlots and Madames in Christian iconography, as Mary and Elizabeth.  The actual moment of sinning also contained a potential moment of redemption, and my literary work is partly an exploration of the marriage of the spiritual and the carnal.


Some of what I have written has to do with the abused slave body questing for spiritual freedom.  A Harlot's Progress, my novel based on Hogarth's art, places the slave among diseased English harlots and sees him longing for the chastity of freedom, which is also the chastity of the Cross.  In a long poem, Turner, the dismembered slave longs for the wholeness and wholesomeness of family.


The Painterboy of Demerara echoes their earlier themes.  The context is the 18th-century, which saw countless Africans shipped over to the Caribbean colonies to labour in the canefields.  The slave trade and slave produced commodities like sugar, rum and tobacco, underpinned the wealth of 18th-century Britain, with fishing villages like Bristol and Liverpool evolving into major world ports.


There are three characters.  Firstly Massa (Master) Hogarth, with his mysterious past, who ends up in the malarial colony, a fate that the bulk of British officials wanted to avoid; only mediocrity or failure at their jobs saw them banished to a far-flung piece of the empire that was British Guyana (sugar-prodcuing Demerara its principle county).  There is the suggestion that Massa Hogarth is a talentless painter.  His scars suggest drunken brawls and lascivious deeds in England.  He is nominally Protestant – Catholic ('Papist') France and Protestant England were in a state of contant war over colonial possessions, so his scars are also a shorthand history of European violence.  Then there is Martha (black slaves were frequently named after biblical figures) who, in the gospels, loved Jesus, but in Demerara is a sexual object, enslaved to the will of men like Massa Hogarth.  She doesn't speak, her experiences have made her numb.  Finally the narrator Mungo (Mungo being a comic name commonly given to male slaves.  He makes his first appearance in an 18th-century English play by Isac Bickerstaffe, The Padlock).  Mungo, though treated as a 'boy', is a man of experience.  He hints at the moral chaos of plantation life ('too much trouble, riots . . .'), but unlike Martha he is full of words.  In creating Mungo, I was thinking of Derek Walcott who said that a slave passing a tree on his way to the canefields may have looked up and in the gloom of dawn caught a glimpse of a blue-saki or some other magically plumed bird, the Caribbean being sensationally beautiful with non-human life.  Walcott said that the briefest glimpse of beauty – the beauty of otherness – could so arouse the spirit of the slave that he / she could never be fully subjected again to human will.  The glimpse of beauty opens up the spirit to a world that transcends brutality.  In creating Mungo, I was also thinking  of Olaudah Equiano, who survived slavery and published his autobiography in England in 1789.  What distinguishes Equiano's writing is not the subject matter (the turmoil of slavery) but his joy in using words and making a book.  He frees himself from bondage by glimpsing the beauty in words and by revelling in the aesthetic challenge of composing his life in words.  In a sense he writes himself out of slavery, even though the words he uses are of the language of his slave-masters.


Mungo's story is told in a creolized English which I have anglicized heavily to make it readable on the page.  Creole is not broken English, betokening stupidity, but an extraordinary language, a blend of African grammar and English diction.  In the 18th-century, slaves were forbidden to speak their native tongues, the fear being that they would conspire to rebel.  They had to learn English but they retained their inaudible, invisible selves, which was the grammar of their native languages.  Past, present and future tenses are used differently from English in West African languages.  'I go, I will go, I have been' can be communicated in some West African languages by variations in the inflexion of the voice, using only two words 'I go'.  The West African sense of time, in which Ancestors are still living and determine the future, is conveyed in grammar.


The end of the story is bleak.  Mungo cannot glimpse the beauty of otherness (the English landscape), so he settles for the familiarity of black, reducing life and after-life to a monotone which is the slave condition.  He settles for the possibility that freedom is forever beyond his actual and imaginative grasp.  Silently he curses Massa Hogarth for making life and after-life ' black.'  There is an echo here of Caliban's words, cited so often by writers from the colony: 'You taught me language and my proft on it is that I know how to curse.'

 

 © David Dabydeen

 

Read more: Writers who inspired me

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