Roots + revolution at Guyana’s Museum of African Heritage

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Dropping me off outside Guyana’s Museum of African Heritage on Barima Avenue, my friend hung around to see if it was actually open. “I’ve never actually been here,” she said, peering at the sign. The closed gates didn’t look promising.

I had only discovered the museum existed a few days earlier, after walking up the wrong road (something that happens often to me). But being within walking distance of the National Zoo, Botanical Gardens and Castellani House, it’s actually well placed for the enterprising visitors who track it down.

Luckily, it turned out, the museum was open – and I wasn’t the first visitor that day. “We had a tour earlier,” said the friendly guide optimistically (admitting later that before starting work there, even she hadn’t heard of it). More promotion was needed, we agreed.

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Painting outside the Museum of African Heritage, Guyana

Until 2011, the museum was known as the Museum of African Art and Ethnology. According to the tourism board, it was renamed to “open their doors to a wider audience and begin to fully address the African experience in Guyana”. Most of the museum is still given up to artefacts from (predominantly) the West Coast of Africa and neighbouring Suriname, but there are artworks by local artists too.

On entering the top floor, you’re immediately met by a small replica of Guyana’s famous moment to Cuffy (more in this post)– an African slave who led the great slave revolt of 1763 in what was then the Dutch colony of Berbice. Most of the lower floor of the museum is dedicated to Cuffy and his men, too.

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The Dutch began bringing Africans to the colony as early as the mid-17th century. Over the following years, thousands of slaves were captured and transported over the seas in appalling conditions, for a life of back-breaking work, oppression and abuse.

Today, Guyanese of African ancestry make up around 30.2% of the population – according to the 2002 census. (There was a census in 2012, but the preliminary report makes no mention of ethnicity and I cannot find anywhere the final version, which was ‘due soon’ last May.)

The connection between Africa and the Guyana of today is made by the contemporary art itself, which tackles themes including slavery, unification and revolution. Like this striking piece by artist Ras Iah entitled ‘Escape Mental Slavery’:

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There’s also a great painting that imagines the pioneering group of former African slaves who clubbed together to buy their own plantation village and make it their home of freedom. But I’ll save that one for you to discover in person.

Museum of African History, Barima Avenue, Bel Air Park, Georgetown Guyana. Entry: Free. Getting there: Take the number 40 bus and get off near Popeye’s.

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