- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 31, 2002

Envision tiny Belize, wedged between Mexico and Guatemala, as a simmering stew. Begin with the ancient Mayans, who came around 2000 B.C. to this part of Mesoamerica, then the colonizing Spaniards of 1525, followed by British pirates and loggers around 1650. Add several pinches of refugees, including the Garifuna (people of mixed Carib and African ancestry), mestizos escaping the Mexican Yucatan caste wars, Jamaican slaves, East Indians, Chinese, Mennonites and descendants from a small group of expatriate Confederate Civil War veterans, and there are lots of tasty elements in the melting pot.

The stew came to a heady boil when Belize a crown colony of Great Britain since 1871 gained independence more than a century later, in 1981.

That newfound freedom has continued to energize Belizeans in many fields of endeavor, especially the arts and art education. The opportunity to study and practice as professional artists is a phenomenon of the past 30 years, part of a new Belizean national identity and a mix of cultures that make the country unique, as the Cultural Center of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) amply demonstrates in an outstanding new exhibition, "The Art of Belize: Then and Now."

"Belize has made a giant leap in its arts from traditional to video," says the center's coordinator and curator, Felix Angel, explaining that the people "had to learn arts techniques with which to express themselves and to meet the demands of the world."

It's unusual for a country to establish a cultural identity so recently just over the past 30 years but that's what happened in Belize. Before, he adds, "it was a poor colony that used uninspired colonial models for its arts and crafts."

Mr. Angel organized the exhibition to focus on the younger artists and their teachers, with photos and artifacts illustrating the history of the City of Belize and Mayan culture as background.

Systematic art education in Belize began with the arrival of American Michele Perdomo in 1969. She had met her Belizean husband at a Colorado college, married him and began teaching art in her new home. There were only a few self-taught artists there at the time, and she began instructing artists of the new group promoting arts and education, including several whose works appear in this exhibition. among them are Yasser Musa ("The Banana Boy Project"), Gilvano Swasey (his expressive linoleum prints include "Boys on the Barracks" and "Blue Sunshine") and ceramicist Damian Perdomo, her son.

Although the images of the nine contemporary artists in the exhibit reflect pluralistic styles from around the world, they're unmistakably Belizean. Consider photographer Jeanine Shaw, who surrealistically superimposes fragments of Mayan ruins onto human figures. In a color work such as "Lubaantun's Legacy," she fixes details of ruins onto a human face and neck. The trees growing from the structures become human veins. It's a fascinating, creepy photo. (Lubaantun was an ancient Mayan site.)

Other individuals' works show the wide range of artistic expression in Belize.

Mercy Sabal quilted "Dugu," a Garifunan rite performed in many villages. Although it looks as if she used rags, it is a work of great beauty and power.

Garifunan painter Benjamin Nicholas decided he wanted to chronicle the "History of the Garifuna People," an impressive work that Mr. Angel included in the exhibition.

George Gabb, now about 70, comes from the self-taught older generation. His 4-foot-high, shiny black "Sleeping Giant" was done about 30 years ago. The towering work of sea-grape wood is one of the high points of the show. He sees it as a metaphor for his country.

Mr. Angel interviewed him in Belize. "I wasn't strong like the other boys and couldn't work in the fields. I started playing with seashells on the beach and built them into objects. That's how I got started," Mr. Gabb remembers. He also runs a restaurant and sells from his studio on the second floor.

Another artist who paints the many faces of Belize is Michael Gordon. He, too, is self-taught and wanders the streets painting people working there. Mr. Gordon, 40, paints intuitively. His 20 paintings of faces titled "Faces: Series #4" attest to his strength in psychological interpretations.

Mr. Musa, 32, wears many hats as artist, curator, teacher, administrator and writer. After earning a bachelor's degree in economics and master's degree in art history at Louisiana State University, he returned to his country and established the Image Factor Art Foundation, a cooperative that aggressively sells works by Belizean artists through exhibitions at home and abroad.

Mr. Angel selected 10 works for display from Mr. Musa's "The Banana Boy Project," a series of nearly 1,000 digital photographs of a kitsch figure placed in settings around the world. Mr. Musa photographed the little ceramic "Banana Boy" figurine in places as different as Barcelona, New York and Merida, Mexico. The little boy, purchased in a flea market in Belize, exudes a powerful sense of surprise and wonder.

"The images of 'Banana Boy' symbolize an overpowered Belize," Mr. Angel says, noting that the artist, like many of his contemporaries, worries about the homogenization of his country and the threat of its absorption by more powerful neighbors.

WHAT: "The Arts of Belize, Then and Now"

WHERE: The Inter-American Development Bank's Cultural Center, 1300 New York Ave. NW

WHEN: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.


PHONE: 202/623-3774

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