Tony Phillips—Keeping the Flag Flying Down under
By Vibert Cambridge, Ph.D.
Almost thirty years ago, Tony Phillips was responsible for creating “The Builders,” the largest mural ever done in Guyana. The mural can still be seen in the dome of the Guyana Bank for Trade and Industry (formerly Barclays Bank) in Water Street.
Tony Phillips was born in 1941 and grew up at 90 Duke Street, Kingston. He lived in an influential neighborhood. His neighbors included the Khouris, the Humphrys, and senior executives of the banking and bauxite industries. He was the last of four children. His father, Eric, played soccer for British Guiana.
Phillips’ family and relatives were patrons of the arts, especially of local musicians. The birthday parties for his sisters Elma and Joan were important social events, and bands like Bert Rogers and his Aristocrats Orchestra would provide the music.
There was a piano in the home. His sister Elma was the pianist, and she organized many living-room concerts featuring pianists such as Randolph Profitt. His aunt Hilda, who lived next door, was also a supporter of Guyanese popular music. However, according to Tony’s memory, she appeared to prefer Sonny Thomas and his orchestra.
Like Profitt, Elma also performed on ZFY--Guyana’s pioneering radio station. During 1947, Elma and Stephanie Psaila presented a live 15-minute weekly show on ZFY. The show “Peg-O-My-Heart,” featured Elma on piano with Stephanie Psaila as vocalist. The show was produced by Gerald DeFreitas.
In addition to supporting local musicians, Phillips’ parents also supported local artisans such as masons and crochet knitters. His parents instilled in their four children respect for all Guyanese, thrift, and service to the community, especially to the less fortunate.
The muses directed Phillips to painting. He attended Queen’s College from 1950 to 1959. The art scene at Queen’s College was very dynamic at that time. Q.C. was Guyana’s artist colony. E.R. Burrowes and Basil Hinds were art masters. The Working People’s Art Class met in the Art Room. Among Phillips’ colleagues at Queen’s was Michael Leila, whose ability with mixing colors and painting tones, and dexterity with the palette knife made an indelible impression on Phillips.
Phillips excelled at art during his career at Queen’s College. As a result, he was permitted to sit the “O” Level Art examination one year ahead of schedule. This meant that he was required to drop Art in the Fifth Form. E. R. Burrowes, who was art master at Queen’s College at that time, offered him another opportunity to continue with art by inviting him to join the Working People’s Art Class.
It was in this group that Phillips was exposed to oil painting. He also developed a long-lasting friendship with Stanley Greaves. The Working People’s Art Class (WPAC), originally known as the Working People’s Free Art Class, was developed by E. R. Burrowes to provide all Guyanese, not only the leisured classes, with an opportunity to participate in the plastic arts. Burrowes is remembered for encouraging tailors, blacksmiths, and tinsmiths to join the group and express their creativity as painters and sculptors. Among Phillip’s other contemporaries at WPAC were George Bowen, and Marjorie Broodhagen.
Despite his love for art, it was clear to Phillips during his days at Q.C. that he was not expected to aspire to a career in art.
As Phillips pointed out, “One did not go to Q.C. to become an artist, and the graphics art trade had not really developed, so I was not encouraged to continue fine art.”
According to the dominant ideology during the late 1950s, only idle and irresponsible Q.C. students aspired to careers as artists. The minimum expectation of a Q.C. boy was to get five subjects at G. C. E “O” Levels and join the civil service or the commercial sector. The preferred route was to go on to university and return to be a leader in some sector of Guyanese society.
After leaving Queen’s College in 1958, Phillips went to work at the Royal Bank of Canada. His remained committed to art. This interest was encouraged by Basil Hinds, one of his art masters at Queen’s College. By the mid-1960s, Hinds had established a reputation as a brilliant artist, sophisticated cultural critic, and pioneering jazz broadcaster. Hinds also became a cultural affairs officer with the United States Information Service (USIS) in Georgetown. He ensured that Phillips was invited to the regular exhibitions and film shows he organized at the USIS.
Phillips’ connections with Basil Hinds permitted him access to the important collection on art at the USIS library. This literature exposed Philips to the American pop art moment and the works of Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollock, and Andy Warhol.
In addition to showcasing American cultural expressions the USIS also promoted Guyanese art and artists. Basil Hinds organized the first exhibition of Guyanese artists at the USIS in 1973. It was a joint exhibition of the works of Tony Phillips and Mark Steel, a Guyanese artist who was at that time living in Barbados. Steel’s medium was watercolors. Phillips’ medium was oils, and his works focused on Guyanese landscapes.
Phillips still considers that exhibition to have been one of his most successful shows. The show was declared open by Cicelene Baird who was at that time a government minister. By 1973, Phillips had established his bona fides as one of Guyana’s talented young artists. This reputation would test him.
In April 1973, Hugh McGregor Reid, the architect who was responsible for the renovation of Barclays Bank, offered Phillips the challenge of painting a mural on the dome of the bank. Reid conceived of having the dome’s surface covered with paintings that would hold viewers interest. The plan was to produce a mural that would celebrate ideas and persons that contributed to the development of the Guyanese nation.
Phillips accepted the challenge and immediately realized that scope of the work and the time-line were too much for one artist, so he immediately enlisted the assistance of his colleague Stanley Greaves.
The project was the largest of its kind to have ever been done in Guyana. Many matters had to be resolved. What would the design entail and reflect? How would the images be prepared? How would the images be installed? What were the best materials to be used? Where were the materials to be obtained?
The project was also a sensitive one. There was the issue of navigating the sensitive matter of racial representation in a multicultural, multiracial, post-colonial society. Historians such as Bobby Moore and Vere T. Daly provided guidance with that part of the project. The mural was titled “The Builders.”
“The Builders” depicts eight personalities who made seminal contributions to the development of the Guyanese society. According to Phillips, he and Greaves recognized that other personalities could have been represented; however, the final eight reflected the cultural and ethnic diversity that enriched Guyanese society. All the stakeholders were pleased with the choices.
The mural was done at time when Guyanese were demanding to know more about their own history. Stanley Greaves’ research on Cuffy revealed that Cuffy had maintained significant written correspondence with Governor Hoogenheim. Because of this fact, he decided to not to depict Cuffy in the popular stereotypical manner of a man running around with broken chains around his wrists.
The mural, which was started in February 1974, was also the first large-scale attempt to provide images for local heroes who had existed in name only. The heroes depicted were:
James Crosby, humanitarian, protector of immigrants
Cuffy, enslaved African, rebel, diplomat, visionary
Patrick Dargan, barrister, defender of the people
Dr. George Giglioli, malariologist, pioneer in public health.
J. A. Luckhoo, barrister, judge innovator.
"Ocean Shark," pork knocker, hinterland adventurer.
Quamina, enslaved African deacon, passive resister.
Lauren Storm Vans Gravesande, Governor, builder, patriot visionary.
In the center of the mural is a design that represents Makanima--the great ancestral spirit of the Amerindians.
When the mural was completed on June 8, 974, Dr. G. Gigioli was the only hero that was still living. He passed away the following year. The mural was declared open to the public by the late Shirley Field-Ridley who was at that time Minister of Information and Culture.
The mural is an achievement at many levels. One cannot help but be impressed with the stylistic harmony of the mural. This was achieved by the use of bold outlines, a style that both Phillips and Greaves were comfortable with as they were already using that style in their individual works. This style, which made images stand out from their backgrounds, was used in works of art that aimed at creating religious iconic representation. The French Fauvist/Expressionist artist Georges Rouault (1871 – 1958) is known for using that style. Stanley Greaves was responsible for all the lettering used in the mural. That also ensured stylistic harmony.
The mural was also a major statement in international cooperation. The British Council supported Phillips’ travel to the United Kingdom for discussions with a muralist and to hold discussions with Windsor and Newton, the famous manufacturer of oil paints on the types of paints to be used for project. Phillips also traveled to Holland to look at large scale murals. One of the most nagging problems associated with the project was deciding on what adhesives should be used to affix the paintings on to the dome. Many of the world’s leading adhesive manufacturers shied away from providing advice or becoming engaged with the project. It appeared that they were concerned that because of the scope of the work that they could be subject to legal claims should their products fail. Up to a few weeks before the end of the painting the images, the artists did not have a formula for the adhesive to be used for affixing the paintings to the dome. Through Basil Hinds and the USIS, contact was made with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., who provided the formula that was used to affix the nine images to the dome.
“The Builders” is also a significant statement about Guyanese ingenuity and precision. The images were painted in the Art Room at Queen’s College as that room had the dimensions for erecting the 15-foot easels required for the paintings. To create the canvas, Phillips and Greaves depleted the stocks of brushed cotton/denim available in Georgetown. They bought all that was available in Guyana at that time. To create the canvas, Phillips and Greaves soaked the cotton and while it was still wet they painted it with primer. The drying process sucked the primer paint into the fabric. They also exhausted the supply of ochre oil paints in Guyana.
Each figure was approximately 10 feet in height and was painted on canvas in “the flat” using oil paints. Each figure was then “cut into various shapes like a jigsaw puzzle then glued onto the dome surface and the whole dome repainted.” The artists took 7 hours and 45 minutes to install the first image. The entire project was completed on June 8, 1974. The mural is 36 feet in diameter at the base with a rise of 11 feet.
Phillips is extremely proud of the mural and states that he always feels honored to have been asked to do it.
“It was a fabulous experience to work with one of the greats of Guyanese art, Stanley Greaves, and I will always treasure the many, many moments together,” he said.
He also happy to share the fond memories he has of the other persons who gave advice and guidance to himself and Greaves during the project. Among those are their wives who gave support on the home front and the Night Watchmen who kept their company “into the wee hours of the morning over many months.” Among his fond memories was the night when Wordsworth McAndrew conducted a live radio program from the site.
The Barclays Bank mural attracted the attention of the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) and in 1975 it commissioned Phillips to do a mural for them. He advised C. H. “Buster” Anderson, the manager of RBC to consider another model for supporting the development of art in Guyana. He recommended to the bank that they should develop a collection of Guyanese art. His 5’ x 9’ piece “Tribute to Sugar” or “The Miracle of Demeter” was the first painting in that collection.
That painting was controversial. The almost surrealistic work which traced the history and consequences of sugar in Guyana’s social, economic, and cultural life also made comments on the nature of contemporary political life in Guyana. The flag at the apex of the “mountain of progress” was not the flag of Guyana but the flag of the People’s National Congress. Other images in the work included the arrival of East Indian indentured workers, the Enmore Martyrs, and the British planter-class. Also evident in the sky are motifs from the 1763 Monument and the Greek goddess of agriculture, Demeter and her chariot pulled by snakes. Apparently, Royal Bank of Canada, conscious of the political climate in Guyana in the mid 1970s, especially with nationalizations, felt that the work could not be displayed. So, for almost five years, the painting was locked away in the garage of the house owned by the Royal Bank of Canada in Duke Street, Kingston. Dennis Williams is reported to have tried to acquire the painting for the National Collection.
Phillips is proud to know that his painting is now displayed and is part of what is now one of the most important collections of Guyanese art in the world.
Phillips participated in other aspects of creative life in Guyana. He was actively involved in designing costume bands and floats for Mashramani celebrations. In this aspect of his life he worked closely with Godfrey Chin. He also developed an interest in photography and worked closely with “Chick” Young.
Philips also had a stellar career as an athlete in Guyana. Like his father Eric, he played soccer. At Queen’s College he played soccer, cricket, and hockey. He was also played hockey for the Georgetown Cricket Club (GCC) and was a member of Guyana’s hockey team.
Phillips, his wife Schavana (nee Veerasawmy) and their two daughters migrated to Australia in 1978. He has had a successful career as a manager in the industrial paint and printing sectors. He was successful in the competitive markets across Australia and Southeast Asia. He is a graduate of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and has been a successful designer of art equipment and furniture.
Since 2000, Phillips has carved a niche as one of the leading painters of flowers in Australia. Exhibitions of his paintings of orchids have attracted critical acclaim and are sought after by collectors. One of his orchid paintings was used as the cover art for the CD “Is We Ting,” produced by the Guyana Folk Festival Committee for Folk Festival 2003.
Like his friend Mark Steele, who now lives in New Zealand, Guyana continues to inspire Phillips. An important stream in his current creative output is his drawings of Georgetown’s distinctive architectural heritage. He anticipates that the next series of drawings of Georgetown’s architecture will include the Psiala house that stood at the corner of Main and Murray (Quamina) Streets.
Phillips is particularly proud of this work of the mural, his representing Guyana in hockey, his degree from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), and the line of drafting furniture he designed for Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. He is loud with his praise for the support he has received from his wife Schavana, his daughters, and his relatives.
Phillips’ story illuminates Queen’s College’s important role in the development of art in Guyanese society in the post World War II era. His story also demonstrates the shift that took place in Guyana during the 1970s when it was recognized that art could play an important role in the construction of national identity during the post-independence era.
Phillips’ story also indicates that culture was an important site for public diplomacy in Guyana. Further, Phillips’ story also illustrates the contributions that the private sector, especially banking, made to the plastic arts in Guyana.
Phillips’ story is also one about commitment to accuracy and the relentless pursuit of excellence.
Phillips has never given up his Guyanese roots. As he represented his nation in hockey, he carries the Golden Arrowhead proudly in Australia. He was awarded a McAndrew Award by the Guyana Folk Festival Committee in 2003. Tony Phillips is a Guyanese cultural hero.
During our conversations for this feature, Phillips said that a joint exhibition of his work and that of Stanley Greaves to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the “The Builders” mural would be a rich moment. Maybe some reader of this feature could make that happen!
For more details on Tony Phillips’ work please visit his website at www.aeroart2000.com
E-mail correspondence with Tony Phillips, January 5, 2004.
E-mail correspondence with Tony Phillips, January14, 2004
E-mail correspondence with Tony Phillips, January 15, 2004
E-mail correspondence with Tony Phillips, January 25, 2004
Telephone conversation with Tony Phillips, January 24, 2004.