Bitter Sweet (I) – Cassava Culture – Exhibition/Art Residency – Curator Elfrieda Bissember – National Art Gallery, Guyana, 2003 – ACE & Sponsor Partners
Previously classified as merely a domestic sphere of subsistence, the cultivation of the bitter cassava plant (Manihot esculenta) within Amerindian culture has been a neglected field of study. While historically serving as a vital source of subsistence and main source of carbohydrate in Amerindian societies throughout South America and the Caribbean, the role of the cassava plant and associated culture envelop a world of Amerindian expression associated with the cassava plant’s toxic tubers and purification cycle articulated through the creation of an array of food byproducts, artifactual forms, iconography and ritual.
The installation and art residency Bitter Sweet reveals a complex lexicon of imagery, voices and temporalities on the role of the bitter cassava plant drawing from recorded discussions with Guyanese communities and the visiting public which discloses cassava not only as a complex source of social memory but point of negotiation as part of Guyana’s complex national heritage and currency within the global eco-tourism art market.
Revered and celebrated, for centuries Amerindian societies have devised complex technologies, systems of knowledge and cultural practices, creating and using artifacts such as the woven matapi and wooden grater, in the creation of a wealth of cassava products including breads, tapioca, beer and cassareep (bittersweet preservative) which serve as currency in maintaining traditional socio-cultural practices, social memories and identities.
With a dependency on different levels of transparency, multiple readings and and authenticities, the residency and exhibition Bitter Sweet discloses a series of image and sound projections and glass prints of cassava culture’s transitional role as currency of mediation and exchange as consumable imagery, performed, displayed and collected, nourishing a desire for mementos seemingly representing the quintessential ‘real thing’. Such mementos and associated artifacts, from the apparently simple utilitarian woven matapi vessel, to the donned feather headdresses used for traditional drinking sprees are synonymous with Amerindian cassava culture’s role as a currency of mediation in the 21st century.
Bitter Sweet installation of multimedia projections also draws from discussions with the Waiwai Amerindian community on the Shodewika ritual performed to celebrate the cassava harvest and as part of a complex social, political and cultural economy associated with a body of social memory and rich iconography.
The Carib-speaking Waiwai live in the southern forests of Guyana near the Brazilian border perform the Shodewika ritual in which cassava tapioca is exchanged for meat is an ritual encompassing notions of nourishment, conception, and rebirth.
Documented by earlier colonial writers as ‘… the southern tribe of the territory…’, the Waiwai were renowned for their ‘… pale skin…’ , and known as the ‘Indios do Tapioc’ and they were considered by many as the legendary ‘… wild and beautiful… White Indian[s]…’ (e.g.Guppy,1959). The name Waiwai (a term derived from the Amerindian for tapioca) was given to them by their southern neighbours the Wapishana, on account of their liking for tapioca and starch foods (e.g. Roth,1929; Fock,1963). The processing and ritualised consumption of tapioca, such as that documented by Fiona’s photographs, disclose how cassava culture serves as powerful imagery of identity.
The Waiwai continue to perform the Shodewika ritual, which combines elements of both Christian and traditional belief systems revolving around the processing of tapioca yauyukún (tapioca drink) as a powerful fertility image of ancestral property, the ritual culminating in the reciprocal exchange of cassava tapioca for meat, as a metaphor of marriage and consummation.
Dr Wilkes is indebted to the Amerindian communities and institutions and sponsors in Guyana and the UK for their generosity of guidance, knowledge, enthusiasm, support and hospitality during this project.