May 9, 2004
New York Times
And You Thought Art in New York Was a Jungle
By BRUCE BARCOTT
BELIZE CITY, Belize
EARLIER this year I discovered, by chance, one of the most enchanting cultural sites in Latin America. While walking the streets of Belize City last January I ducked into an art gallery called the Image Factory, hoping to escape the midday heat. There I struck up a conversation with Gilvano Swasey, a slight, unassuming 29-year-old artist and curator. He filled me in on the Factory and its owner, Yasser Musa, a dynamic 33-year-old impresario whose gallery has nurtured an impressive flowering of Belizean contemporary art. Mr. Swasey ended our conversation with an invitation to see a sculpture park hidden in the jungle. "Not many people outside of Belize know about it," he said. "You ought to drive out and see." A few weeks later, in early March, I talked Mr. Swasey and Mr. Musa into joining me.
The idea was to hop in a truck and drive the width of this tiny Central American nation, about 80 miles from Belize City to the Guatemalan border, to find the secret sculpture park.
On the morning of our trip, Mr. Musa waved me into his office in a back room of the gallery.
"Artists!" he exclaimed as he shut his cellphone. "They're always late. They have no discipline. You tell them to come Friday, they come Thursday or Saturday." He smiled. "Yet that is what's beautiful about them. They don't give a damn about any of these structures around them."
Mr. Musa donned a pair of sunglasses. "Is Richard here? Richard! Let's go, man." Richard Holder, a 29-year-old Belizean photographer, and I climbed into Mr. Musa's four-wheel-drive truck. "Gilvano's got the flu so it's just Richard and me today," Mr. Musa said, and away we went.
Mr. Musa talked as he navigated Belize City's narrow streets, dodging fruit vendors and dreadlocked men riding bicycles. "This city came about by accident," he said. "Geographically, it's a swamp. It's here only because this is where they loaded the logs onto ships bound for England." For nearly 200 years Belize, formerly known as British Honduras, functioned as Britain's colonial tree farm. The country's mahogany forests were cut and shipped to England, where the wood was milled into flooring and furniture. Belize's old-growth mahogany exists today in the form of antique Chippendale highboys.
Belize gained its independence in 1981, but cultural identity didn't come automatically with sovereignty. "You don't come out of 450 years of colonial thinking and just emerge fully formed," Mr. Musa said. Belize had few working artists, and almost none were know outside the country. That began to change nine years ago when Mr. Musa, whose father, Said Musa, is currently the prime minister of Belize, bought an old discothèque and turned it into the Image Factory.
"I wanted a place where people could see exhibits, buy books, commiserate, hang out, talk about art," he said. Today, the Image Factory publishes art books and a magazine and sends exhibitions to Spain, Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba, Portugal and Taiwan. The gallery functions as the nation's cultural salon; hang out for a couple of days and you're likely to meet half the artists, musicians and poets in Belize.
After an hour of driving, we picked up a third passenger in Belmopan, Belize's sparsely populated (7,000) capital city. Luis Alberto Ruiz, a soft-spoken 44-year-old architect, joined us for the ride to the border, but I wasn't sure why until he started talking about his family's cattle ranch.
"My parents sold the cattle and retired years ago, but we kept the ranch in the family," he said. "I met some artists in London in 1991 when I was there studying architecture. I invited them to Belize to see the ranch. Adrian Barron" - a British artist who lives in London - "came over in 1993, and that's how it started."
"You own the secret sculpture garden?" I asked.
"Yes," he said. "But it's not secret. Anyone can come see it. They just have to call and make an appointment."
Those who make an appointment would be well advised to ask for directions.
The garden, about an hour's drive from Belmopan, is marked only by a gate and a small wooden sign beside a dirt road a few miles from the Guatemalan border. "Poustinia Land Art Park," it reads.
Beyond the gate lies a sculpture park that evokes the spirit of "Fitzcarraldo," Werner Herzog's film about a man's quest to bring opera to the Amazon rain forest. More than 30 site-specific works created by artists from Belize, Venezuela, Guyana, Norway, England, the United States, Barbados and Venezuela are strewn across 60 of the ranch's 270 forested acres, connected by a grassy road that winds through the property like a labyrinth. Visiting Poustinia typically involves a long day's hike in the hot sun. The dense forest is alive with snakes and mosquitoes, and sharp-eyed visitors may be rewarded with a glimpse of a toucan or scarlet macaw. But given our limited time (Mr. Musa had to be back in Belize City that evening for the opening of a film festival), Mr. Ruiz allowed us to drive the grounds.
"This is one of our newest works," Mr. Ruiz said as he stood in the shadow of "Downtown," a sculpture by the Venezuelan artist Manuel Piney. The work is a miniature metropolis of boxy 18-foot-tall skyscrapers made of rough cast concrete, waiting to be overtaken by the fast-growing jungle. Mr. Piney's sculpture made clever reference to Belize's numerous Mayan ruins, architectural relics of a lost empire that remained buried for centuries in the tropical growth.
Further down the trail is Mr. Barron's "Conquistadores," two armored breastplates with young gumbo limbo trees growing through them. "The Spaniard is still looking for the Maya," Mr. Musa said. "Eventually the trees will grow through the breastplates and burst them."
Mr. Ruiz added: "That's the idea with what we do, yes? What's here today will change tomorrow."
If Mr. Musa is the brash public promoter of Belizean art, Mr. Ruiz is its quiet private patron. There is an admirable purity to Poustinia. Mr. Ruiz doesn't advertise it to tourists, nor does he discourage visitors. Most days the art sits alone in the jungle, seen only by birds, beetles and snakes.
For the next two hours, the four of us rode through the park, swatting mosquitoes and admiring sculptures in various stages of decay. It was as if the Whitney Biennial had been dropped into the Central American jungle. As the sun began to dip below the palm fronds, we came upon the park's signature work, the British artist Tim Davies's "Returned Parquet," a 4-foot-wide, 40-foot-long strip of mahogany flooring set in the rich forest soil.
"Tim found the floor in a 100-year-old house in Wales that was being demolished," Mr. Ruiz said. "The mahogany had originally come from Belize. He salvaged enough to approximate the dimensions of a mature tree and brought it back across the ocean."
All of Belize's complex colonial history is contained in this old wood floor. Davies laid the wood in a herringbone pattern so tight you could waltz on it. We all stood on the floor and watched ants run soldierly lines across the parquet strips. The wood is slowly bleaching and rotting. It will eventually decompose into soil that may, years from now, nurture a young mahogany tree.
Bruce Barcott is at work on a book set in Belize.