Saturday, August 27, 2011

Benrali: Guyanese fine artist embraced by the children's book industry (Interview: Part 2)

I'm back again for the second half of my interview with Benrali, Guyanese author of The Turtle's Dream and Keys and Manni: A World Beyond Stars! If you missed part 1, you can check it out here. In this second half, I picked Benrali's brain about his work and the influences behind it.

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S: Tell us a little bit about the folkloric elements in your books. Also, what does it mean to you to use folklore as a base, or perhaps a, sort of organizing principle for your stories?

Art by Benrali
Guyana's folklore has always been of interest to me since it is a unique blend between what the indentured Indian servants and African immigrants brought and what the native Amerindians believed already. But with Manni I felt the folklore just blended well for this project. I may or may not keep using folklore for my projects since one of the things we are taught as an illustrator is that each project is different. Folklore, fantasy, ghazals, moongazers and magical sea turtles just seemed to blend well for Manni. I do hope another project comes along that asks for that same blend but who can say? Each book is sort of like a fingerprint; unique in its own way. 

S: Another thing that interests me about your work relates to the illustrations.  On your website and other places your picture books are described as "finely created artist books." I couldn't agree more with that sentiment. What are some of the artistic techniques or influences behind your work as an illustrator?

B: I tend to think of my work as a weaving of multiple periods, styles and schools of thought. I am grateful to Parsons School Of Design and their excellent faculty for broadening my horizons as to all the artists, periods and styles that came before. I am merely scratching at the surface of the training you get as an undergraduate but I wanted to mention it. I can't say my current books have all of these elements but some schools of thought and artists which I have gravitated towards are Balinese rainforest paintings, Japanese woodcuts, Indian and Moghul miniature paintings, Henri Rousseau, as well as some fantasy artists. The list goes on but these are a few.

Detail from Manni: A World Beyond Stars

S: Of major, major interest to me is the relationship between identity and culture and how Caribbean children's authors and illustrators work out those things in and perhaps through their work. You have spoken elsewhere about going through a process of searching for or developing an artistic style for your illustrations. You suggest that the process was really one of searching for an identity within the multiple influences of your Caribbean heritage. Can you speak to us a little about what a Caribbean heritage means to you in terms of your work and the ambitions you have set as a children's author/illustrator?

B: What does Caribbean or Guyanese heritage mean for me? Since I grew up in the States there were no Caribbean artists to look up to as role models. Everyone knows that to be an artist you have to look at art or to be a writer you must read. It wasn't until college that I began the "un-brainwashing" process and started learning about Indian & African art, art from other cultures, periods, styles etc. The saddest part is that most Guyanese & Trinidadian children don't realize they have been brainwashed until after they hit college.

For me it was too late because so many images of American heros from movies and cartoons were already were implanted in my mind and it was impossible for me to undo all the mental damage that was done. How can you turn back time and give back to kids role models, heros or a foundation of their own background when time cannot be turned back? Also, to be honest, I can't think of any Guyanese children's book authors or artists which my parents shared with me. My parents didn't even make an effort so like most kids from Guyanese parents I was left to just deal with it and figure things out as I grew older. 

In regards to your question as to what about Caribbean heritage spurs on my ambitions as an author/illustrator. I can say  our blend of music Calypso, Soca, Reggae and Indian Chutney music makes me proud but I am honest when I say there is nothing within Caribbean or Guyanese books/art that spurs on my work because there are so few examples. Of course there are artists and writers but again, they were not made available to me and they are probably few to begin with. Why is there so little material in Caribbean and Guyanese visual and literary arts to act as a foundation? I believe art and writing novels or picture books were not of high priority for our parents or our grandparents so I am very understanding to that.

One of the most important books which all Caribbeans and Guyanese should read is Eric Williams' From Columbus to Castro: A History of the Caribbean. Never have I found a book that answered so many questions  as to why so many things are as they are in Guyana and Trinidad. In regards to the arts, England didn't bring slaves and indentured laborers to Guiana and Trinidad to educate, polish and give a good education; they were brought to the plantations for one thing and that thing was certainly not to create books of poetry with fine detailed art work. 

S: You have two books published under your belt. What have you learned so far about the business of picture books and where do you see yourself headed in the future?

B: I never considered myself a children's book author but I am grateful that the children's book industry has embraced my work. There will always be children so its a market that is there even though it is changing. Whether you are speaking of children's books, nonfiction, or any other genre, the whole industry is changing. I will still write but I probably will start getting into e-books since they are so inexpensive to produce and readers are reading more and more of them. I would really like to get into film and animation and I have a few books which lend themselves well to the screen. At the moment though my third book is due to come out late this winter or maybe in the spring. It is a collection of short stories and poems.

S: Well, thanks so much for chatting with us Benrali!

B: You're welcome Summer and thank you for the opportunity!