Although ethnic traditions are well preserved in American settlements, the local culture is heavily influenced by the French. Minorities and indigenous groups contribute, having maintained their dress and religious beliefs, to the diversity of cultures in the territory. Roman Catholics are the majority of French Guianese, but minorities also practice other religions, including shamanist American variations, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and other African-based religions.
Explorers began to roam all over South America during the 17th century, enduring terrific hardships, feverishly searching for the famed El Dorado. El Dorado means “the golden one” and many Europeans thought that a city of gold would be found. The French explorer Daniel de la Ravardiere was no exception, and he finally reached what is now Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana, when he travelled through previously unexplored territory along the Cayenne River in 1604. The explorers and subsequent settlers waited for many hardships. Coffee, indigo, and sugarcane were eventually cultivated. The Jesuits, known for their work with Amerindians in many parts of South America, established several village colonies of Amerindians who had lived in the thickly forested interior of this tropical land for centuries.
About 14,000 people disembarked on the coast at Kourou in 1763, attracted by glittering promises that ended in disaster: some 11,000 people died from tropical fevers and 2,000 returned to France, shaken and disappointed. Malouet, the French administrator, tried to restore the colony after this catastrophe, and there were 1,300 whites, 400 free blacks and 10,500 black slaves by the end of the 18th century. In 1848, after many struggles and different attempts both to end it and to reintroduce it, slavery was finally abolished. While this was a socially progressive move, the plantation economy was ruined economically.
French Guiana became a penal colony in 1852 and many convicts were sent there by the French, particularly to the notorious Devil’s Island. Gold was discovered in 1855, and agriculture was neglected once again in the ensuing gold rush. Hindus who came to work left the land for neighbouring Brazil and Dutch Guyana to work.
In accordance with the diverse traditions of French Guiana, music and dance differ. Black tribes have percussion-based music and drumming for people who still live in the interior, whereas some Amerindians produce quite different music where wood-wind instruments have a central place. The capital, Cayenne, is Westernized to the extent that more-modern music, including French ballads and pop and rock music, has strong influences.
FOLK ART, CRAFT, AND HOBBIES
In French Guiana, crafts and folk art are derived from black, American, and even Vietnamese artisans, including textiles, pottery, and woodcarvings. Some of the early groups of Vietnamese (formerly called Indochinese) arrived as convicts in French Guiana and were later freed. Some of them, known as the Hmong, live in separate villages; their wood carvings and weaving are especially appreciated.
The ‘Benedictio IV: Mighty Echo of the Amazon Rainforest-Revelations of the Guyanas’ exhibition (until 31 October 2020 in Delft, the Netherlands) has as its central theme the Amazon rainforest and is designed and curated by Natasha Knoppel Art Galleries.’ See our previous Benedictio IV Art Exhibition post. An article in Waterkant discusses what visitors can expect; excerpts from the article are translated here.
Through works by renowned artists from the three South American nations, visitors will discover the beauty and power of the gigantic rainforest. The performers take visitors deep into the Amazon rainforest through paintings, woodcuts, installations, conceptual work, textiles, and moving images. They get to know the indigenous people who have lived there for centuries and discover the pain of the inhabitants who had to leave the area because of a dam for a power plant being built. A virtual 3D tour gives visitors the opportunity to visit the indigenous people who live there by walking through the Amazon rainforest. There is also a video installation dealing with the problem of gold-mining in the rainforest. The exhibition’s theme is reinforced by lectures by renowned experts from the field. They reflect on the development of visual arts in Guyana and the role played by the rainforest as an inspiration for artists, but also discuss the indigenous community’s traditional way of life and ways to improve living conditions in the area. Also discussed are current issues such as tourism, sustainability and innovative sustainable projects.
The 50 exhibited works are by 20 artists from Suriname, French Guyana and Guyana. These include Stanley Greaves, a painter born in Guyana who belongs to the absolute top of Caribbean artists, the recently deceased George Simon (a great son of Guyana and a prominent artist and archaeologist), top Surinamese artists such as Jules Chin A Foeng and Armand Baag, and high-profile artists rarely exhibited in Europe from French Guiana.