By Katherine Perrott
Edited by Naturalight Productions
NB: Remember to click on the links in the article to see all the images.
Tucked away in the Cayo District, just south of Benque Viejo del Carmen, is the Poustinia Land Art Park. More than a park, Poustinia is an outdoor art gallery where natural and cultural artifacts find cohesion within their jungle setting. Poustinia lives and breathes as the earth continually sculpts the evolving works of art. Streams of created beauty come to a confluence at Poustinia, where the boundaries between natural and human art, both ancient and modern, flow together.
Poustinia's collection is best met with a high level of engagement and active participation. The pieces present viewers with challenging messages regarding consumption, waste, deforestation, slavery, and loss of culture. Amidst a setting of natural beauty, Poustinia beckons visitors to slow down and consider an alternative world. In order to fully experience the art work, I found myself getting my feet wet, feeding the mosquitoes, knocking stones, and stirring up leaves. Just as I was being changed by Poustinia, I was also changing the landscape and the pieces of art therein.
The day began shortly after dawn and I was still sleepy eyed and wishing I had gotten up earlier to make some coffee. My friend Laura, our guide Ervin from Benque's House of Culture, and I were heading down the Hydro road, our binoculars and bird guides in tow. It was a peaceful moment walking into the park entrance. We passed through bamboo and were met throughout the park by a variety of birds including violaceous trogons, toucans, flycatchers, great kiskadees, and plain chachalacas.
I knew I was falling in love with Poustinia upon seeing one of the early art works titled, "Returned Parquet." A subtle and clever piece, "Returned Parquet" speaks to the removal of mahogany trees during the colonial period. "Returned Parquet" is literally a mahogany parquet floor laid out on the ground, "reclaimed" from Wales and "returned to the Belizean rain forest" to rot there gradually, the guide booklet explains. The Belizean mosses, molds, and lichens have accepted the artist's gift and are taking it back.
There are a number of pieces in Poustinia created from "junk," redeemed by artists and assembled into aesthetic, subversive commentaries on technological advancement. These pieces seemed to be asking, "How progressive really are these advancements when they produce such waste and garbage?" A striking piece that poses this question is "Millennium" by local artist David Ruiz, Jr. Reminiscent of a sundial, "Millennium" is a circular concrete slab from which a tree grows out of the center and at an angle. Embedded in the slab are cultural artifacts dating from the centuries when the Mayans ruled Poustinia to the present. There is something of a warning in "Millennium," to see the modern computer being over taken by plant life and cemented into this work of art alongside the mossy tools of the ancient Maya.
As the path spiraled upwards around Poustinia's 60 acres of developed parkland, it became apparent that we were not just walking up hills of brown earth. Below our feet were ancient Mayan monuments and dwelling places. History teased our toes as we climbed over intentionally arranged stones that in some places jutted out onto the path and in others formed a retaining wall. From the highest point atop the Mayan ruins in Poustinia, Observatory Hill, we could see El Castillo of Xunantunich. Looking out over the Maya-Mestizo community, I imagined what it would have been like to stand here two-thousand years ago surveying the civilization of the Maya. Atop this hill was a stone maze approximately 400 feet long. Our guide told us the maze served as a pre-marriage test for potential son-in-laws. If a man could not successfully navigate to the center of the maze, he was denied his chance to marry.
Much of the art at Poustinia also relates the history of the town of Benque Viejo del Carmen. The first of the Benque relics is a brightly painted, century-old water vat. As if in testimony to the farm life that was once led at this site, hens peck around the vat. Another piece is "Hanging Lamps in the Woods," in which the lights from the old local church swing beside an old, cattle-drawn sugar cane chopper. "La Lanza" was a secluded spot with steps up to a cross that used to be in the church in Benque. There was also a sculpture made from old film reels from the time when Benque had its own cinema. The religious, agricultural, and evolving technological history of Benque is shown through these works.
Watching is another predominant theme that carries throughout the art work at Poustinia. "The Watcher," by Guyana artist, Winslow Craig, is a face sculpted into a sapodilla tree. The face of "The Watcher" is stern, lined with age, wearing deep concern on its brow, and displaying a frown with a hint of disgust. It was unsettling to have a tree stare at us with such an expression; it was as if the aged tree was warning us that the way we live is causing grave danger not only to the tree, but to the rest of creation as well.
When I turned down a path with several grassy corridors and thin overarching branches, I felt like I was inside a grand old manor or castle, its walls lined with suits of armor that watched me. But instead of suits of armor, we were being "watched" by suits of concrete that were worn by politicians, not knights. These "watchers" were past Central American prime ministers staring at us with blank stone eyes that were painted yellow and outlined by flaking paint for skin. Walking down these corridors to face these sculptures had an eerie effect, giving me the impression that these leaders, the watchers, where the ones that actually needed to be watched.
Just as it is impossible to wander through Poustinia passively, it is impossible to leave Poustinia without an active response to the environmental and social messages received through the art and park. I left Poustinia carrying inspiration, images to ponder, and seeds that were stuck to my pant legs.
Images Courtesy of:
Tony Rath Photography