Between two worlds: Amazonian painter Victor Captain’s vibrant translation of folklore

Victor Captain’s paintings are on exhibition at the Commonwealth Senior Living in Charlottesville through September 16. Photo: Courtesy of artist Victor Captain’s paintings are on exhibition at the Commonwealth Senior Living in Charlottesville through September 16. Photo: Courtesy of artist

It took Victor Captain more than 12 months, a brand new birth certificate and his first flight on an airplane to bring his artwork to Charlottesville.

“When I got to New York, my nose was like stuff, stuff, stuff. There was no clean air to breathe,” says Captain. He says it with a smile and sense of humor that belies the improbability of this conversation over iced tea in sunny Belmont.

Captain is a fine artist who lives in Surama, a remote Amazonian village in Guyana. His recent local exhibits materialized thanks to Laura and George Mentore, two UVA anthropology professors who first noticed Captain’s exceptional work in 2011.

“For years, our research has been in his village in Guyana,” Laura Mentore says. “I was so taken by one of his paintings in particular that I wound up purchasing it.”

Captain describes the month-long visits and 24-hour round-trip drives he made to and from Georgetown (the capital of Guyana)—the same route he takes to purchase the acrylics, oils and canvases with which he paints scenes of energy transformation.

“Most of my paintings are based in shamanism and stories of Amerindian people,” he says. “You cannot see with your pure eye the energy that the shaman is using so you paint it in the painting.”

Captain is a member of the indigenous Guyanese tribe the Makushi, whose oral traditions often relate stories of shape shifters called kanaima.

“They’re similar to the people that assassinate people [in the U.S.],” Captain says. “But in those times they had basic bush medicine which they used to transfer the self into a different form: sheeps, animals, whatever. They use this to disguise the self to assassinate people.”

Many of Captain’s paintings feature the subjects of these transformations. “It’s a form which you cannot escape or remove from your body,” he explains. “You just have to live with it and let it pass on through your family line.”

He describes one of his favorite paintings, which shows a mother sitting in a dark open house with her child. “Her baby was really, really sick, and she went to the shaman,” he says. “You find different forms of animals that you cannot see, spiritual animals, within the painting. The Peia man [the Makushi term for shaman], they usually do their work in the night so that nobody sees what is really going on.”

Tradition and modernity find a delicate balance in the lives of the Makushi, Mentore says. “Everyone has family and because of that everyone has somewhere they can call home,” she says. “You go to the capital and people are sleeping on sidewalks. But in Amerindian communities, the lack of money doesn’t translate to hunger and homelessness. At the same time you have young people who have cell phones and Facebook and are training to become doctors and flight attendants. Victor has seen more American movies and music than I have, but at the same time I could trust him with my life in the rainforest. There’s an ability to go between worlds.”

Like the figures in his art, Captain has always been able to move deftly between concrete and ethereal planes.

In secondary school his work was so good his teacher pulled him aside and offered to pay him 3,000 Guyanese dollars ($15) a month to create posters for the school.

After that, he went to a residential two-year program at Bina Hill Institute to study forestry. He was drawing his own portraits for his classroom when “I bump into George Simon, one of the famous Guyanese artists, and he was really interested in my work. He asked if I wanted to keep on doing paintings and artwork, and I said ‘yeah.’ So the community made a project based on Amerindian art and sculpting.”

Captain was 18 when he began to paint in his now signature style. He dropped out of school “because they didn’t like it” and returned to his village, where he alternated between hunting, fishing, logging and painting his vibrant works.

“His father might wake him up one day, say it’s time to go hunting, and he’d be gone for three days,” Mentore says. “He’s doing something that not everyone there does.”

Abandoning the norm is, in fact, a way for Captain to reclaim his roots—on behalf of his entire generation. In Surama, there’s been a rapid loss of indigenous language furthered by the English boarding school system.

“Most of the Amerindian people, they’re losing their culture. And I am one, so it’s the loss of my language,” he says. “What I’m really trying to do is keep the culture going but in art form. The stories and other things. People forget the stories and pretend they are not Amerindian. They want to be someone else.”

When asked why this is important to him, the answer, of course, is obvious. “Because I was born to be that way.”