Guyanese American photographer and mixed-media artist Gavin Benjamin has worked with glass artist Jason Forck to chart the origins and influences that have shaped traditional Guyanese dishes. The result is an inquiry into colonized British Guyana, which has a history that includes the 17th-century British slave trade and indentured labourers from India. 

This inquiry was then concluded by the pair into the installation piece Passages, where still-live photographs of Guyanese dishes by Benjamin are displayed behind a dinner table with glassware by Jason Forck. Hence, Passages became a way to highlight how British colonization has shaped traditional Guyanese cuisine and, in turn, the lives of the Guyanese people. It helps Guyanese people to decolonize its history and its cuisine, to clearly see how colonization has affected them. This makes Passages by Gavin Benjamin relevant to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of Reduced Inequalities.

Passages by Gavin Benjamin with glass work by Jason Forck. Image courtesy of @gavinbenjamin/Instagram.

Passages is laden with the colours of the Guyanese Independence flag—green, gold, and red—that have come to be known as the Golden Arrowhead. Items such as British currency and parts of colonial Guyanese architecture also appear in the stills to further highlight their colonial influence. The piece’s tablecloth is also made of printed materials that contain written explanations of the significance of food in Guyanese culture, including bits of colonial history that have come to shape Guyanese cuisine and with it, its people. 

Photographs in Passages by Gavin Benjamin. Image courtesy of Gavin Benjamin’s website.

Following in the footsteps of the Portuguese in the 16th century, the Dutch (and later the British) established their own sugar plantations in their colonies, which also included Guyana. For the next 300 years, the slave trade grew to new peaks to support the colonies’ expanding sugar industry. So much so that by the mid-19th century, a million Africans had been enslaved and brought to colonies in the Caribbean Islands and South America. This created a slavery-based sugar industry whose scale was large enough to proliferate sugar and make it a common household item for Europeans.

Detail of Passages by Gavin Benjamin with glass work by Jason Forck. Image courtesy of @gavinbenjamin/Instagram.

What this has also meant is that sugar has come to define traditional Guyanese cuisine. Which includes everything from sugar roti, Demerara rum and also parsad, a smooth buttery dessert made from sugar, spices and parched flour. Sugar roti and parsad appear to be close cousins of Indian dishes roti and sooji halwa—which goes to show that Guyanese cuisine has also preserved the story of the Indo-Guyanese. These are Guyanans of Indian descent, whose ancestors were brought by the British as indentured labour in plantations. Today, the Indo-Guyanese make up almost 40 percent of the population, a stark reminder of the effects that colonization has had on its colonies.

Detail of Passages by Gavin Benjamin with glass work by Jason Forck. Image courtesy of @gavinbenjamin/Instagram.

These are just some of the ways that Passages has decolonized Guyanese cuisine. It has revealed the deep impact of British colonization of the land, inviting its viewers to confront its legacy of slavery and indentured labour.

Find out more about Gavin Benjamin’s Passages and their other pieces by checking their Instagram @gavinbenjamin.

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