Through art we rise

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As CARIFESTA arrives to dazzle Barbados this August, we look at how the Caribbean’s biggest cultural festival has helped shape the identity of our endlessly diverse and creative region. Words and photos by Risée Chaderton

I came to live in Barbados in 1981, the year when CARIFESTA last came to town. Although the Caribbean Festival of Arts had already ended by the time I arrived on the island, I remember being awed by the tall pillars in West Terrace, St James that were still festooned with banners; I remember the huge exhibition tents with their concrete floors – floors that later became a venue for the neighbourhood’s rollerskating kids, myself included (though that is a story for another time).

Suffice to say, I always felt small as I passed beneath those pillars, as if I was passing beneath the feet of Colossus. In my seven-year-old mind whatever had happened in this space must have been pretty and enormous and grand. I knew nothing of the festival itself, but the memory of its implied vastness was clear back then, and remains as solid as the pillars that still stand at West Terrace some 36 years later.

This year CARIFESTA returns to Barbados, and a new crop of local artists – many of whom were not alive when the festival last hit these shores – is making the most of the opportunity to showcase their work.

What is CARIFESTA?

The Caribbean Festival of Arts is a multicultural event organised on a periodic basis by the countries of the Caribbean. It gathers together artists, musicians, authors, dancers, filmmakers, fashion designers and more, and provides a showcase of the region’s creative talents. CARIFESTA is both inspirational and educational, giving artists from different countries an opportunity to discuss their work, and exposing locals and visitors alike to the cultural richness of the Caribbean.

Slow beginnings

When the festival first launched in 1972, the sense of a common Caribbean artistic identity was still unspooling. Only a few individuals had had the opportunity to see the work of their contemporaries, and the idea of a thriving, culturally relevant artistic community was in its infancy. Some territories were either only newly independent or were still colonies of the British. Artists were still struggling to divorce themselves from their motherland, struggling to find their authentic voice and to find community and common ground. Although academics spoke longingly of ‘one Caribbean’, the short-lived West Indian Federation – established in 1958 and dissolved in 1962 – left us more scattered, wary and divided than before. Therefore, even 20 years later in 1981, the idea of an arts community was still a new concept for the average Barbadian.

CARIFESTA changed that. Before CARIFESTA, many Caribbean people outside the academic community did not have a clear sense of nationhood that was not closely tied to our colonial past. Who were we as Barbadians? That question was most often answered by the average person in terms of slave ships, the Union Jack, sugar cane and servitude towards American and European tourists.

After the first outing of CARIFESTA in 1972, held in Georgetown, Guyana, and the exposure to other forms of art – to art that did not rely upon a European gaze for validation – Barbadian artists returned to the nation revitalised, and the arts community began to blossom in new directions. Jamaica hosted the event in 1976, then Cuba in 1979. By the time the festival reached Barbados’s shores in 1981, the awakening could not be contained, nor reversed. We were on our way. The National Independence Festival of Creative Arts (NIFCA), Barbados’s major local arts festival, was inaugurated in 1973, and even that took on a different tone after CARIFESTA ’81.

Barbadian artists, media practitioners and the general public were inspired by the breadth and depth of Caribbean talent that was exposed by CARIFESTA ’81. In the wake of its success, the National Cultural Foundation (NCF) was birthed by an act of parliament, kicking and screaming its way into the hearts and minds of Barbadians. Suddenly the arts was seen as a viable community. Barbadians had a sense that our art had a place in the world that did not rely on the approval of outsiders. The NCF still stands today on the grounds where that festival was held, and where the spirit of CARIFESTA still resides.

The price of progress

“Much of what we now understand about technical theatre, staging, lighting and creating spaces came into common usage with CARIFESTA ’81,” says John Hunte, dancer, teacher and coordinator of Barbados’s CARIFESTA XIII. “We were exposed to those things for the first time with the festival. It was a catalyst for all kinds of things to happen.

“We now have two generations of artists who were not here for ’81,” he adds. “But all our development programmes – at the University of the West Indies, Barbados Community College, our creative arts programmes, theatre, music, everything – have come out of that push we were given from CARIFESTA.”

Hunte goes on to say that the boost given to the art scene in Barbados has led to a closer relationship between local artists and those elsewhere in the region. That exposure has led to a greater sense of nationalism, which is evident in the art.

Most of the Caribbean community participated in CARIFESTA, but Hunte notes that the first four iterations of the festival came at a price for the host nations. “There was a high level of participation from all countries, but it was the host that was responsible for creating the actual festival spaces, and for all other expenses – a bill that was often high.”

This financial pressure caused CARIFESTA to be put on hold for many years until better financial agreements could be reached – after Barbados
1981 there was no festival until 1992. In 1991, it was agreed that each participating country would be responsible for its own delegation. The festival returned in 1992 and has been thriving since then, with participating countries including Cuba, Martinique and Jamaica.

A new view

As Barbados and her artists prepare for CARIFESTA XIII, a relatively new concept has been born: the pop-up gallery. Leading this revolution are Israel Mapp, with his Tandem project located in The Colonnade Mall, and Oneka Small, who has put together two pop-up gallery spaces in the past six months – one in an empty office building in Green Hill, St Michael, for Barbados’s 50th anniversary celebrations, and the currently running Revo-clectic gallery, at Massy Stores Supercentre in Warrens, St Michael. These pop-up spaces have brought Barbadian art to the public instead of begging the public to come to it. Tandem, located in the heart of Bridgetown, offers spaces where artists can work and the public can stop in for coffee. The location of Revo-clectic, above one of the largest supermarkets, allows the public easy access to local art.

Hunte says that CARIFESTA has evolved since 1981, when its aim was simply to show art to the public. This year the plan is not only exposure but also engagement and export opportunities.

“It is the hope that the artists will be thinking not only about what they want to express but also what they want to export,” he says. “It is the hope of the government that this initiative will be the hallmark of this CARIFESTA. We want to create a marketplace where the artists can have avenues of exchange with other artists and buyers.

“The idea of the suffering artist is one that needs to die. We must give credit to the artists who came before us, the ones who volunteer their time at local colleges and institutions, because they are the ones who have helped guide this new crop of emerging talent, and who have helped them define their sense of what nationhood means. We have to continue to hold open doors because we want to see people making money from their art.”

According to Hunte, Caribbean artists are now taking the sense of nationhood discovered a few decades ago and looking further back. Some artists are completely re-imagining Western concepts and are seeking truth in their African and indigenous heritage. This means that viewers are forced to look deeper, to examine more closely, to seek the truth in the works.

“A lot of times we get caught up in the beauty of the art and sometimes we don’t want to face the layers of what the art is really saying to us about ourselves,” says Hunte. “Usually we are connected to our intelligences in ways that Western societies do not accommodate. We have this opportunity to suspend our Western conditioning and to really look and see.”

Endless possibilities

From its inception, CARIFESTA has a been a showcase that allows governments to see the possibilities of the local arts scene and to encourage tourism. But seeing isn’t everything, and tourism that does not encourage purchases from local vendors is of limited worth. This year’s festival will have a buyers’ mall, a masters exhibition, dance, theatre, photography, film screenings and more. Visitors will be able to view and buy the work of artists, and speak with practitioners about pathways to economic viability.

“If we [governments] are going to focus on development [of the arts], that development needs to become central,” says Hunte, “and if you cannot afford to pay your artists, you should pay your art teachers – because if you can teach someone how to be an artist we can get further…” He pauses for emphasis. “Artists need to figure out how to use that creativity in their work. When we teach someone to be a better artist, we are not only educating them to be a better artist but we are also educating them to be a better individual, a more socially conscious citizen who is aware, who is thinking, who is trying to keep questioning and trying to improve their surroundings.”

If CARIFESTA in 1981 opened so many creative minds and spurred such local innovation – and gave me an amazing roller-rink on which to practise my moves! – one can only speculate about the wealth of possibilities offered by CARIFESTA 2017.

Barbados Hot List

There will be so much happening at CARIFESTA 2017 – from fashion shows to live music events to theatre performances. At the time of going to press, the programme was still being finalised. But here are some of the top Bajan artists to look out for…

1 Stella Hackett
Fine artist producing textiles, large-scale acrylic on canvas and wall hangings that all take a step out of the ordinary and carry the viewer straight into John Wyndham’s ‘Fringes’.
2 Kenneth ‘Black’ Blackman
Wood sculptor, creating mahoghany sculptures that are as smooth, dark, silent and thoughtful as their creator.
3 Denyse Menard-Greenidge
Abstract artist and curator, producing amazing acrylic on canvas.
4 Sheena Rose
Multimedia contemporary artist, working on hand-drawn animations, paintings, performance art, mixed media, graphics and installations on a grand scale speaking to social issues in Barbados.
5 Riddim Tribe
All female dance troupe who are fusing ballet with modern dance in a uniquely Bajan way. Catch them on YouTube if you miss them at the festival!
6 Gail Pounder-Speede
Artist using acrylic on canvas, working with intense colours to speak of Caribbean heritage.
7 Kraig Yearwood
Artist and designer producing large canvases and three dimensional pieces in primary colours.
8 Kamilah Ellis
Emerging art photographer with a focus on black-and-white fine art prints.

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