Barbados, like every other human society, needs the arts and artists! Art is one of mankind’s most important cultural inventions, and at its highest, performs the critical function of helping a society to understand and resolve the crucial social, cultural, economic, psychological, ethical and political challenges that confront it.
Barbados has had the good fortune to possess two of the greatest literary artists of the 20th century, in the persons of George Lamming and Kamau Brathwaite. But we have largely squandered that good fortune by failing to make significant use of the invaluable bodies of artistic work that these two giants have placed at the disposal of our nation.
Indeed, it has been a long time now since our increasingly “unconscious” Barbadian society has permitted any indigenous work of art to seriously impact it. In the field of music, we would have to go back to Gabby’s Jack and Emmerton in the early 1980’s; in the visual arts, to Ras Akyem and Ishi’s Vexx art exhibition of the early 1990s; and in drama and the literary arts to the 1970s works of the Anthony Hinksons, Bruce St. Johns and Timothy Callenders.
The Peoples Empowerment Party has made it a point of duty to challenge young and up-coming Barbadian artists to produce work that is designed to shake up the society and to force our people to think. And so, when we witness young artists rising to this challenge, it is only right that we acknowledge it.
Barbadians who witnessed this year’s NIFCA dance finals are still talking about the gold award winning dance titled Her-story, that was performed by Dancin’ Africa. The dance, choreographed by 22-year-old Aisha Comissiong, was a graphic and disturbing, yet inspiring, examination of the condition of the “black woman”.
Veteran journalist, John Sealy, reviewed the dance in the national Press and observed that it “made us squirm in our seats”, while dance afficionado, Wayne Smith, noted that like all good art, it made the audience “think”.
Her-story is an extremely important, “must-see” piece of art for all Barbadians, but particularly for the African-descended women of Barbados. The dance illustrates the oppression and restrictions that black women of the Diaspora have faced over the centuries, based on their race and gender. Virtually no other beings in history have endured the type of long-term oppression that has been inflicted on black women.
Her-story expresses this by making prominent use of a rope as a symbol of the structures of repression that black woman have struggled and continue to struggle against. In addition, the slave auction block — the ultimate symbol of objectification and reduction of human beings to a mere disposable piece of flesh-is also prominently referenced.
Significantly, one segment of female dancers depicts those black women who resist “the oppressor”, while the other segment of female dancers, with their bleached skins, depicts those women who succumb and become his subordinates and play-things.
But ultimately, the dance suggests that all black women are casualties or victims of what is, in effect, a brutal war against the black woman, and recommends healing through spiritual reconnection with the most authentic historical sources of black female self-worth as represented by six female ancestral spirits who are invoked – the Egyptian goddess Isis, Queen Makeda, Pharoah Hatshepsut, Ghana’s Yaa Asantewaa, Queen N’zingha and Nanny of the Maroons.
Take a bow Aisha Comissiong and Dancin’ Africa: this is what we mean by art that shakes up the society and causes people to think!
David Comissiong of president of the Peoples Empowerment Party.