Art and culture did not always enjoy the prominence they do today. And there are several people to thank for contributing to the development of that sector in Barbados, among them Cynthia Wilson.
Referred to by many as one of the island’s ‘Grande Dames of the Cultural Arts’, Wilson is a local author, actress, dancer, storyteller and producer who has represented Barbados at the national, regional and international level in theatre, dance and tourism.
She graduated from the University College of the West Indies, Jamaica in 1957 with a BA in History, Latin and English, and a Diploma in Education a year later. At the end of her studies, Wilson taught English in Jamaica and Morocco, and returned home in 1969. She would take up posts at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Caribbean Tourism Research Centre.
One of her many accomplishments is her contribution to the establishment of the National Independence Festival of Creative Arts (NIFCA) in 1973.
Between 1975 and 1990, she produced several local cultural presentations for visiting Heads of State, including Queen Elizabeth II. Wilson also served as producer of the first two editions of the Barbados Jazz Festival.
She highlighted various aspects of Barbadian life through theatre, and was a founding member of Stage One Productions, and also co-founded WWB Productions with the now late Earl Warner.
Wilson, who has penned several poems and stories, was also a member of the Association of Literary Artists.
Her work was not limited to Barbados, however. She served as chair of the Association of Caribbean Theatre Artists, which was formed in Jamaica in the 1980s, as well as a director of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Foundation for Arts and Culture.
Last year, Wilson was bestowed the nation’s second highest award, the Companion of Honour, for her contribution to the cultural life of Barbados. She also received several other awards, including the Barbados Service Star, the Bussa Award, the University of the West Indies at Mona Distinguished Graduate Award, and the Earl Warner Trust Lifetime Achievement Award.
Last week, family, friends and members of the local arts and culture community gathered at the Walcott Warner Lecture Theatre of the Errol Barrow Centre for Creative Imagination to celebrate with the 82-year-old Wilson, as she accepted her latest accolade, the Imagination Award.
Wilson was one of two recipients of the inaugural awards of the University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus.
In paying tribute to her, CARICOM Gender Advocate Dr Rosina Wiltshire, who is also Wilson’s relative, said she was always captivated by her talent on stage.
“I still remember seeing Cynthia on the stage first dancing; this African princess just really expressing the flow of life in her movement,” Wiltshire said.
Writer and poet Esther Phillips regards Wilson as “one to whom we look for things like legacy and posterity in terms of culture”.
“Because it is very important for young people to know whose shoulders they are standing on. I think it is unfortunate that the young generation tends to come along thinking that everything begins with them, and so you don’t have that kind of wealth of the collective consciousness and what happened in the past, and Cynthia’s work captures a lot of that – what I call socio-cultural, political, those various aspects of what Barbados was like,” Phillips said.
Wilson said her latest award represents an affirmation of the work of local artistes.
“It’s maybe the expression of the realization that art is what keeps us grounded . . . even in the most ugly of circumstances. We create beauty out of ugliness. The defiant nature of the human spirit shines through all attempts to extinguish it, and we are the opening through which it passes,” Wilson told the audience.
She added that the arts and culture community has been the “stepchild of the society” who has “waited a long, long time, travelling a rough road, negotiating the potholes of lack of respect, lack of support – financial or social –, clamming over the boulders of class status and epidermal considerations”.