The concept of CARIFESTA was concreted in my consciousness at some point. It could not have been from the time that we hosted the event in Barbados last because I was not born. Some way along the line though, I have read about CARIFESTA and I had a sense of the event being the moment when the CARICOM countries pause collectively at a point to celebrate and encourage Caribbean art and to affirm our cultural manifestations.
With my understanding of what CARIFESTA was, then I had decided even before the opening of it that Barbados’ attempt to host it was not going to be the best year we’d ever seen. I hinged this expectation on three factors. Firstly, it was not surprising to me that Barbados’ hosting of CARIFESTA suffered from audience participation. Barbados has disregarded our art and cultural products for a very long time.
We have chosen the route of lowest return to change the image of the artist and the cultural practitioner. We have tried to legislate culture and art using the Cultural Industries Act. Art and culture, by their very nature, refuse this kind of regimentation and thus there has been no happy or seamless marriage. Contrary to popular belief, I think that naming is more than a semantic exercise; it is critically important to focusing and embodying objectives.
What we needed more than a Cultural Industries Act was legislation on cultural expansion and cultural administration. These two terms are far less abstract and offer concrete methodologies as to how to move forward. The Cultural Industries Act we have now has done little to change the perception of culture and art for the average Barbadian. The Act has not come with any scholarships or exhibitions dedicated to outstanding upcoming artists.
There is no known national plan by the two newly established tourism entities to incorporate art into the room design in our hotels. So really, there is little national appetite for our art and culture, still relatively few ways for art and culture to be sustainable career choices and few spaces which promote free expressions of art and culture. Were Barbadians automatically expected to grow an overwhelming demand for products they do not appreciate daily? Was it a real surprise audience participation was low?
In addition to our general disregard for art and culture, did we forget that Barbados has been in recession for the last nine years? This is the second reason I thought CARIFESTA would not do well here at this time. Adversity can bolster culture or force it underground. In a country such as Haiti, culture and art have been embedded into their tapestry of struggle. Barbadians have never really had that type of connection to their culture and art.
So, in the climate of recession, spending on art and culture will seem like an extravagance to Barbadians. Where people are struggling with mortgage payments and increased taxes which have affected the price of back to school supplies and food upward, Barbadians were never going to have the disposable income to support CARIFESTA-related events.
The third concern I had with the organization of CARIFESTA was the full-on Government involvement in the activity. Even if this was a feasible means of organization at any other point in the country’s calendar, it was always going to be a risky venture with a general election around the corner. Some would argue that we have had a good record of separating governance from partisan politics over the last years. However, with a general election imminent in Barbados and Barbadians being generally very dissatisfied with how the country is being run, making CARIFESTA seem like a Government project had the potential to make the production ‘a target’.
If there is an agency responsible for culture and cultural industries, why then was the Minister of Culture seemingly the chief spokesman for CARIFESTA? What were the benefits of that? What were the gains? Artists and cultural practitioners already have a complicated relationship with establishment, as I noted before, and some of them will simply remove themselves from spaces which seem charged with politics, whether that charge is real or perceived. So it was from one of the art icons in Barbados that I first saw this concept of ‘Carifestering’ – really I understood his connections.
In the true style of an artist, he challenged my perceived notion of CARIFESTA. He moved me to the point of thinking about the art and culture we were trying to celebrate not as a static product that someone made for a day, but as the real struggle and sum total of what we are experiencing at this time as CARICOM. In my view, the overall staging of CARIFESTA was not a success. It was not a success and at a level that reflected on the organization of events and the decisions we made at the governmental level. It was not a success because of the broad way we view art and culture in Barbados and how we consume them.
It was not a success because perhaps at the deepest level our CARICOM culture is in flow and transition as we seek to balance art and culture with fiscal deficits and vanishing foreign reserves. Had the Government not been so involved in CARIFESTA, they could see the critique simply as being about the event, and not feel the need to now be on the defensive. The art and culture of the Caribbean, as much in flow as it is, is still as beautiful and relevant and resistant. This CARIFESTA certainly underlined that. The artists and cultural specialists of the region shone, delivered and awed even in the mist of the rest.
All hail Paul Keens-Douglas, Gabberts and Romell Hall, the Haitian contingent and the numerous, countless others. My sympathies to Guyana on the loss of your ambassador.