December 15, 2019

Things that matter – opportunities lost or ‘taken at the flood’?

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Congratulations to David Comissiong for his thoughtful and highly relevant comments in The Barbados Advocate on Wednesday. He asks: “Will we use CARIFESTA to launch a powerful cultural and artistic campaign to regenerate our Barbadian and wider nation, or will we squander this priceless opportunity that has come our
way?”

And he goes on: “The staging of CARIFESTA in Barbados provides us an opportunity to bring together the most committed and creative artistes of the Caribbean and to charge them with the mission of investigating the fundamentals of our condition and helping us to collectively chart a way forward.”

He reminds us that this was the vision of Forbes Burnham (despot but visionary) in conceiving the first CARIFESTA in 1970 in Guyana, when that gathering included the most brilliant of our writers, poets, artists, dramatists and other creative minds.

Mr. Comissiong also quotes the point eloquently made by A.J. Seymour that: “The creative artists of the Caribbean have a very special cultural burden to bear, and a very demanding role to play in the total social and political development of the area. They are also involved, or ought to be, in an unwritten educational programme and praxis for all the people; in short, the Caribbean cultural contributors must see themselves as a vanguard who will help to liberate the creative energies of the Caribbean people, and help all our societies to create a new out of the chaos of underdevelopment.”

So David is absolutely right in suggesting that with the Caribbean in widespread economic distress and disappointingly far from achieving the goals dreamed of at Independence or the Millennium Development goals, and with so many Caribbean people – with so much latent talent and joie de vivre – not achieving full potential, there is a huge opportunity for us all to grasp.

My own relevant passions are in art, architecture and heritage, and in these areas there are obvious lost opportunities. I have not seen or heard much evidence that
we have made an effort to capitalise on our UNESCO World Heritage Status in CARIFESTA, but I may well have missed the corresponding pronouncements.

Similarly, I have not seen much evidence of integrating programmes with our many historic sites or many museums (22 at my latest count) but again I may not have my ear close enough to the ground.

But where we have clearly missed the boat completely is in the tragic abortion of the plans to adapt Block A of the Garrison as the National Art Gallery. Showcasing our many artists – our explosion of artistic talent – in the National Gallery promised for almost 40 years would have made an amazing impact and helped to catapult some of our artists and our national image to dizzy heights. And it can be a key partner to the next door in bringing life, culture and people into the Garrison.

Barbados has a multitude of talented artists, as illustrated in the brilliant Arts Directory Barbados by Corrie Scott and Kathleen Yearwood, which showcases some 250. The potential for capitalising on this rich creativity is huge – fine art, commercial art and fine craft, for local and export use, as an integral part of the Barbados brand and our tourism product – it’s a no brainer as I have repeatedly said, but continues to be ignored in our society and in our tourism marketing, where sun, sand and sea, remarkably and inexplicably, remain almost the only aspect promoted and illustrated in our marketing materials.

This is sad, considering how art features in our mental images of Haiti, Japan and China for instance. The energy and commitment in the artistic community is amazing and I’m pleased to see how many efforts are being made in the display, promotion and active participation in our art in CARIFESTA, but how much more impressive it would have been with our National Gallery in place.

Among the activities and exhibitions are:
• Journeys CARICOM Exhibition at Norman Centre
• Photography Exhibition at the Wickham-Lewis Boardwalk
• The Impression – the Barbados National Exhibition of CARIFESTA XIII at the Morningside Gallery, Barbados Community College
• Masters Exhibition – History & Infinity at Queen’s Park Gallery
• CARICOM National Exhibition at the BCC Science Block & Morningside
• Home – August Pop-up Gallery Exhibition at Norman Centre
• The Barn Art Centre Programme – Exhibition, Art Talks, Mural Project and Monkey Jar Display at the Barn Art Centre, Small Ridge
• Studio Ceramics Exhibition (First of its kind, with 10 ceramicists) at Small Ridge
group show (11 Caribbean artists) at the Gallery of Caribbean Art
• Come celebrate ‘We’ Caribbean Heraldry at the Cathedral of St. Michael and All Angels

The sad story of Block A was fully featured in a centre spread article by Carlos Atwell in the Weekend Nation of June 30th. This has been the designated site for the National Art Gallery by several administrations over the last 15 years or so. It has been promised with supreme confidence and the inference of immediate action in public pronouncements by the Minister of Culture on several occasions over the past three years. It was supposed to undergo adaptive restoration on its vacation by the CXC, which occurred almost two years ago.

Sadly, and tragically, like the other derelict dozen historic treasures around Bridgetown, Block A has been abandoned to nature and the elements. Abandoned buildings decay far more rapidly than occupied buildings, and the moss, the weeds, the ferns, the bushes and the trees are creating yet another of the several “mini botanical gardens” developing on so many government buildings. Will it fall prey to vandals and arsonists? Where is the vision of the nation, and why do our governments not see themselves as the strict guardians of our heritage? The continuing neglect and decay of the historic buildings in our World Heritage site after six years of inscription is far more likely to lose us our designation than night lights on the racetrack. The reneging by government on Block A is a sad betrayal of our entire cultural and artistic soul and efforts.

It’s appropriate to end with David’s question and his appeal: “Are we conscious of this priceless opportunity, and have we prepared ourselves to grasp it? Or will we – as tends to be the practice of the current species of governing and bureaucratic elites in the Caribbean – simply go through the motions of doing something but not really making it truly meaningful?”

Professor Fraser is Past Dean of Medical Sciences, UWI and Professor Emeritus of Medicine and Clinical Pharmacology. Website: profhenryfraser.com

For more on this story go to: https://www.barbadosadvocate.com/columns/things-matter-opportunities-lost-or-%E2%80%98taken-flood%E2%80%99

IMAGE: Carifesta

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