"...I suspect that, in the history of culture, more things that we call great (in poetry, theatre, philosophy, music) came out of pain and suffering than came out of happy times.” Antonio Damasio, MD, Professor of neuroscience, University of Southern California
AS A NATION, we have created more than our fair share. From steelpan to calypso, bake and shark to soca, from doubles to pichakaree, and patois to trini-twang, the world will never quite be the same again. It is also widely known and accepted that we create for our own pleasure, and not to satisfy any foreign tastes, or to be acceptable to others (it is unlikely for instance, that we could have written Feeling Hot Hot Hot or Bump and Wine in the Conga line).
But in the face of all our creative brilliance, it is undeniable that many of our collective histories are rooted in pain and conflict. The steel pan, created from discarded oil drums, was invented in response to the need to create music after the African drum was banned under the pressures of colonialism and Christianity.
Historical pain is also present in some of our traditional Carnival characters. The Baby Doll for example, is a stark symbol of this, as the young girl is constantly trapped in the mode of carrying a white baby symbolising the rape of black women by white masters, while looking for the father of the child, symbolising abandonment.
Additionally, our striving for personhood is reflected in our literature, especially from the 1950s where authors like Michael Anthony, Sam Selvon and VS Naipaul explored identity against the backdrop of their own cultural and ethnic identities.
In the 21st century, it may be argued that we face new pains such as cultural imperialism through media and technology, and the battle to regain and assert an identity that is intrinsically T&T. Additionally, more than fifty years after independence, citizens still face daily battles for basic amenities, to feel safe or be heard.
How should our society treat with all of these pressures, and how can the artist help us to push through all of this historical and modern pain? There is a further challenge. In an online interview with the Huffington Post, Professor Antonio Damasio discussed the connection between depressive emotional states and originality as an artist.
For instance, some writers indicated that they are not able to write if they are happy. Others like surrealist Mexican painter Frida Khalo, used her paintings to channel the physical pain and isolation she felt, but also to confront society in the 1930s and 40s by addressing issues of gender, race, class and identity.
African-American jazz and blues singer Billie Holiday sang her pain over poverty and abuse, and left us with Strange Fruit, easily the most powerful lament over the practice of lynching black people –“Southern trees bear strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees...”
So, do we need to be depressed to be creative? And if all the societal stresses were removed, would we in fact be taking away the impetus for the creative genius that we take for granted in T&T? Possibly.
Creativity is largely a solitary activity that has the potential to inspire and impact those who experience the end result. But the dancer, writer, painter, film director, actor ... they internalise and envision the final product in their private, creative space. So if the artist does not create for us, how are they to help us heal, to push through the pain? There is a school of thought that says we need to embrace our pain; that pain and joy must be present for balance, and yes, for creativity.
But this is probably easier said than accomplished, as it is also true that our creative space needs healing. At a national level, our artistic institutions continue to suffer from lack of leadership and there is often disunity within the community. In spite of this, in villages across the country, communities uses their creativity to inspire and impact, whether it is dancing the cocoa, praising Ogun or through the ancient play/ritual of Ramleela that is being performed every night over the past week.
Our peoples understand pain, but they also understand the power of creativity to heal. Perhaps Pundit Ravi Ji encapsulates it best - “Be stronger than the pain/Build up the land again/Giving is yuh Dharmaa/Building is yuh Karmaa/Go, ah sending you ...
Dara E. Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN.