“Hang your hat higher than you think you can reach,” was the good advice given to me as a youngster. The encouragement was, “Because you will nearly always reach it.” I must admit, I have found that to be true.
The Minister of Community Development, Culture and the Arts, Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly, may have discovered something similar, because you could not accuse her and her artistic directors of lacking ambition in the scale of the cultural programme this country dished up for nine consecutive days in a plethora of venues across the country for Carifesta XIV.
As organiser of the literary events, I was exposed to the enormous challenges in pulling together 22 countries and thousands of delegates participating in a multiplicity of events. The hurdles did at times seem insurmountable and demanded immediate creative solutions, lots of good humour, diplomacy, flexibility, and simple faith that all would come good in the end, which it did, for the most part.
The construction of the imaginatively conceived streets of the Caribbean setting in the Queen's Park Savannah, central hub of the festival, could only have been accomplished within the extremely short time frame the builders had, as it turned out, by people well versed in Houdini-like escapades. The extraordinarily valuable experience Trinis have gained from producing the annual Carnival and other large public events was evident in the absence of panic when faced with the multitude of simultaneous big shows – so many of them that there was an excess of riches.
Carifesta XIV only ended yesterday and assessment of its success will follow in due course, but it will definitely be judged to be among the most thrilling, certainly, with regard to the extensive display of regional arts and culture, and the breadth of the undertaking, starting with the magical opening production.
Any doubts about whether we could reach our hat was put to rest from the moment the first note in The Spirit of Wild Oceans was struck on the evening of August 16. One knew immediately that a very high standard was being set for the entire festival and that something special was afoot.
Guyanese novelist Jan Carew wrote that it’s the duty of writers and artists to articulate their people’s dreams. Dahlia Dennison, creator and director of The Spirit of Wild Oceans, took him at his word.
She may not have been at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest Book Fair event last Wednesday, when the renowned Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o told his audience that as former colonised people we must move the centre to where we are, and from there we should reach for the stars, but Dennison already knows that from her extensive reading of Caribbean literature, and she took us with her on a wondrous journey, provoking a primal engagement with the performance, connecting us with our rhythmic and spiritual selves.
She anchored the seamless artistic telling of our Caribbean story in the creation myth, with the great mother calling down the memories of the great tribes of the four continents in The Genesis. We witnessed in The Odyssey the making of our beautiful archipelago with its rich nature and diverse people, understanding by the time we got to the closing Parade of Nations that our art and spirituality are intertwined with our land and nature.
Dennison may be principally a filmmaker and writer but she transcends artistic barriers, as her production did. She wove the massive cast of composers, singers, actors, musicians, dramatists, costume and set designers, lighting, soundstage management experts and dancers under the charge of master choreographers into a seemingly flawless production.
I first encountered Dennison in 2012, when she directed her debut documentary film on the Merikins of TT. Already one could sense her striving for the spiritual heart in her storytelling.
Since then, and an honours degree from New York University, she has gone on to earn rare international scholarships and coveted prizes for her cinematography. In 2020 she will be artist in residence at the Chateau D’Orquevaux in France.
The Spirit of Wild Oceans was produced by JCD & Associates, an established company known for its creative professionalism, which tendered to deliver on the Grand Stand stage an exploration of the cultural harmonies that unite the Caribbean, through dance, art, music, poetry, colour and belief. Dennison, a JCD creative, sought to awaken our attention to the profound necessity of the arts – all of them – for the human spirit, and nobody in that audience would have found her call easy to ignore.
It is clear that we have an inordinate talent for the arts. The font of that, as Spirit of Wild Oceans suggested, may well be our unique history and clash of cultures that find expression in so many unprecedented forms.
It is a burning shame, then, that long after independence we still pay scant attention to this natural wealth, taking it so very for granted. Alexandra Stewart won the 2019 First Citizens National Poetry Slam championship with her trenchant plea for proper consideration:
Somebody please explain
Why so quick to put the artist’s name
In the programme but not in the budget.
Throughout the region we suffer from a non-strategic approach to the arts, of which the lack of adequate funding is only a symptom, probably because those holding the purse strings often do not understand the creative process, measuring only what comes out at the end, and not curbing the tendency to indulge personal preferences and beliefs.
Without radical thinking, at both regional and state levels, about how to deploy some of the vital energy and financial resources invested every two years in Carifesta, we will be unable to realise the immense benefits for regional societies and economies.
The Carifesta XIV slogan was Share, Connect, and Invest and there is room for us to extend the possibilities far and wide, but only if our governments and private sectors agree to do so. The arts and culture festival should not be an end in itself, and the Caricom Secretariat that oversees it appears to know that, so let’s see where we go from here.
In the meantime, hats off to the TT government for partnering with a host of specialist entities and for taking a democratic approach to Carifesta, which always runs the risk of being a bureaucratic production rather than one with the artist at the centre. The strategy made an endless stream of film, television, internet radio, literature, dance, theatre and all manner of music and performance possible for young and old.
I believe that for the first time the University of the West Indies at St Augustine devoted itself fully to participation in Carifesta, adding a necessary intellectual grounding to the celebration of regional arts.
The fringe events – another area for development – added to the official buzz, and those such as Glen Roopchand’s carefully curated (by Andy Jacob) Parade exhibition of recent paintings at 101 Art Gallery provided ample evidence of the value of expert knowledge and the benefit of including small shows in the festival mix.
Dahlia Dennison, a star revealed by Carifesta XIV, believes that whatever the difficulties, artists will continue to be critical to our existence because at its core their work is spiritual. I agree with her. The onus is on us to work hard to keep that artistic spirit aflame.