Human survival and the arts

Culture Matters

“It’s hard to focus on the preservation of art when the preservation of life itself seems so precarious...”

– Artspace, online arts magazine

A NEW YEAR brings excitement. A chance to make amends, improve ourselves. A new year at the start of a new decade is even more potent. We promise to achieve personal and professional goals; we look to the future.

By all indications, 2020 promises to be complicated.

As millions was spent on New Year’s Day fireworks in Australia, thousands had to be evacuated as fires raged across their forests, destroying countless homes. It is said the smoke is now extending to New Zealand, some 4,000 km away, or roughly the distance from TT to New York.

Prolonged drought in Zimbabwe has resulted in an advisory from the United Nations that food will run out by February of this year if international aid is not urgently provided. Wildlife is dying, as well as the natural landscape that attracts tourists; valued income for this nation.

Last year, fires severely affected the Amazon and decimated protected forests in Paraguay and Bolivia.

Here in TT, dozens of families and businesses are still reeling from the impact of severe flooding, whether through loss of household possessions or destruction of business assets.

Across the region, artists did their part to impact behavioural change. Jamaicans used music to teach about climate shifts and our local Green Screen film festival saw innovative films on the effects of human action on the environment. But is this enough?

“Artists dwell in the realm of the possible.” Last year at a town hall meeting on the Caricom Single Market and Economy (CSME), Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados, made this statement as she wondered about ways to engage youth to take action through powerful creative vehicles like soca, dancehall, film and other popular entertainment forms.

However, while this is a desirable vision of the future, the reality of regional integration continues to make meaningful action beyond national borders extremely challenging. Difficulties continue to manifest through barriers of language, air travel, cultural norms, telecommunications and access even to the CSME.

Further, the devastation caused to the Bahamas by Hurricane Dorian prompted one commentator to state that “the Caribbean is the most vulnerable region to climate change in the Western Hemisphere, and if significant steps are not taken to address climate change today, we face a very real possibility of witnessing entire Caribbean islands...eroding and even disappearing before our eyes.”

One hundred years ago, in 1920, jazz was being born in New Orleans. The Railway Douglas Tent, the first calypso tent in TT, would soon open in Port of Spain. Globally, although artists of colour were subjected to racism and discrimination, they continued to innovate and perform. Locally, the labour movement began to organise into trade unions, lobbying for democratic change and fair wages.

Over the decades, we witnessed the artistry of pioneers like Bailey, Velazquez, Berkeley and Minshall as they incorporated storytelling and social issues into their mas portrayals. Civil unrest, Olympic victory, Black Power, Nobel Laureate recognition and pan became part of our national legacy. The griots, from Sparrow to Kitchener, Sandra and Shadow helped define their age. In the East Indian tradition Sundar Popo, Rakesh Yankaran, and Drupatee inspired new genres, from chutney to Pitchkaree.

In 2020, the numbers tell their own story: Just over 180 years since the emancipation proclamation released Africans from 400 years of enslavement, 175 years since 144,000 East Indians arrived as indentured workers, almost 140 years after ordinary stick-fighters in Port of Spain saved our Carnival from colonial extinction and 50 years since Black Power ignited fundamental advances in our race relations.

Still, as we contemplate this new decade, perhaps the only number we really need to consider is 1 – the number of planet Earths we have.

Climate activism will undoubtedly emerge as one of the most significant battles of human existence. We are not just drowning in plastic we are now consuming it, especially from foods caught in the ocean. Worse, we live in a world where a banana duct-taped to a wall is declared art and sold for US$120,000, while human beings starve to death from lack of access to food and water.

For real artists, the link between their art and humanity is a serious matter. Through our music, dance, theatre and powerful images we continue to do the work, in spite of our own vulnerability. As for the challenges of the coming decade, we are ready.

Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN


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