WHEN local animation pioneer Camille Selvon Abrahams was studying in London and was invited to events, she always noticed she was the only woman, as well as the lone black and Caribbean person. She was determined that when she returned to TT that would not be the case.
And through her efforts and presence she has inspired many young women to study animation locally and be part of the all-female team of the region's largest digital media and animation festival, Animae Caribe.
Business Day chatted with the Animae Caribe founder and director last week and asked her about the gender balance in the animation industry generally.
"Ironically it is a male-dominated industry. Absolutely. So, it's funny that Animae Caribe and even the programme I do at UTT (University of Trinidad and Tobago) there's a very strong female presence."
She said while globally animation is male dominated, it is slightly different in TT possibly because of her presence and because she did some deliberate things to ensure that was not the case. When she first started the diploma programme in UTT in 2008 the intake was 85 per cent male, 15 per cent female, and the second intake was 90 per cent male, ten per cent female. She implemented initiatives with Microsoft such as Girls in ICT, where there were school outreach programmes that focussed on getting more females in animation.
"And now we can boast that we have 40 to 45 per cent female."
She highlighted that at other schools internationally, that ratio was not the trend, and this was because she deliberately pushed the boundaries to get more females in. Selvon Abrahams said the female students do well and come out on top compared to the males. Asked why this was so, she said society has a major role to play in it because women are generally taught that if they want to achieve something, they must work harder than men for it.
"And especially in a male-dominated industry you know you have to work harder. So that is ingrained in you. So, I don't think it's a case of they are better (than the males) but to make our voices heard and to ensure that we step over that barrier we must work harder. And I think that has a lot to do with it."
She said although her male and female students are inspired by her when they register for the animation programme, there is always an "extra energy" from the females.
"I was an inspiration for them to really give it a go. Because in their world they know if they're playing games, they're drawing, it is really a lot of young men that do it. So, seeing me, or any female I suppose, they will be inspired to try it themselves."
Getting on stage
When Animae Caribe first started in 2001 the team was a mixed gender group but there were always more female participants.
"Just the fact that I'm a female was why the other females would be attracted (to join) and feel it's okay and feel comfortable."
Selvon Abrahams said her approach may have been inspirational as well, as she always allowed other people on the team to grow.
"I know I am not going to be around forever and therefore I have to pass on certain information, ideals and concepts to a strong group of people. So that took quite some years to kind of get it. So now that I have that strong group of people, they just so happen to be female. But it is not a deliberate thing. It just happened to be like that."
She said people may be intimidated by a team of eight women.
"So, when we are doing our work, we are focused, and we are zoned-in. So, there could be an intimidation feeling there. But so far it has worked really, really well."
Working as a team of women has created a sense of family, possibly due to maternal feelings.
"We watch out for each other; we give to each other their own little space to do whatever. So, it has been a very powerful thing."
She recalled three years ago she and director Roxanne Colthrust decided to step back a bit and let the younger generation be more in the forefront, while they would be in the background raising money and getting sponsors.
"And I remember stepping off the stage and allowing the others to take over that year. And the vision of the six or eight of them on the stage was like 'oh my God. This is not normal.’
"So, for me sitting down in the audience and seeing young women doing this thing in technology, it was really inspiring that something like that could have happened. And you saw it in the audience. The audience was like 'whoa', young beautiful women doing this thing, that and normally, when you think technology, animation, gaming its normally men in the forefront. It's a magical thing."
She said the all-female team probably will likely not remain like that and reiterated that it was not planned.
Beyond the festival
The festival team includes her daughter, Sade Abrahams, and Selvon Abrahams recalled when she returned from pursuing media studies in London eight years ago, Animae Caribe did not have much of a team (just about three people). So, her daughter came on board and has been involved ever since. Abrahams said being part of the team has really honed her skills in event planning and management, so much so that she can do projects on her own. Selvon Abrahams noted this was the case with other team members, including Stef Kalloo who is involved in music and entertainment; Seatara Boodoosingh who does Carnival costumes; and Jessica Yawching who is now the head of TT Animation Network.
"So, we've seen all these young women's careers from eight years ago continue to rise. But when it is time for (the festival) they all come back again. Because it's almost like a sisterhood to support each other outside of Animae Caribe. So, they now have their own creative career and they put their bit into Animae Caribe."
She explained the festival has a very important night life section where they invite guests not just to come and do workshops but want them to be ambassadors for TT.
"We have to entertain these guests once the workshops are over, once all of that is over. Because we want them to take back a positive message of TT."
She said the team is very aware that the message the guests leave with could make or break the festival.
"We have had instances where we invited other international guests and they were like 'oh we heard from so and so that the festival was so amazing. Yes, we gonna make it.' So, they understand the message and that is from eight years of really understanding what the brand is."
Her message to young women thinking of entering the animation field is that they should be fearless and okay with making mistakes. She recalled when she came to TT the first time from London, excited to make her mark in animation. She was told she would leave in three months and she did, frustrated with trying to open her own studio in this country.
Selvon Abrahams returned to London and worked for a few animators and studios. But she thought about the fact that she did not have an opportunity to study animation in TT and she wanted to change that. She returned, teaching animation at University of the West Indies for about four years, and then she was called in to UTT by Professor Ken Julien. She recalled she advised him not to offer animation just as a course but to empower young people and get them employed.
"And that was important to me because my mission was not just to create a course, it was to create a pathway for our students to come out of that and live healthy, wonderful lives. And I guess that's what I did because we now have a BFA (bachelor of fine arts) in digital media and we are opening an outsourcing hub in Tamana for animation, games and music technology. And we are opening a studio out there so animators could be employed, and creators could get their work done in a wonderful space."
She recalled one of her professors in London telling her to view Trinidad as an empty canvas.
"And that's how I got back to Trinidad because I saw animation in the region as an empty canvas where I could fill with my colours, and I could allow other people to fill with their colours and we could create our own story. So what I would say to young women who are thinking about any dream – whether it be animation, game design, whatever – if it's something that's a little bit challenging and it's not normal for a female to do you definitely have to create your own story. This is important because a lot of people will create your story for you and tell you 'you going to leave in three months' or tell you 'no, you are not good enough.' You as a young artist, creative, whatever you are, have to create your own story. That's my mantra."
Animator, involved with Animae Caribe officially for one year as workshop coordinator
I've always been a creative person, but I wasn't always on this path. My family had other ideas for me but once I found this community of people who told me "this is your tribe; we love what you are" I knew it was the right thing for me. I got involved with Animae Caribe back when I was in UTT doing my diploma and was just a participant for a long time. But as it has evolved, they have expanded their team and they brought me on last year to help with the workshops. Honestly a lot of people still believe that it's a man's job and while there are so many men in the industry, I think the female perspective is important because we are half of the population of the world. There are still some challenges as a woman particularly when it comes to dealing with the older people in the industry, but the future is promising because the new generation is getting to see that it's really only your talent and work ethic that should matter and the playing field is levelling out.
Animae Caribe Festival manager for seven years
My inspiration to enter the animation industry was influenced by witnessing the powerful impact animation has had on the creative evolution of education. I watched as my mother (Camille Abrahams) birthed a festival that has evolved and grown into a movement that I wanted to be part of. I saw the lives it touched, as it was another form of expression and talent that needed a platform to breathe. I wanted to be part of the movement because I saw the positive effect it had on the industry and the students who needed a space that wasn’t the conventional mode of apparatus. I’ve been with the festival for seven years and every year I continue to be moved and motivated to do more.
Being a female in a male-dominated industry has its challenges but we also bring equal power and balance to the table. We have nothing to prove as our work speaks for itself. I’m not an animator but i have witnessed the growth and interest of the female animators in the industry. It is so very inspirational as I see their strength, courage and stories unfold in a very powerful way. Our goal isn’t to exclude or divide; it is to uplift, unify and build an industry that caters for all.
Being part of an all-female team has had a huge influence on my life. I admire each woman in the team as they all bring something different to the table. Roxanne and Camille’s tenacity to push through all the obstacles and challenges has shown me true strength and courage. I look at Roxanne as a mentor as she has built her career to great success, she always calls you out when you’re slipping and lifts you when you’re succeeding. I admire her ability to balance work and family life in an industry that requires so much from you. I’m learning so much from both her and Camille's examples. This team understands what we are doing for the industry and we are unified in that goal. We all work very hard but continue to maintain a clear vision and openness with positive communication and an understanding that we are in this together. I’m very fortunate to be part of this team.
Involved with Animae Caribe for about six years, three as a volunteer and three as festival coordinator.
I have always had an interest in technology, art and drama since I was young. I explored theatre and live action film, but animation really spoke to me on a greater level, and upon meeting the community I felt the most comfortable.
I first experienced Animae Caribe at the tender age of 13, and I was sold. When I eventually studied animation at UTT, I jumped at the opportunity to volunteer and offer that same experience to other young people like myself.
I think being a female in a male-dominated space can make you feel the need to be smaller and take up less space, but it also creates a resilience in you that reminds you, contrary to societal and upbringing norms for many women, that you don't need to do that and your viewpoints are also valid. Fear of discrimination and inadequacy are oftentimes what may drive women away from these male-dominated spaces.
I feel now very privileged to be in a space where seeing women in positions of power isn't strange and it has encouraged me moving forward. So, as a young woman myself I see value in uplifting other young girls to join the tech field as it is proven that talent and skill has no gender.
Working with an all-female team gives me a very interesting perspective. I also work with an all-male team, so there really is an interesting dynamic observing the difference. I think it keeps me multi-faceted. The Animae Caribe team of ladies really is a powerhouse that often feels a lot like a family. The matriarchs of the team are incredibly passionate and hard-working, and it inspires me to be the same.
Director of Animae Caribe with responsibility for public relations, sector development and funding, involved in multiple roles starting with the first festival almost 20 years ago
No, I am not an animator. But this is ground-breaking. I see the potential for an animation industry that can thrive and develop into an income generating industry for TT, diversifying the economy away from petrochemicals. Every year the festival provides a consistent platform for those who are interested to seek out and become involved in the animation industry. And every year, without fail, we have stories from participants where this exposure and access to international experts has given them a new appreciation for what’s possible for their lives, their careers, their futures. And that feeling of purpose and direction that they feel, is priceless.
Even in my other businesses, there is tendency for men to often be in charge. However, this has taught me to ensure that if I have a point to be made, I must ensure that my voice is heard. When we interact with international animation executives, its 99 per cent male. We don’t take it for granted that there may be bias, but we are ready! The work that the Animae Caribe team has done over the last 20 years has given TT an awareness, a capacity and a willingness to join the digital revolution and explore animation with young women and men having equal opportunity to become involved.
Team Animae Caribe has been able to harness female creative power, a spirit of excitement and the knowledge that we are creating a legacy, building an industry which will benefit TT. We’ve been very fortunate to have a team of young women who are committed to this work, but also understand their value and contribution to the process. We each have our strengths and weaknesses, but as a team we give each other tremendous support and guidance to ensure that the festival continues to grow. It’s been a tremendous experience seeing these women develop into the strong, creative, business minded power houses that they are. Here’s to many more festival years.