Making Space For Art To Grow


Dean Arlen

So many of his predecessors have tried and failed, but artist Dean Arlen arrives at this moment undaunted, fully prepared to take the fight forward. His mission: to create a sustainable critical forum where artists and art aficionados are able to seriously discuss the role of Art in Trinidad and Tobago.
This is the idea that informed last month’s forum at the National Museum and Art Gallery which was the brainchild of Arlen, supported by the Museum’s Acting Curator, Nimah Muwakil.
The fact that such a forum was held and well-attended was a success in itself, as this open discussion was a continuation of a forum held at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus, last October. For Arlen, these discussions were an artform in themselves- a performance art of some sort. But who were the performers? They were the artists, of course, who were arguing the case for such matters as the expansion of Art Education.
However, for Arlen, the issue of economic viability is an equally important factor. For him, progress for the Arts begins with a national policy framework which locates Art Education within a development programme for a viable creative industry.
Arlen contends that the survival of the Visual Arts is highly dependent on the support of three pillars: (1) The State, (2) the Private Sector and (3) the Artists. All three, he says, must be in harmony in order to ensure the success of the Visual Arts and to create a visual identity for Trinidad and Tobago, both of which remain elusive. Like other artists, Arlen holds the view that the rampant commercialism and narcissism that dominate Carnival are the consequence of the chaos that has been bred by this lack of identity and self-recognition.
For him, this condition is so extreme that it has rendered us “mentally diseased” and “schizophrenic”.
“We laud ourselves with the apparent ease with which we can switch from a Jamaican accent to an American accent and back to our normal Trinidadian tongue”, Arlen laments. He shares the view of fellow artist Rubadiri Victor that the National Academy for the Performing Arts (NAPA) stands out as the most prominent affirmation of the great chasm that exists between the State and the Artists and echoes Lloyd Best who often described Trinidadians as “shopkeepers”- great at peddling the wares created by other people while creating nothing of our own.
Still, Arlen remains optimistic. It had taken him four years, he said, to finally get the University of the West Indies, through the Department of Creative and Festival Arts, to host last October’s discussion on creative industry. Additionally, he salutes Nimah Muwakil and the National Museum and Art Gallery for combining exhibition with discussion so that the exhibition event goes beyond the opening cocktail party and a display of works of art.
In stepping forward for Art, Arlen joins a long line of Artists who have lobbied for a national policy towards the Arts and for an incentivised environment in which Trinidad and Tobago’s Art can survive and thrive. As someone with a lifelong passion and commitment to the Arts, I wish him great success, recognising that he is now treading where so many other brave souls have dared to tread, often stumbling and falling. In this round, the baton has been passed to him.

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