The Mayor’s Urban Culture Intervention
By KEN CRICHLOW
The membership of the Art Society of Trinidad and Tobago was invited by His Worship the Mayor of Port of Spain to establish a public art project for “at risk youth” in city communities. The invitation has not drawn much attention within the ASTT; at least not as yet. Membership preoccupied with the annual exhibition has been receiving both raves at the painting innovations and scolds for not displaying all the artwork selected by the jury.
The invitation is seen as an outreach initiative amid the national soul-searching about the designated ‘hotspots’ of the city. It is understood first, as an opportunity to work with youth who are, to varying degrees, perceived to be marginalized by or excluded from their communities. The ASTT meetings in response are well attended and clearly shaped by the expectation of an exciting social programme.
The members of the committee, about eight persons so far, are enthusiastic. They want to show how the ASTT can contribute to rebuilding communities. The members of the outreach committee range widely in their social and professional backgrounds: graduate students from the UWI, art teachers, members of the Society’s executive, practising artists and community activists. Together they are a vibrant mix of persons.
Anyone listening to their meetings will get some penetrating insights to the cause of suffering in ‘hotspot’ communities. Accordingly, they have shaped some thoughtful and innovative practical projects, which articulate visual arts studios and workshops for creating three-dimensional murals, carnival costumes and posters with young persons in their diverse community settings.
Members feel a need to make things that float and change and glide through the imagination. Their plans want to capture the social function of art. Specifically, its mission of artistic performance to enhance the creative space in society. In their thinking, creative activity can uncover the much deeper philosophical question of the importance of visual expression in the acts of making things; emphasizing their concern with transmitting art skills in the community.
In practical ways, members want their art projects to develop some ‘silk purses’ out of complex crisis situations. Art as means of uplifting ‘at risk’ youth community approaches the significance of the individual as social intervention; a strategy as refreshing as it is urgent.
Some members of the committee are conflicted by why visual artists are the only group invited to work (for free). They ask: has the Chamber of Commerce been invited? Why are the lawyer organizations not offering their services? They suspect that visual art projects may be perceived as a way of distracting community, a way of offering ‘soft’ ‘no-cost’ diversions from the combination of ‘worklessness’ and poor self image within the lethal mix of a crumbling economy, petty criminality, politics and perceptions of social injustice. In other words, some members of the outreach committee see a need for the financial and legal institutions to join into the process of rebuilding and restoring cultural life in the community. It is not enough for institutions and professional organizations to be onlookers to the spectacle of socio-cultural collapse; we must be proactive in re-engaging young people within their communities.
Clearly, these are ideas and concerns that should properly mould a wider public conversation about the role of the creative arts in the ethos of society. Today much of the creative arts is perceived as a leisure pursuit, a hobby; a way of keeping the young from crime. The visual arts are not thought to be serious work, merely part-time preoccupations. As a consequence, visual artists should not expect to be employed—to paint pictures or make things, to illustrate stories or devise murals! It is as if the creative acts that engage the senses, traditions and communication processes in our society are irrelevant.
Somehow, we have come to guarantee the right of health workers to their employment, teachers to educate, police to secure the society. Why are we unable to afford the employment of artists, even to explore and enhance the traditions, heritage and sensibilities of our communities?
If we are to advance our way to the future, we must work urgently to stimulate the creative and cultural arts in our many floundering and neglected communities. Art studios and workshops can create the imaginative space in which persons are drawn into the sensory, interactive experiences of expressive culture. They will encourage learning and promote alternatives, especially in the difficult and challenging situations in which creative thinking is mandated.
Indeed, much of this knowledge about the role of visual arts in community comes from past experiences with the St Ann’s community group and its attempts to resolve issues connected to the restitution of the watershed, with the Toco Foundation and the Toco community murals, with the ‘reach out and touch’ project, and with the Blanchisseuse community. It is clear, this well-meaning idea of his Worship the Mayor may have been concerned with promoting trends to reduce crime and provide jobs. Good intentions must also take steps to address the complex cultural need of individuals and persons in communities.
Our social challenges are not only with ‘at risk youth’. We are living through the most urgent social event since the process of urbanization began during the early 20th century. It is clear that our immediate socio-cultural challenge is in the demographic fact that more people than ever now live in urban communities. A fact that sets out the decline of the village as a site of cultural focus.
The traditional nexus between the village and culture is now a specie of nostalgia. Such is the paradigm shift in our society. Recent events show we all depend on ‘services’ instead of our neighbours to bring the food, the power and help in times of emergency. The overtopping rivers, landslides and physical disruption of communities show that our urban places are as incoherent and needy as rural villages. They reflect the unconsidered changes in the structure of community. It is urgent that we find effective ways of engaging with these facts of cultural history in Trinidad and Tobago.
The challenges are: Can we devise innovative ways of “serving” community through long term artistic projects? Can we create cultural institutions to improve our urban culture, encouraging the positive social skills that will regenerate the self-confidence with which we once expressed our historic folk traditions? Could the Mayor’s invitation be an opportunity to forge new urban heritage?