Time To Turn The Table

Arts 2012: Perspectives & Prospects


Listening to Scrunter annually, evokes the most defining sensations of the Season we so love. The joy he’s brought over some two decades with good music, Grande-twang and a gift for teasing art out of the ordinary is immeasurable. His work can be wickedly suggestive without ever becoming coarse. One is annually amazed both at his genius- not a word to be used lightly – and a culture that devotes so much time to such creativity, a culture that provides a space for seasonal song. This is not necessarily the case in other countries or cultures, where all that may be required is the repetition of tradition. Art and culture are very much at the heart of what we do and who we choose to be in Trinbago. Everybody in Tunapuna Market knows Ballo, who sells his ochroes on weekends, but spends all year talking about the mas he’s planning to bring or build for Carnival coming—and a week or two before Carnival, ochro gives way for mas to pass!
In Trinbago, art and culture are questions of national identity and rightly, ought to be at the centre of any agenda for national development. The fact that this is not so, even after all the work of Scrunter, Kitch and the royal court of calypsonians, after the parang and pan, after Bailey, Saldenah and Minshall; after Carlisle Chang and Leroi Clarke; after all the Ramleela ramajay and Walcott celebrating Felicity, Lloyd Best the panyards, Errol Hill the Carnival and CLR everything else, clearly suggests we’re doing something wrong. Do we even know what is right for us? Are we using the right language? The right strategies? Talking to the right people?
Perhaps we can start the year by opening a dialogue that first recognises the primacy of the people as the agents of decision and policy-making, and the politician as mere trustee. In this reversal of power, the role of the people would be to define their respective interests and to negotiate their space within a shared concept of the whole. The role of the politician as people’s representative, would be to facilitate, listen, learn, design, manage and implement- within a framework that is accountable, efficient, effective and transparent. After 50 years of state-sponsored patronage, no artist needs further evidence of the dangers of dependency.
It must be the business of artists and cultural practitioners, in particular, to keep at the forefront of national consciousness the question of the role and function of the arts in our social and economic development. To start the ball rolling, as we chip toward our golden anniversary of Independence, let’s raise some of those questions still hanging from last year.

1. What is the status of the national arts and cultural policy?
With great fanfare and free food, much money, time and energy were spent last year on consultations between the Ministry of Arts and Multiculturalism and stakeholders across Trinidad and Tobago. There was a great sense of urgency, tight deadlines, high tables, serious visages, handshakes and speeches. In general, artists and cultural workers were supportive of yet another attempt at formulating policy not only to guide access to funds, but to provide a framework for cultural development. Such a policy would indicate the seriousness of Government’s intention to fairness and transparency as well as developing new platforms for economic diversification. Papers were laid and proposals submitted, but not a word has emanated from the Ministry since on this matter. In its absence and with the National Trust Committee placed in the ‘trust’ of the ever-elusive Vel Lewis, arbitrary or self-serving decisions can be promulgated as ‘ development plans’, such as the hospitalization of Naparima Bowl.
Another round of consultations now needs to be held. These should be initiated by artists and cultural workers themselves, for the purpose of hammering out a policy which is to be then handed to the Minister of Arts and Multiculturalism for Cabinet approval. Dr. Suzanne Burke’s ‘Th?nk’ forum in February last year, was a step in this direction; the Naparima Bowl Crisis Committee another. This year should see an artists’ platform, designed to protect and advance their interests on these fronts.
2. What action is to come out of the committee on which Pat Bishop died?
In the silence of the Ministry of Arts and Multiculturalism on policy issues and its preference for the role of show-producer, the initiative for development of ‘cultural industries’ had been seized by the Ministry of Planning. Another ‘high level’ committee of experts met at the Minister’s office, consulted with stakeholders and were privy to Dr. Bishop’s demise. While accounts of this incident were dramatically narrated to the press, the report of this committee’s work and its outcomes, seems to have been buried. What should be a matter of clear public statement of fact and intent is instead shrouded in mystery. How much money has been allocated for cultural industries in 2012? What are the projects? How were they selected? What is their strategic purpose? How do they trigger transformation of the sector away from dependency and towards self-sustaining viability? How can new projects access funding?
The challenge with the economic approach to cultural industries, however, is the failure to see the linkages between the desired output and the re-positioning of people within the economy as a whole, as they become producers and entrepreneurs. This requires a shift from what currently passes as education and training into creative, risk-taking, confidence-building schooling with problem-solving capacity. Moreover, the readiness for entrepreneurial activity rests with the mind-set and attitude of the cultural producers themselves and our own willingness to re-cast ourselves in the role of controllers of our destiny rather than victims, complainers and, ultimately, someone else’s responsibility.

3. What is the Ministry of Education’s policy on Arts Education?
As noted above, any shift in the economic structure of the society should be reflected in education policy at the relevant levels.
As signatories to related UNESCO conventions and having participated in the UNESCO World Conference on Arts Education in 2007, it is assumed the Government is pursuing an enlightened policy with regard to children at all levels in the education system having the opportunity to develop their multiple intelligences. What is the current state of educational reform in this regard? What is the current state of teacher training in the visual and performing arts?

4. What is the arts policy and practice at UTT?
How is our training in the arts at tertiary level matching up to these ideals? We know that UTT under the Manning administration was the training base for the nation realizing its philharmonic aspirations and that millions were spent on pianos and employment contracts for professionals from abroad. What’s the current state of affairs there? What’s the new vision for development of the Academy?

5. What is the Sankat plan for the re-location of the Department of Creative and Festival Arts at UWI?
A similar question regarding vision and policy needs to be asked of the UWI, where the arts department is to be replaced by a car park. What plans are there for the DCFA’s re-location? Will these be disclosed in the new year in which the DCFA celebrates its 25th anniversary?
To each of these questions, the onus is placed on the arts practitioner within the relevant institution to pursue an answer. Where none is forthcoming from the authorities because they’ve probably not thought about it, the practitioner needs to set about supplying them with one.
In creating such solutions, we need to become more aware of and involved in developmental activity at the regional level as well. For instance, in order to promote cultural industries and entrepreneurship, the independent regional network of artists and arts presenters, CaribNet (of which this writer is a member), is hosting a cultural market, Arts Mart Caribe, in Suriname in October. Unlike Carifesta (also due to be held in Suriname in 2013), this market is organized by the artists themselves and will provide an on-going and revolving platform for trade with inter-regional and international markets. Further information will be posted on CaribNet’s website caribnetonline.com.
On the question of education, CXC will be introducing Performing Arts at CAPE (Advanced level) with options in Dance, Music, Drama and Film in the first instance, as well as a compulsory unit in Business for the Arts. In this way, CXC is following through with its earlier commitment to the development of arts education at CSEC: Theatre Arts, Visual Arts and Music and preparing students for what will be required for regional competitiveness in the 21st century. These are very promising initiatives for young people and practising artists seeking to build a livelihood in the Caribbean and should strengthen arguments for local attention, throughout the region, to arts education. The proposal at the recent Caricom-Cuba summit in Port of Spain, for a regional arts school in one Caribbean country, if taken beyond political ol’ talk, would need to be rationalized in relation to developmental needs, existing curricula, facilities and resources within the region, so as to maximise its possible benefits. While UWI St. Augustine remains mean and mingy in its treatment of what could be an outstanding arts programme of international repute, excellent work is being done at the Edna Manley College for the Visual and Performing Arts in Jamaica as well as El Instituto Superior del Arte in Cuba, making them strong candidates for regional expansion. None of the above, of course, has the least to do with Caricom’s Cultural Desk, which remains wooden and anachronistic, irrelevant to any developmental activity in the region – another case of public salary sans service.
The development challenge in the arts has less to do with ‘resources’ than with closing the gap between policy-maker and practitioner. In my view, the roles need to be re-imagined and the process of change undertaken by those wishing to make it happen. That’s as plain as I can say it.
In spite of all the issues above (and in some instances, because of them) arts practitioners will continue to work and create what will be, by all indications, a memorable year for the arts. We can expect signal exhibitions from established artists like Leroi Clarke, Kenwyn Crichlow and no doubt members of the Art Society. Dance is experiencing a long-awaited revival with the re-opening of the Little Carib and its successful Coco Festival, which should continue to bear fruit. Each Film Festival shows growth from strength to strength and the Secondary Schools Drama Festival should sustain its tradition as a launching pad for new, sometimes startling talent in performance and playwriting. Best Village has been reviewed and should do itself proud next round.
Perhaps, this anniversary will provide a golden opportunity as well, for practitioners to take their affairs in hand and inform those appointed to form policy what policy should be. Then, future CPEP workers may choose training in community arts as a form of work; or Ballo’s descendants could make their living designing and building mas for Carnival anywhere on the planet – just as the Chinese seem obliged to do for our Carnival; and our students will be able to explore and set free, like Scrunter, the genius trapped within.

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