With Carifesta a mere week or so away, and with Barbados and most of the Caribbean enmeshed in social and governmental dysfunction and crisis, the fundamental question that arises is as follows:- Will we use Carifesta to launch a powerful cultural and artistic campaign to regenerate our Barbadian and wider Caribbean nation, or will we squander this priceless opportunity that has come our way?
You see, the Arts are not merely about entertainment. In fact, the truly indispensable role that the Arts and the artiste must play in a society is to identify and explore the critical existential challenges and contradictions that the society is facing, and to pre-figure ways in which such challenges and contradictions may be overcome or transcended.
Thus, when a society finds itself in deep crisis ‒ as Barbados and several other Caribbean societies are at present ‒ it is crucial that our artistes be called upon to plumb the depths of our pathology and help to craft a response.
Indeed, this was the original vision upon which Carifesta was founded.
Carifesta, as some of us may be aware, was the brainchild of the late President Forbes Burnham of Guyana. And, having conceived of the idea of a Pan-Caribbean Arts Festival, Burnham had the good sense to arrange to bring the most creative and outstanding Caribbean artistes of the day to Guyana in order that they might confer together and generate ideas for the construction of the inaugural Carifesta.
The artistes who gathered in Georgetown, Guyana in February 1970 included such giants as Kamau Brathwaite, Jan Carew, Tom Clarke, John La Rose, Earl Lovelace, Beryl McBurnie, Shake Keane, Andrew Salkey, Sam Selvon, Ivan Van Sertima, Wilson Harris, A J Seymour, Michael Gilkes, Philip Moore, V S Reid, Karl Parboosingh, and Aubrey Williams. And it fell to A J Seymour, the legendary Guyanese poet and editor of the Kyk-over-Al literary journal, to speak on behalf of his fellow artistes, and to address the opening session of Burnham’s ‘Caribbean Writers and Artists Convention’.
Andrew Salkey, in his subsequently published book entitled Georgetown Journal, records the fundamental point that A J Seymour made about the role of the Caribbean artist as follows:
“The creative artists of the Caribbean have a very special cultural burden to bear, and a very demanding role to play in the total social and political development of the area. They are also involved, or ought to be, in an unwritten educational programme and praxis for all the people; in short, the Caribbean cultural contributors must see themselves as a vanguard who will help to liberate the creative energies of the Caribbean people, and help all our societies to create a new life out of the chaos of underdevelopment.”
This then is the opportunity that the staging of Carifesta in Barbados provides us: an opportunity to bring together the most committed and creative artistes of the Caribbean and to charge them with the mission of investigating the fundamentals of our condition and helping us to collectively chart a way forward.
Are we conscious of this priceless opportunity, and have we prepared ourselves to grasp it? Or will we, as tends to be our practice in the Caribbean, simply go through the motions of holding a relatively meaningless event?