Guyana proved a major force at Carifesta XIII

Guyana proved itself a major force in Carifesta XIII. The performances and exhibitions commanded attention and made a notable impression upon all, it seemed, in Barbados last month.

It can be asserted that Guyana appears to take Carifesta more seriously than the other participating countries with the result that it made more of an impact than others. So concerted was the Guyanese effort, that the country was able to outshine territories with greater reputations in some areas of the arts at Carifesta.

Barbados, itself, despite the important home advantage, did not stand out. The local output was not often memorable, and ironically, what the host country will be remembered for were the administrative horrors of the early days and the fact that it failed to sell Carifesta to its own population.

This was most unlike the case of Suriname in 2003 and 2006. Barbados did take the festival performances to a number of communities like the Foundation School in Oistins and Speighstown where the audience turnout was somewhat better, as was the case in Haiti in 2015.  Audiences were overwhelming in the large popular stage shows such as the Bay Street Esplinade and the mega concert after the closing ceremony at Kensington Oval. Those, however, were in the heart of the popular culture with reigning soca artistes and would have excited the crowd with or without Carifesta.

Unlike many other territories, Guyana took advantage of participation in almost every activity and made its presence known in drama, dance, steel pan, art, fashion, film and animation. In the process, it eclipsed some of the countries that historically, are more advanced in certain disciplines in the arts.

It was certainly “advantage, Guyana” in the series of Country Nights staged at the Grand Market at the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre. Guyana obviously gained by taking this seriously as an artistic production and as such, the “Guyana Night” was outstanding. Other territories, like Barbados in the Opening Ceremony, showed no sign of imagination and did not take the presentation seriously. They basically presented a few items from their repertoire in what was at best a minor variety show.

Guyana, on the other hand, attempted a comprehensive production with design and shape as a stage performance. It carried a theme, expressed in words in a tiresome title too lengthy and cumbersome, with not an artistic note in it. But it was expressed in music, dance, drama and the spoken word in a performance that presented an experience in Guyanese culture and made quite an impact as art.

It was a statement carried through by the steel band, with drums, Indian dance and chutney. The strong theme and image were patriotic as was obviously expounded in spoken word poetry, surprisingly a bit rare in Carifesta. The overall effect was colourful with a touch of spectacle, creating a show that eloquently sold the nation in content and different theatrical forms.  Sometimes it is hard to make a patriotic pitch and still pass as art, but Guyana managed a production that was effective in making that very unobtrusive.

Some of the theatrical forms used there were pieces on their own performed elsewhere. These were outstandingly shown in the drama presentations. Guyanese folklore, traditions and oral literature were recurring themes. All the drama was the work of the National Drama Company (NDC), which presented short plays: Ol Higue directed by Al Creighton, Baccoo by Sonia Yarde directed by Nicola Moonsammy and Queh Queh by Subraj Singh directed by Esther Hamer.  There were spoken word pieces created by Keon Heywood and Mark Luke Edwards. While this fast-rising performance form was listed as an area to be highlighted in Carifesta, presentations of it by the countries was minimal.

In these bits of drama, Guyana led the way. Stage forms used were instructive in that they exhibited a difference in innovative stage work not the norm across the festival. There were uses of Caribbean performance, story-telling techniques, and imaginative stagecraft.

To continue Guyana’s leadership, the play, Masque, written and directed by Subraj Singh and performed by the NDC, was the stand-out piece in all the Carifesta theatre. It was very intense theatre, a cultural experience about Guyana’s Amerindians in ancient times and the consequences of history in the present and future of the nation. The play is post-colonial and a historical drama dealing with the arrival of Europe in the New World and the consequential cycle of conflict, war and genocide.

The play, in content and style, is sharply characterized by violence and it is a Senecan tragedy of vengeance. It relates history and post-colonialism to the Guyanese landscape, the environment and sustainability in telling the tragedy of the ancient tribe, their heritage and destiny. Very evident, is the play’s expression of feminism as it is warped and manipulated by the spirit of a woman; it is set in a very patriarchal tribal society of warriors but dominated by the female will of not only the avenging spirit, but her daughter and the white woman who infiltrates the tribe for purposes of destruction and conquest.

In Carifesta XIII, Masque, like the other Guyanese drama pieces, was a leader in theatrical form.  Its post-modern techniques explored the employment of dance, mime and drums, inter alia. The closest in terms of interesting theatrical forms in this Carifesta came from Trinidad through a company led by veteran actress and dancer Belinda Barnes who created the role of the Bolom in Walcott’s Ti Jean and His Brothers in 1970.

Her revisit of Ti Jean in Barbados was affected by the fact that Carifesta limited all plays to a maximum of one hour. This resulted in a reduced production of the play using minimalist theatre and a narration. The rest of the play was dramatized and actors/actresses switched roles and doubled in a quite Brechtian-styled theatre. But the production was lazy in its execution of techniques and only half-developed. The narration was plainly read with no attempt at dramatic imagination. The other interesting attempt at form was also from Trinidad – an old piece by Victor Questel – with street beggars in a parody.

In other art forms, Jamaica has always been a power-house in dance (as in drama), and in Barbados, showed that it is not only the National Dance Theatre Company that can be in command. Another Jamaican group presented a masterful work of choreography with drums and, additionally, advanced experimental forms were articulated by L’Antoinette Steines at the Symposia where Guyana’s presentations on Wilson Harris and on Caribbean drama were major features.

But Guyana again showed how its very serious approach to Carifesta presentation resulted in very effective and commanding performances. The National Dance Company demonstrated that it was not interested in individual dances, but in a full representation of Guyanese dance. This was achieved by an examination of Guyanese culture and traditions through dance, employing all forms – Indian, Amerindian, folklore, modern and experimental – to give a very good spectrum of the form in Guyana. Indian classical and folk were demonstrated as well by the Nadira and Indranie Shah Troupe.

The situation with Guyana’s National Steel Orchestra was another in which it did not come from the country with the long-standing reputation as the steel pan capital of the world. Yet, in Barbados Guyana exhibited high-level music, taking Carifesta seriously. Trinidad did not bring an equal effort and it was Guyana that was talked about.

If one followed Carifesta from the point of view of the Barbadian press, one got an impression of Guyanese dominance. It was said that the Carifesta art exhibition was the Guyana booth.  Photographs and coverage of Guyanese work were repeated with a great deal of attention paid to Winslow Craig as well as to Stanley Greaves. Steve Bravo of Bravo Arts is a different brand of artist whose body art was impactful and exceedingly popular in the Grand Market as it was because of his images on show during the Opening Ceremony. He also supported the drama presentations as a make-up artist. Meanwhile, in fashion there were highly favourable reports about the work of Olympia Small-Sonaram and Marcie De Santos.

Tributes to Guyana were in abundance in other areas such as the grand and spectacular Exhibition of Guyanese Literature. This displayed leading Guyanese literature and writers along with the Guyana Prize Exhibition and the Guyana classics, accompanied by a booklet or catalogue related to the vast range of work.

But while the Grand Market was very busy with its several varieties of merchandising including a general array of products quite outside of the artistic industries, the festival as a whole did not reach maximum achievement because of the repeated poor houses for the performing arts. This was indeed a major weakness that contributed to the decline in audiences and exchange, where only few members of delegations seemed to have seen the work of delegations from other countries.

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