Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ARTS-CARIBBEAN: Carifesta Overcomes a Comedy of Errors

Peter Richards

PORT OF SPAIN, Oct 11 2006 (IPS) - If only the entire Caribbean Festival of Arts (Carifesta) had been conducted as smoothly as it went on the final night.

“No one should be surprised at the many somewhat comical incidents arising from the organisation of what should, after so many years, have been a slickly orchestrated international showcase of Caribbean culture and entertainment,” said the Trinidad Express in an editorial.

“The festival never enjoyed the éclat nor crowds that it deserved, to say nothing of the overall efficiency that the other islands must have been expecting from a country that makes bold to set itself up as a leader among the Caribbean island chain,” the paper said, adding “we could and should have done better”.

Veteran Caribbean journalist Rickey Singh wrote that apart from Trinidad and Tobago, he could not recall any front page prominence given by any leading regional newspaper to the festival.

“When not sparse, subsequent news coverage often reflected an unfortunate parochial orientation in reports on this grand multi-faceted, pan-Caribbean celebration of the ways of life,” he wrote.

Carifesta limped to a close over the weekend after 10 days of what the chairman of the organising committee Louis Lee Singh admitted had been of a case of “putting too much on the plate”.

Lee Singh, who took over the chairmanship just three weeks before the festival opened, said that he had decided to put his experiences down on paper so that the planners of the next Carifesta “would not go through the same hell”.

Caribbean Community (CARICOM) chairman Edwin Carrington said this Carifesta would be seen as the bridge between what the festival is now and what it eventually would become.

“Just as life is not static so also is cultural expression not static, for it reflects life and will evolve. From here on we will see a new Carifesta model emerging beginning with the next scheduled Carifesta in 2008,” he told the closing ceremony.

Carifesta is a project of the Regional Cultural Committee, the advisory body to the Caribbean ministers of culture, and is currently supervised by the CARICOM Secretariat.

The 10-day festival, held under the theme “Celebrating Our People, Contesting The World Stage”, offered performers, artistes and writers from 35 countries in the English, French, Spanish and Dutch-speaking Caribbean, as well as from Latin America and even further afield, an avenue for showcasing their talents.

Outstanding Caribbean writers such as the Barbadian Austin Clarke delighted the audience with readings from his highly acclaimed work “The Polished Hoe”, which the London Times described as “an extraordinary tale of lust and oppression”.

But local censors were also at work during the festival, pulling the plug on the Suriname play “No More Stories” because it breached the outdated 1931 Dance Hall Act that bars obscene language in public places and even provides for a monetary fine and/or jail term.

“I am shocked and confused. This is the first time in nearly 20 years of theatre that my play has been cancelled,” said playwright Sharda Ganga, who has staged productions in Mexico, Cuba, Holland, Curacao and St. Kitts.

“Carifesta organisers should know better. If you organise a festival to celebrate arts and culture, you should celebrate it in all forms,” she said.

Carifesta’s artistic director, Earl Lovelace, himself an accomplished writer, agreed, saying the decision to halt the play “raises a very important question as to what is artistic freedom”.

“I think it is very wrong to have pulled the play. We have the same question in terms of books, whether somebody has language which the writer in many cases doesn’t use ordinarily but which the characters they are using would use,” he added.

The host prime minister, Patrick Manning, said that the Caribbean should now consider marketing the culture of the region as a serious aspect of Caribbean life, moving away from “what has been for centuries regarded as nonsensical, or ‘bachannal'”.

“The time has come to work fervently on reaping the rewards of our rich cultural blessings. Let us therefore take our culture to the four corners of the earth. Ladies and gentlemen, when all is added up, we truly have a lot to offer to ourselves, to celebrate, and to offer to the rest of the world,” he said.

One problem in recent years has been a lack of funding. At the last festival held in Suriname three years ago, it was recommended that after 30 years and eight Carifestas, there was need to revamp the festival, taking into consideration the lessons learnt from the old format but ensuring that in the quest to modernise the event, the region kept the focus on strengthening its authentic Caribbean forms and talents.

Surinamese President Ronald Venetiaan, who has lead responsibility for culture within CARICOM, said that among the main elements in “re-inventing Carifesta” were the establishment of a permanent Festival Directorate and creating a fund to ensure its sustainability.

Under the new strategic plan, Carifesta will be staged every two years with the Bahamas being the venue in 2008. The plan also outlined a new financial arrangement for Caribbean countries.

Trinidad and Tobago said it spent five million dollars to host this year’s festival and that it is still awaiting the financial contributions totaling three million dollars more from the other participating states.

Carrington acknowledged that mega-events such as Carifesta should be managed in a fashion that “fills rather than drains the public purse, given the direct and indirect benefits it brings to various sectors such as tourism and travel, restaurants and nightlife”.

He said he was also pleased that the first test of the plan for a new Carifesta would be carried out in the Bahamas, where it will be held for the first time, and in a CARICOM state with vast experience in tourism.

The Bahamas boasts a rich cultural heritage including its famous Junkanoo, crafts, art and local music, Carrington noted.

He probably took his cue from the Trinidad and Tobago Culture Minister Joan Yuille Williams, who despite the problems that plagued the festival here – and no doubt impressed by the closing ceremony – said, “I continue to be amazed each Carifesta not only at the abundant of talent that our region as a whole has thrown up, but also at the wide variety of artistic offerings we put on display”.

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