Cultural pioneers

Stabroek News
July 22, 2000

The Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM) was formed in London in l966. Its founders were Edward Kamau Braithwaite, a Barbadian historian and poet who had gone to England in l950 on a government scholarship to read history at Cambridge, and had returned for further study in l965, John La Rose who after radical political activity in Trinidad had left for Venezuela in l958 and gone to Britain in l96l where he subsequently opened the well known New Beacon Bookshop, now in Stroud Green road, Finsbury Park, which offers a wide selection of West Indian and African literature and Andrew Salkey (now dead) who had gone from Jamaica to Britain in l952, done some work for the BBC programme Caribbean Voices and become a novelist, poet and authologiser.

Two Guyanese, the writer Wilson Harris and the painter Aubrey Williams, both living in London, were among the writers and artists active in the movement from the beginning. The group's programme of activities included monthly public sessions, private sessions at each other's homes which would sometimes go all night and came to be known as warishis, art exhibitions, annual conferences and a newsletter. Braithwaite and his wife Doris, a Guyanese, did much of the organising and secretarial work until they returned to Jamaica. Efforts were made to start CAM groups in Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana. They never really took off though CAM members played a role in many cultural initiatives and published the journal Savacou.

Anne Walmsley, an English member of CAM, has written a fascinating history of the movement which petered out in l972, though its ongoing influence has been considerable . It began at the juncture of West Indian independence and sought to develop a Caribbean aesthetic and to explore new directions for Caribbean culture. C.L.R. James and Elsa Goveia were among those who addressed the meetings, some of which were held at the West Indian Students Centre in Earls Court. The discussions sometimes raised a ferment of ideas as speakers sought to develop and expand a Caribbean consciousness. Clashes with ideologues at the students centre and elsewhere also occurred over the usual dichotomy between art and politics. There were experiments with performance poetry and Yard theatre. Gordon Rohlehr, the Guyanese scholar teaching at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and a CAM member in his paper `The Creative Writer and West Indian Society' referred to the "living oral tradition of the calypso" and argued that the development of a West Indian awareness was paralleled by the beginnings of a literature rooted in the language and experience of the area. Harris spoke of developing a "consciousness of the imagination" as part of the process of defining and refining a new culture.

Significantly, Wilson Harris and Aubrey Williams were among the boldest and most profound of those striking out on new paths. Both had a deep interest in the Amerindians and Williams in the whole pre-Columbian civilisation of the Americas. Williams died in l990 at the age of 64 after a life dedicated to art. Harris is alive and still writing at the age of 79. They are both without any doubt among a very small elite of our outstanding cultural figures, consumed by a vision and a passion for their work, to whom great honour is due. Harris continues to explore the themes of cross-culturality, as he calls it, and the gaps and silences between cultures.

Let Ms Walmsley have the last word:

"The founder members named themselves as a `movement', but had no group ideology and defined no manifesto. They saw CAM as part of a wider movement for change in Caribbean society. As artists, they were concerned with specific change in the thinking and hence the creativity of Caribbean people; from a concept of their history as fragmented to one that is continuous, from a concept of their society as being without indigenous culture or tradition to one which is rich in both; from the self-contempt and dependency of a colonised people to belief in their own creative achievements and ability from mimetic, derivative cultural forms to authentic and original creativity.

The key to much of this change was, they believed, through change in the consciousness of Caribbean peoples. Harris, Williams, Braithwaite and La Rose all spoke of their awareness of the submerged, forgotten memories in the subconscious of Caribbean people, and of the urgent need for such memories to be revived and rehabilitated. Such a `vision of consciousness' - a phrase first used by Harris, quoted by CLR James, echoed by La Rose and Braithwaite - had, they believed, freed the creativity of a few Caribbean artists and would enable others to change their creative practice. La Rose recalls Harris referring to people who shared such a vision as a `community of consciousness'".

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