Whither Carifesta?
Arts on Sunday
by Al Creighton
Stabroek News
May 11, 2003

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Whither will you go ? and what can you do ?

(Daniel Defoe)

Wandering they know not whither.

(Charles Dickens)

It is Carifesta season once again and the Caribbean region is preparing for the eighth celebration of its artistic product. The Caribbean Festival of the Arts, popularly known as Carifesta, started in Guyana in 1972 and is scheduled to reconvene in Suriname later this year. It is therefore about to complete a kind of cycle, since after having been hosted by different countries covering the entire arc of Caribbean islands, it will now return to the Guianas, just next door to the place where it began.

But after 31 years and seven regional festivals what has Carifesta achieved and in what direction is it heading? Has the dream which inspired its founding fructified or have any of its objectives been realized? Has this periodic coming together of the arts and artists made it any easier to keep track of what is generated in the diverse corners of the region? Or has it helped to develop the arts, improve their techniques or bring them to a wider audience? The words of critic Bridget Jones remind us of these pertinent questions when she observed that it is when writing about the theatre in the Caribbean that "a critic must remember modesty". It is very difficult for anyone to keep track of what is produced in so many different territories, but this real problem is not fully appreciated, she warns, because everyone gets drunk on the Carifesta spirit. The fact that the festival does happen every so often is distractingly exciting and lulls all into a euphoric sense of achievement.

All, perhaps, except Derek Walcott, because a much more scathing condemnation comes from the region's most celebrated artist. Walcott declared in 1989 that Carifesta is a disgraceful waste of money (interviewed by Al Creighton in Sunday Stabroek). He charges that it is nothing more than an expensive fête every few years after which the artists return home to poverty. Nothing is done for them or for the arts in the intervening years. This, he says, is a sign of the regional governments' betrayal of the artists and continued neglect of the arts. Walcott believes Carifesta should be scrapped and the sums of money squandered on it put instead, into development. He argues that more will be achieved if funds of the same value are used to provide scholarships, infrastructure and other support within each territory. The festival has continued since that intervention, but has anything happened to prove him wrong?

Carifesta originated in Guyana in 1972. Credit for it has been given to Forbes Burnham, whose government hosted the first event in Georgetown. It was a part of the fairly new wave of nationalism engulfing the administration and the people after Independence, but particularly closer towards 1970. The same spirit that moved the nation into Republicanism supported a popular quest for a post-colonial political and cultural identity for which the arts were seen as an important vehicle or partner.

However, Carifesta has its true beginnings in 1970 around a conference of Caribbean artists, which Guyana hosted, and it is this that came out of the Burnham vision. It invited to Guyana many of the leading writers, musicians, painters and sculptors for a colloquium in Georgetown and it is out of those interactions that the festival was born. Significantly, it was one of the last activities of Martin Carter in his role as Minister of Information and Culture, a post from which he resigned soon after.

Renowned Jamaican writer Andrew Salkey records high praise for Carter and his role in this development in his travel book, Georgetown Journal, which contains an account of the conference. Here Salkey joins a number of prominent writers who have been impressed with Guyana. Interestingly, Naipaul is very kind to BG in The Middle Passage, that notorious document in which he subjects the region to his most severe critical damnation. In those pages, he admires the Jagans in particular, and writes favourably about Burnham and his oratorical dexterity. But foremost among the writers in praise songs for Guyana is Kamau Brathwaite, who sees it as a country with a spirit so powerful and indomitable that it is no surprise that Carifesta began there.

Since then, however, the festival has been sporadic, never having found a permanent place on Caricom's calendar. Jamaica hosted the second celebration in 1976. This was one of the largest, expanded to include a number of Latin American nations. It reflected Michael Manley's new experiments with socialism, very willing to play his part in the renewed regionalism of Caricom (after the Chaguaramus Accord) and a socialist emphasis on the arts. Kingston's Carifesta is the only one to have produced significant literary publications, including a volume of prose edited by novelist John Hearne and a collection of drama put together by Errol Hill and Noel Vaz. This kind of output has never been repeated, although there were substantial literary symposia in Trinidad later on.

Unfortunately, by 1979 the Burnham initiative had turned back on itself in ironic fashion. The proclaimed spirit that inspired artists in 1972 had turned malignant during the haunting political nightmare that followed, and free expression, and even Carter himself, came under sustained vicious attack. Yet, in contrast to the new negative climate in Guyana, it was the closeness that developed among Manley, Castro and Burnham that inspired Carifesta's continuation in Havana in 1979. Cuba took a step forward, encouraged by the recent alliances with the Anglophone Caribbean through Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana and Grenada. Again, the communist interest in the arts was a factor in Carifesta finding a willing venue three years after Kingston.

This was accompanied by political controversies because some West Indian nations remained reserved where the embraces that welcomed Cuba were concerned. Barbados was one of four Caribbean countries that admitted the widely ostracized Cubana Airlines, but it resented the idea of its artists travelling to Cuba and those who went to the festival there were blacklisted. Clearly the objectives of regional cultural brotherhood and the universal language of art were not yet in sight. Carifesta's artistic weaponry had still not served to dent the armour of traditional politics in Caricom. Yet, this kind of widening of horizons was surely one of the aims of the festival.

In spite of that, it did inspire sufficient fervour among the nations of the Community because the next venue was offered only two years later by Barbados, as the ironies continued. It was scheduled, however, just some three weeks after a General Election, which must have put the administration in some difficulty. There was initial chaos before the Barbadian army came to the rescue. However, despite the alacrity with which another nation rushed to host the festival which was then riding high on popular success, the prolonged suspension of the event which followed that suggested that serious problems still remained. It was eleven years before Carifesta saw the light of day again.

This yawning gap emphasized four impediments: the limit that exists to this kind of progress, the truncated gains achieved by the initiative, the great financial burden, and the severe test to their administrative resources that Carifesta is to host governments. Jamaica did indicate a willingness to be the venue again in 1989, but that was blown away by the devastating visit of Hurricane Gilbert.

Another of the benefits promised by the regional arts festival was the exchange of experience and an opportunity to get acquainted with each other's art. But this was shot down when the celebration was finally renewed in Trinidad in 1992. The schedule was busy, venues were far flung across the country and timetables ran simultaneously so that it was most unlikely that performers from one country had any chance of seeing performances from another. By the time Trinidad volunteered to be hosts again in 1995, another retrograde dimension had become evident. Some territories had long ceased to send their strongest delegations; some of the best-known acts in the region had other engagements elsewhere or were absent for some other reason. The 1995 Carifesta was not a bad year for drama, but clearly if only a few more strong plays had come forward the festival would have had a problem accommodating them all. It was perhaps just as well that Jamaica's famous NDTC did not attend.


We acknowledge the valuable assistance given by Marcia Burrowes, leading Barbadian actress and director; lecturer in the Dept. of History and Philosophy, UWI, Cave Hill.

The difficulties of finding a host continued because there was another vacuum of five years before St. Kitts volunteered in 2000. This is so far the only time an OECS state has taken on the burden. This island also had to survive the scare of another hurricane in order to stage Carifesta against the odds of very limited space and accommodation. The size of contingents had to be limited, forcing a country like Venezuela to adopt coping strategies, which included a boat to house their delegation.

In the light of all this, the offer by Suriname to stage the eighth Caribbean Festival of Arts is very significant. It is the second venue outside of the Anglophone Caribbean and reflects the expansion of Caricom itself. As the event returns to South America, it is being staged by a nation known for its consistent enthusiastic support for Carifesta. Here we find some of the most positive gains that may be claimed to date, because through Carifesta the performing arts of Suriname have been truly exposed and have become known in the rest of the Caribbean. The names of Robin Dobru, performance poet and Henk Jon, theatre director are outstanding examples, but above all, there is the acquired fame of the Surinamese traditional performing arts, particularly dance theatre and music.

This country’s profound history of maronage has served to make it a virtual cultural time capsule in which a pronounced cultural identity has been preserved in forms very close to what they were in times of slavery. The traditional rituals, dance, music, dress, language and theatrical acts of the maroons are still in practice among the “Bush Negroes”, Saramaccans and Djukas, as well as other nations from Africa, India and what is now Indonesia. Consistently these have been among the Surinamese contingents to Carifesta.

Going to Suriname in 2003 is therefore like returning home, not only to the Guiana World where Carifesta was born, but to the cradle, to the roots of Caribbean indigenous culture. This resembles what Carifesta is primarily about or should be about: a native Caribbean identity expressed through the arts. The outreach aspects of this are then manifested in the fact that the host this year is one of Caricom’s newest members. Yet, although Suriname exhibits all these qualities and although this new initiate into the “Caricom Single Market and Economy” has stepped forward to continue this artistic exchange, the question is still relevant; whither Carifesta ?

Those positive qualities described above that may define the aims of the festival belong to Suriname, not necessarily to other territories or even to Carifesta itself. The same level of native tradition, for example, is not to be found in the exhibits of most of the other participating countries. But one could go further than that. Carifesta has not advanced very far on the slow, elongated trek to Caribbean unity. Despite its 31 years of existence, there is no freedom of movement across borders for artists or artistic exchanges. Neither artists nor the public at large know much about each other’s artistic product beyond those highly commercial forms of popular music. Exchanges and visits by neighbouring groups are rare and funding difficult to find. What is more, there have been lengthy Caricom meetings, policies on culture, repeated agreements but no number of inter-regional visits in successive Carifestas has influenced the implementation of these by the politicians.

Caribbean governments have not mustered the political will or the resources to back up their words and Summit agreements. It is significant that Carifesta has still not found an official place on the regional agenda so that it is still left totally voluntary and therefore sporadic. Its costs are near to prohibitive and Walcott’s demand about spending instead on internal development probably has more converts than the converts are willing to admit.

However, Carifesta has survived; and this is its most encouraging factor. International arts festivals, apart from those in film (especially cinema) and popular music, which belong to a lucrative commercial industry, do not have a history of good survival rates. Among the mighty ventures that have not been heard of recently are the great Commonwealth festivals staged by the Commonwealth Institute in London, FESTAC, started in Lagos, Nigeria in 1977, the grand Colloquium of the Arts started in Dakar, Senegal, the much smaller Battersea Theatre Festival in London and the Caribbean’s TIE (Theatre Information Exchange).

Even in its irregular appearances, Carifesta’s 31 years and 8 renewals present a much better record than any of those. And still, the answer to the question “Whither will you go and what can you do?” might yet be that, with Carifesta that promised so much, Caribbean nations are “wandering they know not whither”.

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