Arts and culture to the rescue!
There is only one way forward for Barbados! Simply put, our country has –– by its own efforts –– to develop itself out of the condition of stasis and crisis that it has found itself in over the past decade.
And it must do so by pursuing critical reforms in its education system and also by basing its future development efforts squarely on the advanced educational, artistic and cultural standards that it achieves and upholds as a nation.
If we Barbadians adopt this type of approach to the future development of our nation, there are –– at least –– 21 developmental projects and initiatives that I would wish to recommend. Here are three of them that are based on the development of our arts and culture:
(1) Place the arts at the heart of our education system. Firstly, we Barbadians must set out to provide our nation with a revamped education system that is designed to reproduce, preserve and root us in our distinctive Bajan/Caribbean/pan-African culture, and to foster a national propensity for self-confidence, initiative, high academic and technical achievement, social solidarity, cooperative work, independent thought and self-reliance.
Thus, one of the key reforms we must make is to ensure that during the years of primary, secondary and tertiary education our youth are being systematically introduced to their own Barbadian/Caribbean/pan-African history, music, poetry, literature, folklore, dramatic plays, films, nation language, dance, visual arts, photography, craft and systems of philosophy and spirituality. Needless to say, this will require the appointment of many more music, dance, art and drama teachers to our primary and secondary schools.
Indeed, we need to take to heart the notion that a people possessed of a distinctive and unique national culture have within their grasp an “inner wealth” that has the potential to imbue them with the invaluable characteristics of self-confidence, self-respect and self-reliance, and to equip them to engage in and practise a brand of enlightened, participatory citizenship. And the best way to foster and transmit a national culture is through exposure to the arts.
We must therefore spare no effort to explore, preserve and transmit all important elements of our national culture through the vehicle of the Arts.
(2) Cultural or arts-based industries. Barbados has excelled in the sphere of literature, having produced the likes of Hilton Vaughan, Frank Collymore, George Lamming, Kamau Brathwaite, Paule Marshall, Tom Clarke, Timothy Callender and Bruce St John among many others. And yet we have done nothing to build an industry around this national resource.
Similarly, we possess –– in the person of Robyn Rihanna Fenty –– an international musical superstar who has broken virtually every conceivable record and created a “buzz” around the name of her country of origin. And yet, our Government and private sector have done nothing to capitalize on the opportunity that Rihanna’s success has presented to construct a music/entertainment industry.
We need a national programme to pull together and synergise the undoubted talent that exists in Barbados in music, drama, literature, dance, painting and performance poetry; to organize this talent along industrial lines; to give it a “Barbados” brand; and to market it to the world. We need to think of Barbados as one centralized entity, and to set out to establish a state-supported, collectivized cultural industry.
Government should therefore undertake such concrete measures as establishing a national institution with responsibility for identifying, organizing and working with artistes who possess the necessary potential; providing seed money grants to relevant artistes and projects; establishing a national policy to purchase Barbadian works of art and to install them at Government offices and public schools; modifying select school assembly halls by installing appropriate seating, lighting and other stage equipment so as to provide suitable venues throughout the island for shows; and by acquiring the Empire Theatre and developing it into a national auditorium.
It is important for us to note that over the near 50 years of our life as an Independent nation our Barbados Government has done virtually nothing to construct any specialized facility for the arts in our country!
Our Government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on providing office space for public servants in such structures as the Central Bank Building and the “Al Barack Building”. It invested $150 million on renovating Kensington Oval, and untold millions on constructing a Supreme Court Complex. But it has spent virtually nothing on providing any specialist facility for the arts.
This shameful record needs to be rectified as a matter of urgency by the Barbados Government investing in a major state-of-the-art multi-purpose performing arts facility made available to the artistic community at subsidized, concessionary rates. The very least that Government can do for the artistic community of Barbados is to provide its members with a facility they can use to make a living for themselves.
In addition, our Government needs to work with other Caribbean governments to establish a region-wide Caribbean touring circuit for our artistes, extending from the Bahamas in the North to Suriname in the South of the Caribbean. This latter objective would require that we dismantle the existing red tape that obstructs the mounting of stage presentations by our artistes outside of their home territory, and the abolishing of taxes on entertainment tickets and events.
Furthermore, we should ensure that Barbados possesses at least one national symphony orchestra, dance company and theatre company for the enjoyment of both locals and visitors to the island.
(3) Cultural and heritage tourism. The next phase in the development of Barbados’ tourism industry should be a “cultural tourism” phase centred on an appreciation for our nation’s unique cultural heritage, and on locally owned hotels and guest houses that radiate the unique arts, culture and sense of hospitality of Barbados and of their Barbadian owners.
This objective should be supported by developing a new role for the National Cultural Foundation as a chronicler and preserver of Barbados’ cultural heritage; by providing annual subventions to important cultural or artistic groups and/or important representatives of our arts and culture; by organizing a variety of events, festivals and symposia featuring Barbadian music, literature, dance, painting and other arts and marketing them to the world; and by supporting the development of culturally significant community festivals.
In addition, the entire island of Barbados –– its landscape, history, heritage, arts and culture –– should be seen as the tourism product, and not merely the traditional sun, sea and sex! Thus, we should –– for example –– develop multiple sightseeing and heritage trails (replete with proper signage) that encourage and facilitate tourists to visit and experience the entire island, thereby permitting a wide range of Barbadian product and service providers to benefit financially.
We should also establish craft markets at venues that would provide outlets for the display and sale of work produced by Barbadians who are engaged in all aspects of arts and craft, and encourage the establishment of small clubs and other performing arts venues across the island at which Barbadian artistes can ply their trades for the benefit of locals and visitors alike.
Barbadian hoteliers must be encouraged and cajoled if necessary to outfit their establishments with the works of Barbadian painters, wood carvers, sculptors, photographers, designers and craft-people. Henceforth, the typical Barbadian hotel must become a local treasure that radiates the spirit, culture, heritage and artistry of Barbados and Barbadians.
In addition our hoteliers must similarly be encouraged and cajoled to invest in and to provide good and substantial career opportunities for the entertainers and performing artistes of Barbados. Let visitors be invited to come to Barbados to –– among other things –– discover the next Rihanna! And let the various four- and five-star hotels of Barbados provide hundreds of good jobs for Barbadian singers, dancers, musicians, designers, actors, sound technicians, make-up artists, stage hands, lighting technicians, comedians –– and the list goes on.
And, of course, the entire effort must be supported by all of the institutions that are responsible for developing and promoting Barbados’ tourism product –– our Tourism Authority, the Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc., the Barbados Hotel & Tourism Association, and the Barbados Tourism Product Authority. They must –– among other things –– include cultural and artistic presentations in their overseas promotions and highlight Barbadian arts and culture as an integral part of our tourism product.
These are ideas which I would like to discuss with the artistes and cultural practitioners of Barbados. These are also ideas I would like us to set out to have implemented through a people’s activist arts and culture task force.
The time for action is now!
(David Comissiong, attorney-at-law, president of the Clement Payne Movement.)