Above: The Strange Tale of an Island Shade (2009), examines shade and race in Trinidad and Tobago. Choreography by Sonja Dumas – photo by Jeffrey Chock
By Sonja Dumas, June 17, 2018, first published in four installments in NewsdayTT in July 2018.
Back in the late 90s, I began writing articles about cultural development as it pertained to the arts, and what that meant for Trinidad and Tobago. A good few were published in the daily newspapers, and it seemed that I was on a roll. Senior journalists applauded me; one even asked if I would be the dance critic for the paper. I shied away since, as a dancer myself, I felt that people would feel that I had no right to judge their work as their peer – and most certainly not as their junior.
So I shrank away into my own world, behind closed door, trying to make the cultural milieu of Trinidad and Tobago more ready for world consumption. I had figured out since my days of business school that the arts really held a comparative advantage for us in the Caribbean; our largest identifiable export is probably music and Carnival. Our culture is rich, and as clichéd as that sounds, it is true. The festivals, the doubles, the liming, even the bacchanal. Imagine if we could export the art of liming as a service.
The arts are a staple for me. I’ve been training and performing as a dancer from very young, and much more recently, I’ve begun making documentary and narrative films about the Caribbean. I was always drawn to the arts. They were, and still are, my heartbeat. So I dare to call myself an artist (mainly of dance and of film) and also a cultural planner and producer. I’ve travelled a lonely road, leaving the corporate world, creating work of my own that isn’t high consumption (read: choreography and low-budget films).
At the same time, I try to help other local artists – both performing and visual – to understand how to approach their craft and how to approach the management of it. For decades I’ve listened to scores of erudite, well-paid analysts at cultural conferences wax intellectual on what is needed. I’ve made a few of those presentations myself (rarely for payment, might I add. In fact, I’ve often had to pay to participate). I’ve heard politicians outline strategies for diversification into the arts sector.
I’ve seen private and national organizations dedicated to the development of the arts come and go. And I’ve most certainly seen the persistence of dysfunctional ones. There are a few, which, in my estimation, are the backbone of the cultural development of this country, precisely because many people don’t know about them or about how hard they work all year round. All these organizations do is their work, and they have a keen understanding of what that work is.
But in general, there’s a recurring institutional problem – one that jeopardizes cultural development at its very core. About ten years ago, my mother, a straight shooting, no-water-in-her-mouth-when-she-ready kind of woman, and ever the incisive analyst, tried to drum some sense into me, as mothers do.
She had witnessed my departure from a good corporate job years before and had seen my descent into a life of sporadic performances and uncertain income. She went back to the days before I met the world and it met me, when she and my father were living in Europe as a young couple.
She would go, she said, to galleries of modern art and sit and contemplate the meaning of a 6×9 feet almost all-white painting against a white wall, and consider it art. She understood what I was trying to do with my contemporary dance in Trinidad and Tobago – I was trying to get people to grasp the idea behind the art without being literal, but, she said, “Nobody understands what you’re trying to do.” All she could see was me beating my head against a brick wall.
She wasn’t all wrong then, and she’s still not all wrong now. While the visual and performing arts world does indeed have its pockets of strong traditional and contemporary activity (including several still-intriguing aspects of Carnival and Best Village), the average person still isn’t educated enough in the basic history and function of the arts to form cogent opinions of what is important, why it’s important, and why it should be preserved and/or developed.
There’s a kind of ingrained cultural semi-literacy that is no fault of the population. Is it perhaps the failure of the education system to understand the civilizing nature of the arts, and to deliver it to the schoolchildren of the nation on a consistent and genuine basis? While there have been visual arts and music options for high school exams for decades, and the CXC performing arts curriculum for about a decade and a half, the importance of the arts is often lost in the wider society.
There are tertiary performing arts programmes (one of which I helped to create) but they live in constant fear of being cut from the institutional framework – both for valid cost reasons and for reasons of sheer lack of vision. I therefore get the distinct impression that we might have to wait for another generation or two to grow to adulthood before the arts are taken seriously as a regular profession.
The arts were, for a long time, simply the agent of a post-independence nationalist agenda, and that, in my opinion, is the culture of how we still approach them. This vaguely proletarian notion that “culture” is “the people” and the people are the (multi-cultural) nation is itself a culture – a culture of a few people at the top constructing and maintaining an ill-fitting patriotic narrative.
I humbly submit that it is one of the major stumbling blocks to our cultural development. Here’s one example: Fast forward from the young Caribbean woman in the sixties looking at a nearly all-white painting in Europe to the late nineties, in Trinidad, where her child, now fully grown and then some, is a cultural development entrepreneur listening to a young, talented and highly distraught visual artist on the other end of the phone line.
“What to do?” he asks me. He submitted a proposal to a national body which invited applications for sculpture designs for a sculpture park in another Caribbean island. The project called for one design from each participating island-nation. He had been called to a meeting with the representative of the national body and had been admonished because his proposed design did not really represent Trinidad and Tobago since it did not contain an image of the Trinidad and Tobago map or flag (I forget which one).
That the visual imagery which emanates from our artists’ imagination must, at a nationally-funded level, contain a mandatory national symbol is so far from the principles of good art that all I could tell the artist was to walk away from the project. I couldn’t see any room for negotiation since he was dealing with someone who had no notion of the true purpose of art.
That was an extreme example from many years ago, and I hope things have changed for the better for projects like that. But it illustrates the disconnect between artist’s vision, the intrinsic value of the art that he or she creates, and the person or institution charged to support it. Is there an unspoken philosophy that the keepers of the nation must define the arts, as opposed to the arts defining the nation? If I had my druthers, ministries all over the world would drop the word “of” from their title. Especially for something as intrinsic as culture.
A ministry of culture suggests that it is responsible for culture. But it is the people who create and are responsible for culture. The ministry is an agency to sustain cultural development, supporting those who create and contribute to the culture. A subtle shift, but an important one. And expressions of culture are so important that I would make it a stand-alone ministry, instead of continuing the tiresome exercise of tacking it on to Education, Community Development, Tourism or Youth. It can stand on its own.
On the other side of the problematic coin is my community – the artists. Permit me to revisit the same fear that caused me to shy away from the offer of being a dance critic for a major local newspaper. It’s the fear that in this small society, the daggers which were already coming at my back in the artistic community (nearly all artists have them) would now assail me from the front, and in local parlance, I would “jus’ dead”.
Many want to create art, but few want critical feedback. This has its implications for consumers also. I remember a friend of mine, who had done very well financially, showing me his extensive collection of local paintings. It was some of the weakest work I’ve ever seen, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that since he was so proud of it. He believed that not only did it enhance its walls – it would also appreciate in value.
Because, after all, isn’t that what all expensive art does? Actually, no. One relatively recent and pleasant exception to this is the purchase of the Cazabon collection by the current government. Michel Jean Cazabon (an ancestor of the famous musician André Tanker) was likely our first important visual artist; he created exceptional art with his signature style (influenced by the European painters of his day) but also gave us pictorial and historical insight into Trinidad of the nineteenth century.
On all levels – artistic, historic and national – that is priceless. We just need to understand the importance of our contemporary art also, and how to tell the sheep from the goats.
But I digress. I said that my main things are dance and film. I try my best to be a consistent dance practitioner in this space, although I feel far more appreciated when I leave it and meet regional or international colleagues to whom I don’t have to prove myself over and over again. I’m also grateful for the tiny, local circle of people whom I trust to tell me if my work is strong, how to strengthen it, or if I need to just flush it down the proverbial toilet and start over, since I know that they tell me this with love and not with a hidden agenda.
I try to learn from artists/artistes/people who create so that I can be a better artist – I don’t care if they’re 19 or 90. I’m arrogant, impatient, hopeful and racked with insecurity all at the same time (some would say, normal artist ”ting”). But I continue to make work and I try to make things happen. I try to give people honest feedback if they ask for it, and hope that after they finish fuming about “how Sonja could tell dem dat” about their work, that they actually contemplate the comments – whether they agree or not. It’s called maturity.
That is not to say that if we had more mature exchanges that it would eliminate dog or cat fights in the artistic world. Haters gonna hate – even in – perhaps especially in – the world of the arts. And we artists birth “babies” which we defend with our lives and our venom. And of course the culture vultures, like the reliable corbeaux after which they’re named, are always going to be on the lookout for an opportunity to pounce on how important our culture is or how “de Government not supporting de culture”, while filling their pockets with the money that should go towards the very culture on whose behalf they’re advocating.
What I tire of the most is the constant need to explain myself and my art or why it costs X or Y to produce it. I find myself having to do this even with people who, in my opinion, should know better. Google de ting, nah. Or read arts business bibles like “Standing Room Only” by Philip Kotler and Joanne Scheff to find out why the factors of production in the live arts or in film cost so much per project.
I also grow tired of our artists’ cliques and our decades-long feuds and the blatantly weak art that I have to endure for the sake of supporting someone’s need to be politically correct – especially when there is no sustained effort to improve the craftsmanship of the artist.
But, hey, some of my work ain’t all that, and people have to endure that, so I guess we’re even on that score. And that’s another thing about the arts – one just has to keep trying. When you fall down artistically, you just get back up and start again. I’m currently on the fourth draft of a full-length screenplay, having received several sets of comments about the first three drafts, and I’ll consider myself lucky if I only need to do four more rewrites before the script is ready for proper ventilating.
This investment of time and effort is a bigger risk than most deals on Wall Street. I could work on a script for years and chances are it might never be sold. But I live and work for the day that ten producers might be knocking down my door the minute I release it into the universe. I’ve been reworking a couple of choreographic pieces that I started in 2016 and 2017 respectively. I can only work on them part-time, because no-one in Trinidad and Tobago will pay me simply to experiment with movement in a dance studio – it’s an absurd thought to them.
But that is how art often works. It takes what it takes. It is a constant cycle of research and development and honing of one’s craft. In some ways it’s actually like a medical laboratory where years of research and analysis are needed to come up with the perfect formula. But in economic terms, artistic effort is not like the average commercial activity and it’s often not even like the products or services of mass entertainment (the category into which big fetes and big shows would fall).
More often that not, the arts are labour-intensive, with few economies of scale and no guarantee of a consistently appealing product or one that is long-lasting. But society would suffer greatly if there were no performing or visual arts in our lives.
What I’ve never grown tired of is making art that makes people think. I’ve never grown tired of helping artists find their way through different (and hopefully sustainable) cultural models, or supporting those who have found strong models. I’ve never grown tired of teaching young people the power that they have in their art and the discipline that it requires to master it. And I surround myself with like minds.
I hope that the activators of the newly adopted National Policy on Culture and the Arts of Trinidad and Tobago, recently passed in Parliament, consider these complicated aspects of the culture of the people of Trinidad and Tobago and the culture of the existing systems when they begin implementation.
Cultural development means that people must be consistently culturally literate – they must understand the intrinsic nature of the arts. They must be able to tell the difference between amateur and professional art. They must be proud of their own cultural gifts and strengths. They must not be afraid to think and present new ideas on the construction and meaning of the arts for fear of censure or ostracization. And they must get a fair wage for their effort. These things must actually happen in fact – not just in talk.
Good luck to all of us.
Sonja Dumas is a performer, choreographer, writer, filmmaker, educator and arts development consultant who lives and works in Trinidad and Tobago. She is the recipient of several international grants and fellowships for her choreography, including the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Fellowship in Modern Choreography, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Prince Claus Fund.
The first female laureate of Caraïbes en Creation, a project of the French Government, she has performed with and/or choreographed for Trinidad- and New York-based dance companies, including The Astor Johnson Repertory Dance Theatre, The Trinidad Theatre Workshop and Reggie Wilson’s Fist and Heel Performance Group. She developed the curriculum for the first Dance Programme at the Academy for the Performing Arts at the University of Trinidad and Tobago, and currently creates work for her own pickup company – Continuum Dance Project. Sonja is also a co-founder and co-director of the Contemporary Choreographers’ Collective, a group which produces COCO Dance Festival, one of the largest annual contemporary dance festivals in the Caribbean.
Sonja’s films include the documentary, Julia and Joyce: Two Stories of Two Dance Pioneers, winner of the Best Local Film at the 2010 Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, and the short narrative comedy, Tickle Me Rich, shortlisted for Best Diaspora Short Film at the 2014 Africa Movie Academy Awards. Many of her other films, such as Agua Water L’eau are experimental dance films. She is currently producing Excellent Women: 100 Years of Bishop Anstey High School, a documentary on her alma mater, and is writing Angels in Tunapuna, a comedy set in Limbo and on Earth.
Photograph of Sonja Dumas by Michele Jorsling.