The Arts & Social Transformation

May 6, 2021

One of the driving ideas of in the development of the arts in the modern and contemporary Caribbean is the notion that art has an important role to play in the development of a just, equitable and productively cohesive societies and communities – or the belief that the arts can and need to contribute to “the building of the bigger we”, to borrow a term used by former Prime Minister of Haiti and President of FOKAL, Michèle Pierre-Louis. In the present moment, a moment of deep global and regional crisis in which social justice issues have taken on new urgency, the socially transformative potential of the arts is acutely raised and cultural practitioners in world areas such as the Caribbean are called upon to play active roles as agents of critical consciousness and social change.

This roundtable explored these questions from different perspectives relevant to the Caribbean, with a focus on their relevance to the present moment, a moment of acute social and political crisis at global and local levels, but also one which allows for new directions to be charted, potentially leading to greater social justice. The panellists were drawn from cultural organizations in the Caribbean that are involved in cultural work that is geared towards social change, and the focus of the discussion was on the philosophy and strategies used by each of these organizations.

Panellists: Lorraine Mangones (executive director, FOKAL, Port-au-Prince, Haiti), Camille Chedda (project manager, Inpulse Art Project/Rubis Mécénat, Kingston, Jamaica), Andrea Chung (executive director, Kingston Creative, Kingston, Jamaica), and Pablo Guardiola (co-director, Beta-Local, San Juan, Puerto Rico).

Discussants: Benjamin Ferguson Jr (artist and art teacher, Grand Bahama, The Bahamas), Kishan Munroe (artist, cultural activist, lecturer, University of the Bahamas – associate researcher, CCF Feasibility Study, Nassau, The Bahamas)

Moderator: Veerle Poupeye (lead researcher, CCF Feasibility Study, Kingston, Jamaica) and Kishan Munroe

Lorraine Mangones FOKAL: This presentation opened with the story of the Saint Soleil artists community in Haiti, as an example of the power of “planting a seed,” by enabling creative production and engagement at the community level. The Fondasyon Konesans Ak Libète – FOKAL (Foundation for Knowledge and Liberty) was established in 1995, as a national Haitian Foundation and part of the Open Society Foundations network. FOKAL’s mission is to promote the structures necessary for the establishment of organic and sustainable Haitian democracy, based on individual and collective autonomy and responsibility, but artists were immediately drawn to the institution. FOKAL is now deeply entrenched in the Haitian art community and supports artist collectives and arts organizations throughout Haiti, with work in areas of heritage, individual creativity, and social engagement. The supported initiatives include: the Village Artistique de Noailles (Croix des Bouquets), which is renowned for its cut-out iron work, the artists’ village of Bel Air, Port-au-Prince, and the Atis Resistanz collective, also in Port-au-Prince, who produce spectacular sculptures made from recuperation materials, and the rural community of Rivière Froide, notable for its sculptures cut from river stones. FOKAL also supports the Festival de Théâtre Quatre Chemins, Haiti’s first theatre festival, and Lakou Souvnans, a sanctuary of Vodou traditions and memory of the Middle Passage. Staying true to its founding political mission, FOKAL is also supporting new initiatives such as Azuei, a cross-border collective of Haitian and Dominican musicians, painters, filmmakers, photographers who work collaboratively to try and heal the complex relationships between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

One of FOKAL’s most significant working relationships is with Le Centre d’Art, an art centre, school, and gallery in Haiti’s capital. The institution, which was created in 1944 and which has played a seminal role in the development of Haitian art, suffered heavy losses when its building collapsed in the 2010 earthquake. Various stakeholders volunteered to rescue artworks from the rubble and re-establish the centre as a place for artists and artistic creation, which is now again a major presence in the Haitian art world.

Camille Chedda InPulse Art Project: The InPulse Art Project is an artistic and social initiative that is based at the Dunoon Park High School in Kingston, Jamaica, supported by Rubis Mécénat, in partnership with Rubis Energy Jamaica. The Rubis Mécénat was established in 2011 and its international work started in 2012, with social art initiatives in South Africa and Madagascar and with Inpulse in Jamaica being added in 2015. The Project strives to improve the conditions faced by young adults in Jamaica by using the visual arts as a positive means of expression and professional development. Participants are 15-30 years old and include Dunoon Technical and other high school students, as well as school-leavers from the communities. The art room at Dunoon Park Technical High has been outfitted with all the supplies and tools for the practice and study of art, which is a rarity in Jamaica. In addition to its semester-long art workshop programs, Inpulse also offers training in maths and English and organizes recreational events. Established artists from Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean conduct special workshops and provide mentorship in areas of their own practice from animation, filmmaking, curatorship, and art history. Students are actively introduced to professional standards and practices in the international art world, with exhibition opportunities, and local and international field trips also included in the program. The students have for instance participated in the Ghetto Biennale in Haiti. So far, Inpulse has served approximately 50 students and the project has provided eight scholarships to the Edna Manley School of the Visual and Performing Arts.

Andrea Chung – Kingston Creative: Kingston Creative, an NGO founded in 2018, operates within the “Old City” of Downtown Kingston, which has a high concentration of cultural institutions, such as the National Gallery of Jamaica, a rich architectural and historical heritage, and iconic historic sites and monuments. Downtown Kingston is the birthplace of reggae music and Kingston has been designated as a UNESCO Creative City of Music. Despite the cultural assets in Downtown Kingston, the area is stigmatized by crime and violence. Kingston Creative is committed to urban renewal in the area, by investing in culture and growing the creative economy. Its strategies include the creation of cultural and entertainment spaces, innovation hubs to facilitate networking, training programmes with a focus on bringing the artists into the digital economy, databases to connect the artists and the public, and seeking arts funding through various means such as venture capital and loans. Its public programs include monthly art walks, art parks, artisan stores, pop-ups, and frequent cultural activities, which bring foot traffic into the communities and produce synergies where community and visiting creatives can capitalize on Downtown’s cultural assets. The most visible part of the Kingston Creative program involves the creation of murals throughout Downtown Kingston, where once derelict buildings become arts and culture destinations, indicating the presence of the creative community. Kingston Creative provides training to artists and the communities to develop cultural entrepreneurship and digital literacy. Kingston Creative has set up studio with all the amenities for creative content creation and provides free workshops in areas of digital and business skills and Intellectual Property protection. Kingston Creative is committed to a from-the-bottom-up model, growing incrementally by engaging the various stakeholders (political, corporate, and local) in the development of a sustainable creative economy that supports the community, urban renewal and eventually influences policy.

Pablo Guardiola – Beta-Local: Beta-Local is an art non-profit which was established in 2009 and which works with artists, researchers and cultural workers on a collaborative and community-driven basis. Because its territorial status, Puerto Rico does not have the privilege to lead its own cultural narrative nor is there strong government support, and this interferes with the relationships with Latin America and the Caribbean. Beta-Local’s principal mission is therefore to support art and culture in Puerto Rico and to create a collaborative, critical space where things can be rethought and reimagined in terms of art production, cultural development, guided by a non-hierarchical community-building ethos. The program direction and content are developed organically in discussion with participants and the community. There are regular open calls for participants and there is also an open school program whereby any person can propose activities such as workshops, study groups and so on. The resources are open to the community and participants are free to collaborate with other cultural workers from several art disciplines. Beta-Local also supports an international programme whereby artists and researchers are invited to Puerto Rico to engage with the cultural communities and meet with resident artists. As a matter of principle, anyone who collaborates with the organization gets paid.

Connecting the theme of this roundtable with the previous ones, Benjamin Ferguson Jr, a young artist from The Bahamas, was invited to share his recent experience with censorship whereby a mural that he had produced for a multi-location National Art Gallery of the Bahamas exhibition was summarily removed by the authorities after complaints about its alleged “racist” content. The mural, Mismanaged Culture, ironically, critiqued the contradictory racial ethos which, aided by tourism, still prevails in the Bahamas, that anything “white” is superior. Whether art can intervene and how it intervenes in the social domain depends on whether the artist has the freedoms, tools, and support to do so. In the case of Ferguson Jr, there was a missed opportunity for necessary social introspection due to narrow-minded, unjustified censorship.

Ferguson Jr furthermore raised the question of living in the periphery of established arts centres: he lives and works on Grand Bahama Island, which is at a remove from the main Bahamian arts organizations, which are concentrated in the capital Nassau, on Providence Island. Most major arts organizations in the Caribbean are located in the capital cities or other large urban centres, and but local collective action and the support of arts organizations are needed to enable the development of, and public engagement with the arts in peripheral locations, where social and cultural needs are often just as acute but less well served.

The video below is an edited excerpt of what was a 2-hour Zoom conversation.