Rex Nettleford’s “The Caribbean artist and his society”

Guyana’s Stabroek News paid tribute to the late Rex Nettleford this week by reprinting his December 1985 address at the Guyana Prize for Literature Awards Ceremony. In a moving tribute, Arnon Adams, Editor of the Guyana Review, offers his own recollection of Nettleford as “a consummate but unpretentious West Indian intellect”:

As a student of Mass Communications at the University of the West Indies’ Mona Campus, I never ceased to be thoroughly absorbed by his lectures in Caribbean Studies, not least his intimacy with the events and personages that fashioned the Guyanese political landscape.  What, perhaps, I admired most about Rex Nettleford was the manner in which he married his creative skills with his intellectual gifts, often transforming the most profoundly academic offerings into absorbing and highly entertaining story-telling.

Here is the essay as published by the Stabroek News. You can find the link to their report below.

Leon Botstein, the young President of Bard College in New York recently wrote the following: …no one in America writes except from necessity. Our ease of movement and access to the telephone have made most of our exchanges not written but rather oral, distance notwithstanding. Good news is brought in person or by voice; bad news in writing. We tell someone we love them, and we write the proverbial ‘Dear John’ letter. Bills, warnings, eviction notices and refusals come in writing…The relatives we wish not to see are those to whom we write. In this world, it is little wonder that no American child sees any need to become literate.

And yet the need to become literate remains a sine qua non of place and purpose in the modern world. The computer revolution will not obliterate in one fell swoop the consequences of Gutenberg. Those of us who proudly use, and disingenuously abuse, the myth of the ‘oral tradition’ will not escape the tenacity of the scribal imperative. Writing is not antonym to speaking. Both will continue hand in hand for a long time to come since societies like ours in the Caribbean cannot afford the neglect of any of the skills and modalities of communication with ourselves and with the rest of the world if we are to find form and purpose in sharing the human condition.

That is why I am so struck by the importance given these Awards by the Republic of Guyana not, I would imagine, in the spirit of the State interventionism  which many who are writers would hold suspect but rather in the deeper understanding of the centrality of the creative process, on which writers draw,to the shaping of a society and the building of a nation. That the University is so organically involved in the promotion and custodial nurturing of these Awards is also important. For I would imagine that the institution sees its role not in  terms of offering yet another assembly line from which to roll off certified products who though trained may be lacking in wisdom, but more in  ensuring that the generation and development of knowledge are informed by all roads to cognition including the ones which run through the creative imagination.

The country is well served by its own legacy of creative artists, not least among them the likes of Edgar Mittelholzer, Martin Carter, Wilson Harris, Jan Carew, and A. J Seymour and his Kyk-over-al publication which is as legendary as the Kaieteur Falls. I would like to think that Guyana is also as well served by the Caribbean inheritance of struggle and survival through the exercise of the creative imagination.

I recently had reason to recall that one or two Commonwealth Caribbean founding fathers (in political sense) understood the centrality of the artist to the self-government ideal and sought to appropriate the work of artists without denying to artistic action its own inner logic and consistency. Even in post- revolutionary Cuba where the ethos of the new dispensation reputedly gave to the artist everything ‘within the revolution’ while denying him all outside of it, the artist has managed to flourish independently, sometimes with more traces of ‘bourgeois’ culture than the guardians of the revolution would care to admit. Such is the power of art and the invincibility of the creative imagination!

In the English –speaking Caribbean, the independence of the artist has gone hand in hand with notions of democratic freedoms. So Norman Manley of Jamaica had in his political credo a central place of the unfettered exercise of the creative imagination, the sort of process in which artists are involved. He saw nation- building itself not only as an act of intelligence but also as the work of an artist giving form to substance and grapping with the reality of human experience to take everyday existence to higher levels of civilized expression (the nation, democracy, civilization).

He even declared (informally) George Campbell the poet of Jamaica’s self government ‘revolution’, as Nicolas Guillen was to become for Cuba’s transformation. But the nature of the creative arts does not always depend for its flourishing on such patronage. The common people whose music, dance, theatre and oral literature rank them among the greatest of creative artists in the region, are able to continue in their myriad acts of creativity under all sorts of adverse conditions. More than that, they provide individual talents with a vital source of energy, thus giving to the region groups of creative artists in a wide range of artistic activity that has served to promise the Caribbean (or individual parts of it) greater cultural certitude, a sense of social form and of national purpose.

Foremost among such artists have been the writers – literate, healthily schizophrenic, insightful, and truly among the first to explain formally the Caribbean to itself, whether in the printed poem, novel or short story. George Lamming, a virtual dean of the corps, made early claims for the primacy of the writer as main animateur, philosopher and guide to West Indian civilization. The creative musician, choreographer, painter, sculptor was to follow in the writer’s wake some of them helped not a little by the improved technologies of communication, especially the electronic media and recording industry as well as the aeroplane facilitating travel of artists and artworks within the Caribbean to Caribbean Festivals of Art (Carifestas) which began in this very Guyana in 1972 and outside the region on private commercial or government-to-government cultural exchange tours.

The notion that all art is mediated by social reality is not a monopoly of the Marxist intellectual tradition which is understandably presented as an option in the region’s earnest’s search for solutions. Rather, it is borne out by the facts of the Caribbean literary creative impulse. And this is so whether the declared aim of this or that writer is to be a writer rather than a Caribbean writer or to belong primarily to a ‘tradition of the writer’s craft; a tradition that overrides ethnic and social distinctions’. The truth is that none of these writers has been able to ignore the real-life issues of history (Caribbean history), race, colonialism, the plantation, neo-colonialism, social change, identity (national and cultural, linguistic loyalty or Europe’s imposed standards of life and the awesome hold such standards have even on artists who are rebelling. Nor can they ignore African-in-the Americas, the crucible in which much of what is artistically and culturally Caribbean was forged over four centuries of creolisation. Add to this the mandatory and growing sensitivity to that common ground – the essential unity of Man- challenging us to sanity as a result of the dynamic existential encounters between India, Africa, Europe and China on American soil.

Somehow it is not always understood that Mother Europe needs fewer carbon copies of Shakespeare, Moliere, Conrad, or Marlowe; of Brahms, Beethoven or Mahler; of Picasso, Van Gogh or Renoir; of Petipa, Balanchine or Bournonvilled. She would rather settle for the original impulse of foreign artists encouraged to enrich her soil. Walcott and Naipaul are of interest to the North Atlantic precisely because they are not only good writers but writers with something unique to say about human condition. And where they come from and how they were socialized and bred just happen to give that something a special pitch and tone of importance and relevance to a North Atlantic world, itself in search of new patterns and new designs for its continuing existence. The  pretence that it is otherwise is part of the self-parody of Caribbean artists playing others instead of being themselves.

Novels, poems, short stories, literary criticism, and plays are indeed laced with ‘Caribbean’ pre-occupations even if notions of the ‘writer’s tradition’, of ‘mainstream literature’, or the ‘humanist tradition’ are considered the more desirable (and respectable) ends of artistic creation transcending, presumably, the insularity of regions or the provincialism of race and ethnic considerations. What a closer look at Caribbean artistic creation serving cultural identity may indeed demonstrate is that the so-called ‘writer’s tradition’, ‘mainstream literature’ and the humanist tradition’ are all likely to be the richer for the textured and specific contributions by Caribbean artistic infusions.

The names of George Lamming, Wilson Harris, Jean Rhys, John Hearne, Derek Walcott and V S Naipaul – all creatures of the colonial Caribbean – have gained fairly widespread recognition in the North Atlantic. But studies of serious world literature would be the poorer without the names of Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Victor Reid, Martin Carter, Andrew Salkey and Samuel Selvon, to name a few. The vigour of the creolized indigenous Caribbean languages must in any case determine their own criteria of judgment for artistic excellence and universal verities; and so the lyrics of the calypsonians and reggae artists (Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’, Jimmy Cliff’s ‘Many Rivers to Cross’ do address universal verities in poetry), the verse of Louise Bennett, as well as the utterances of latter-day Jamaican dub poets to whom writing down is secondary to oral-rendering, all challenge the arbiters of Caribbean artistic legitimacy to new perceptions of reality in the region.

Many of the world’s greatest artists ‘steal’ as a matter of course from the past if for no other reason than the past offers mankind many of the greatest that is tried and tested in the profession of art. But even in this, many a Caribbean artist has a problem. For the past from which they choose to steal does not often include their own Caribbean  past, either in its intensely creolized (native born, native bred) sense, or in respect of that part of the past which spell Africa. On  the other hand, that part which spells Europe, from the ancient Mediterranean to 19th  century England and its extension into Anglo-Saxon contemporary United States, all have ready and willing imitators. And latecomers India , China and Lebanon are yet to be acknowledged in any deep cultural sense- what with the conflict between the earlier arrivants to the Caribbean yet to be resolved.

It may well be remembered that at least one major Caribbean artist has volunteered a justification for the neglect on the basis that there is no Caribbean history, since history is about achievement and achievement has  to do with creating. So having created nothing the region has achieved nothing. In effect, the place is in the long run incapable of development, cultural identity or any meaningful growth. V S Naipaul’s ‘castrated metaphor’, to use Lamming’s deliciously wicked phase, need not to be seen as anything more than a rhetorical excess spat out at a society that admittedly denies too many of its citizens a sense of place and purpose. Naipaul, for all his frustrations, is nonetheless a ‘creation’ of that very society, and a brilliant one at that. The myths he articulates persist, however, in pockets of cynicism and cultural perversity.

Happily it is being exploded by the active creative power and brilliance of not only writers but also painters, sculptors, dancers and musicians all over the region. The creators of the Cuban son, manbo and rhumba, the devastatingly observant calypsonians of Trinidad and the Eastern Caribbean, the Rastafarian-inspired reggae composers from urban ghettos of Kingston have all’stolen’ from the past – their own past. They draw naturally on the wealth of that past ancestral certitude and wisdom to create for the modern Caribbean still in search of itself. They entertain no inhibiting doubts about the pedigree of their own history reshaped in the Caribbean and formed before the severance of forefathers from far off- homelands. And though they are conscious of the brutality of suffering in that history, they are no less aware of the achievement in terms of creative acts by their forebears-in-exile, whether in the devising of new tongues to communicate with each other, in shaping the right music, movement patterns and belief-systems into ordered rituals of worship, or in the creation of operational frameworks for daily living despite every well-planned effort to keep the majority population barely ahead of the beast. Without being academic historian or sociologist of history, Caribbean’s popular artist, like some of his prestigious writer-colleagues, effectively uses the facts of history, in all their essence, both to interpret modern Caribbean society and to inform contemporary Caribbean life. A past without achievement could not have done any of this unless of course such acts of the creative imagination and intellect as described are not seen as genuine acts of achievement.

The evidence, indeed, demonstrates that the Caribbean with its record of creative acts can help to determine a mainstream culture rather than be expected merely to enter one that is predetermined by the cultural norms forged and recorded (i.e. in written or notated form) over centuries in the nations that conquered, colonized and conditioned subjects peoples like those who inhabit the Caribbean. In overcoming the consequences of such conditioning, as a function of cultural identity or self- definition, the artists from among such peoples need to speak to each other within the regions rather than continue to communicate through a connexion hooked up in London, Madrid, Paris or of late New York. If a Lamming once has to discover himself in London and an Aime Cesaire needed Paris to see the light, it has long become critical to examine and take seriously the discoveries on homeground. Derek Walcott (for all his latter-day New England encounters) and, to a certain extent, Edward Kamau Brathwaite represent something of the new breed, as od Maryse Conde of Guadeloupe and Edouard Glissant of Martinique. And the return home (physically and mentally) of Lamming and others is important to the grasp of the import of the issue of identity through artistic creation and cultural action. The Alejo Carpentiers and Nicolas Guillens stand out as homeground icons not only for post-revolutionary Cuba but for an emerging culturally coherent Caribbean as well.

The popular artists of the ilk of the Mighty Sparrow and Micheal Rudder of Trinidad or of Jimmy Cliff and the late Bob Marley of Jamaica have had no problems being homegrown Caribbean artists, secure as they have been in the knowledge that the wider world beyond the North Altlantic does provide profitable and appreciative markets for their work. They were, all three, ‘heroes’ at home before they were recognized abroad – in direct contrast to most of the earlier Caribbean writers who sought legitimacy and recognition, if not identity, from the metropolitan centres in the North. The increased cultural awareness among Anglophone Caribbean people following on the transfer of imperial power to the region has facilitated greater access to legitimacy and recognition at home on criteria rooted in Caribbean reality. And  from this, ‘schools’ of intellectuals have benefitted not a little since the late 1950s

The remarkable impact of Caribbean artist-musicans on the wider world with seemingly minimal concessions to the cultural dictates of the Establishment prejudices of Western civilization throws into sharp relief questions about the market for, and the nature of, Caribbean writing. Could it be that writing as an art carries with it greater burden of alienation than do other artforms?  Publishing and printing facilities are admittedly either still rare or expensive in the region. Yet more exist now than before and in any case the difficulties of publishing abroad while writing from homebase have been largely overcome.

The question of ‘the market’ cannot however be ignored. Who does the Caribbean writer really write for? Does he write for the Caribbean readership still growing but yet to offer that critical mass which brings profits? Is he addressing the more affluent North American suburban class or their intelligentsia now in the throes of discovering a Walcott and a Naipaul? Does he write for the British literati with a long tradition of playing patron to sibling talents from the outposts of Empire? And what of the new governing elites of the developing world, many of whom are admittedly blasé before they are civilized? Better still, does the Caribbean writer write for the proverbial homogenized world devoid of class, ethnic, or cultural particularities? Or does he write for himself? Many of the performing artists, because their art needs an immediate audience, do sing, dance and act for their own people first and for others secondarily. Can the literary arts, then , be regarded as the most appropriate for people who have been brought up in a strongly oral traditional against which has been counterpoised the scribal writ as part of a colonial conditioning?

For the original report go to

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