The Caribbean Festival of Arts, CARIFESTA, has assumed a pre-eminent place among the elements that define and give expression to the uniqueness of our Caribbean reality. Like other significant institutions such as cricket, CXC and CARICOM that symbolize a Caribbean commonality, the Festival reinforces our unity in the midst of our splendid diversity.
CARIFESTA, which has been hailed as “the inspirational exchange of creative flows”, has its underpinnings in the staging of the first Caribbean Festival of Arts in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1952. This event spurred some enthusiasm in the Region for celebrating the excellence of Caribbean artistry.
The creation of the West Indies Federation was marked by the staging of a Festival in Trinidad, through the auspices of the Extra Mural Department of the then University College of the West Indies. This celebratory spirit must have infused the artistic community of the Region, for it was at a regional gathering of artists in Guyana in 1970, that the idea of a grand Caribbean festival was conceived.
The enthusiasm of the artists attending a Caribbean Writers and Artists Convention in Georgetown in 1966 and again in 1970 during Guyana’s Independence and Republic celebrations, found favour with Prime Minister Forbes Burnham who spearheaded the conversion of the idea into a resplendent exposition of artistic forms and cultural artifacts that became the first Caribbean Festival of Arts in Guyana in 1972.
This first CARIFESTA attracted the participation of 1000 plus artistes from over 30 Caribbean and South American countries, giving expression to their creativity in music, dance, drama, painting, sculpture, folk art, photography and literature.
The vision of the Caribbean leader, Forbes Burnham, who is most directly credited with the emergence and success of this Caribbean event, was to have a “Caribbean Arts Festival, featuring Guyanese and Caribbean artists whose work in poetry, painting and sculpture project our dreams and visions and help us to foster and develop a Caribbean personality”. He envisioned the hosting of the festival as an ongoing event in different Caribbean territories.
The cultural and artistic groundswell generated by the success of CARIFESTA 1972 gave impetus to the call to institutionalize the festival within the emerging structure of the Caribbean Community. In response to such urgings, the Heads of Government, at their 1972 Heads of Government Meeting approved the establishment of a permanent unit within the Secretariat with oversight functions for coordinating subsequent CARIFESTA events.
The evolution and transformation of the event over its thirty-four-year existence, can be perceived as a response to meeting the objectives of CARIFESTA which aim:
- to establish and celebrate the arts as the most important dynamic force for reflection on our dreams and visions in the process of self-affirmation of the Caribbean personality;
- to maximize people participation in the arts, promote integration and intensify the interaction between the people and the artists of the Region;
- to deepen the awareness and knowledge of the diverse aspirations within the Caribbean Community through an on-going process of exposing the peoples of the Region to each other culturally by means of the development of our creativity;
- to embrace developments in communications technology and the media – while accepting the challenge this technology poses – to positively advance our culture at home, throughout the diaspora and the world, despite the fact that that same technology appears to be challenging established traditions;
- to foster a vision of Caribbean unity and possibility by facilitating the documenting and disseminating of art works as highlights of the ongoing historical and cultural development of our people;
- to expose children and Caribbean youth to the arts and traditions of the Region as a basis for building vibrant and dynamic institutional support for their development as citizens of the future Caribbean;
- to encourage excellence by bringing masters and youth together to initiate systems of apprenticeship for young artists; and
- to promote the development of cultural industries and merchandising in order to maximize the economic potential of CARIFESTA and the arts, for the benefit of the artists and Caribbean societies as a whole;
These objectives speak to the utility of this highly anticipated event as an embodiment of integration as captured by Edwin Carrington, Secretary-General of the Caribbean Community in the following statement made during CARIFESTA VIII in Suriname:
“CARIFESTA embodies Caribbean integration. It is here that the people of the Region come together; co-mingle, creating one community, one people. That is integration. Further, this event strengthens the bonds between us, displays our creativity and ingenuity and demonstrates to the world the best that this Region has to offer. CARIFESTA celebrates our Caribbean being in a way that no other single event can.”
Beyond the dramatic and inspirational performances on stage, the music, the dance and folklore, the artistic manifestations of painting, sculpture, craft, beyond the exhibition of our cultural creativity, our way of life, CARIFESTA engenders a nostalgic pride among Caribbean people, of who and what we are, what we are capable of achieving, what we possess, our peculiarities and similarities, and that which is excellent among us. A sense of warm rivalry in presenting to the world our best, inspires the preparation of national contingents which separately and collectively showcase the ingenuity and talents of nation states and the Caribbean as a whole.
This imbues in Caribbean peoples a sense of unity as the cultural face of the Caribbean is presented in its diverse splendour. It fosters a sense of pride in things Caribbean. CARIFESTA offers a unique opportunity to “depict the life of the people of the Region, their heroes, morals, myths, traditions, beliefs, creativity and ways of expression”. It provides a forum for the people of the region to be exposed to each other’s culture, and in the process, cultivates tolerance and appreciation for differences, an integral element of any movement towards integration.
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