Word of mouth (July/August 2015)

Haiti hosts the Caribbean’s biggest arts festival, and a London exhibition celebrates the legacy of John La Rose

  • The landmark Iron Market in Port-au-Prince. © Tropicalpixsingapore/iStock
  • John La Rose (at centre) at the New Beacon Bookshop in 1976. Photograph courtesy Julian Stapleton

On Haitian earth

Philip Sander explains the historic significance of Carifesta’s visit to Haiti

There’s a sad disproportion between Haiti’s vast presence in the Caribbean’s historical and cultural imagination, and the number of artists and thinkers from the rest of the region who have actually visited the Caribbean’s first modern independent nation. We read Haiti’s writers, listen to her musicians, look at the works of her artists, and feel the stubborn resilience of generations of Haitian creators in our blood, but most of us have never set foot on Haiti’s soil.

The reason is obvious: the country’s reputation, as portrayed by most international media, for poverty and instability, and reinforced by images of destruction and desperate suffering broadcast to the world in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. And while many of us know that the true story is more complicated and also more hopeful than the news headlines usually proclaim, Haiti isn’t the easiest country to visit, linked to the rest of the Caribbean by very few flight routes, and with a relatively undeveloped tourism infrastructure in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

All of which is exactly why Carifesta XII is such good news. The Caribbean Festival of Arts, now forty-three years old, and still the biggest cultural event in the region, heads to Haiti from 21 to 30 August this year, and will bring with it hundreds of performers and artists from across the islands, to explore the theme “Our Roots, Our Culture, Our Common Future” — an apt reminder of the heritage that connects Haiti to her neighbours up and down the Antilles.

The twelfth incarnation of Carifesta comes from a line that is unbroken but irregular. The festival began in Guyana in 1972, born in the surge of optimism and energy that accompanied the wave of political independence that swept the Anglophone Caribbean in the 1960s and 70s. Conceived as both a celebration of Caribbean culture and a vital opportunity to make connections among artists, that first Carifesta was succeeded by festivals in Jamaica in 1976, Cuba in 1979, and Barbados in 1981. Then, somehow, the energy ran out. More than a decade passed before Carifesta V in Trinidad and Tobago. Since then, the festival has been hosted twice again by T&T, and also by St Kitts and Nevis, Suriname, and Guyana. Long-nurtured plans to move to a biennial schedule have not quite succeeded, but 2015 brings Carifesta back to the calendar — and, organisers hope, back to the agenda of the region’s leading cultural players.

Carifesta covers the full spectrum of arts and culture, from theatre to visual arts, literature to music, cuisine to folklore. But the highlights of each festival are often shaped by local circumstances in the host country. Guyana’s Carifesta X was memorable for a strong literary contingent, headed by Nobel laureate Derek Walcott. At Carifesta XI in Suriname, the performing arts took centrestage. With painter Philippe Dodard as artistic director of Haiti’s Carifesta, you might expect the spotlight to shine on the country’s numerous painters and sculptors.

The official website, carifesta.net, will carry the programme closer to the festival opening, but the time to plan your trip is now. Every Carifesta creates history, in its own way, and if only through the collisions and collaborations of its participants. But, heading for the first time to Haiti, Carifesta XII promises to be historic in a different and bigger way.


Remembering the dream

David Katz visits an exhibition at London’s Islington Museum documenting the life and work of celebrated writer, publisher, and activist John La Rose

A walk along London’s St John Street makes me feel like a time traveller. At the bottom end is Smithfield, the capital’s main wholesale meat market for the last eight hundred years, and at the top, the chic cafés of Islington’s Upper Street, once a meeting place for the radical left, but now the stomping ground for north London’s growing army of yuppies. Midway between the two, near the junction of Skinner Street, an unusually long glass-fronted building is squashed beneath a residential housing estate. Finsbury Library is essentially a local community resource, but the basement houses the Islington Museum, which celebrates the area’s vibrant social history.

Stepping into the homely space, I am struck that it feels an entirely appropriate setting for Dream to Change the World, an exhibition (which opened on 22 May and closes on 29 August) celebrating the life and legacy of John La Rose — poet, publisher, and political activist who devoted his life to confronting racial and social inequality.

The timeline reveals that La Rose was born in Arima, east Trinidad, in 1927, the youngest of the six children of a cocoa trader. Introduced to poetry and Marxism in an Arima literary group, La Rose soon became involved in the trade union movement, and co-authored an early study of calypso with Raymond Quevedo (a.k.a. Atilla the Hun). Arriving in London in 1961, La Rose settled in Islington, and within five short years he founded New Beacon with his partner Sarah White, as a bookshop and publishing house devoted to literature from Africa, Asia, the Americas, and especially the Caribbean, giving unpublished authors a way into print and resurrecting select Caribbean titles.

New Beacon was inextricably linked to the Caribbean Artists Movement, which La Rose founded with fellow writers Kamau Brathwaite and Andrew Salkey. When La Rose arranged for Brathwaite to give a reading from his Rights of Passage at the Jeanette Cochrane Theatre in March 1967, it caused a literary sensation. New Beacon would later carry influential titles by Caribbean authors such as Mervyn Morris’s The Pond, Erna Brodber’s Myal, and Lorna Goodison’s Shadowboxing, as well as Salkey’s novel A Quality of Violence and Brathwaite’s History of the Voice.

The Islington Museum exhibition reminds us that La Rose was a catalyst for a great many things. In addition to launching a number of campaigns tackling specific issues of racism in Britain and elsewhere, La Rose founded the International Book Fair of Radical, Black, and Third World Books in 1982, an annual event that allowed the public to access hard-to-find books from the world’s peripheral spaces. So many of us in Britain looked forward to these events with great anticipation, since the readings and musical performances allowed for unusual voices to be aired in an intimate setting, featuring the likes of Jamaican reggae poets Linton Kwesi Johnson and Michael Smith, Kenyan literary giant Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Jayne Cortez, Ntozake Shange, and Randy Weston from the United States, Trinidadian calypsonians like Chalkdust and Brother Valentino, a then-unknown Ben Okri, and Nicaragua’s Claribel Alegría — to name but a few.

Anyone who had the pleasure of meeting La Rose will remember his intelligence, warmth, and openness, as well as his commitment to social change. And all of these aspects of La Rose’s multifaceted character shine through in Dream to Change the World, especially in the reconstruction of his kitchen table, around which so much debate, discussion, and laughter took place. Stepping back onto St John Street, I feel revitalised, not only recalling La Rose’s great achievements, but taking away the message that further positive change is within the grasp of each of us — so long as we stay true to what we believe in.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
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