Many of us have been haunted by memories of in-person Carnival experiences over the past pandemic year — the pulsating rhythms of steelpan or soca, the pageantry, the vibes we wish would last long after the last headpiece is toted home. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, the countdown to the first physical Carnival since the start of COVID-19 is finally over. Miami Carnival has always been known to bring people together, and from 2 to 10 October,mas lovers will make up for lost time at the Junior Carnival, Panorama, and J’Ouvert events, and the highly anticipated Sunday Mas parade and concert. For updates on this Carnival reunion and the official schedule, visit www.miamicarnival.org. “Cause we heading out ah road, and we in party mode . . .”
The art of warri
Long before the web, electronic games, or contemporary board games, there was warri — a traditional game of strategy which came to the Caribbean through our ancestors, a derivative of African mancala board games or pit and pebble games. Today, it remains deeply ingrained in the culture of Antigua and Barbuda, celebrated every October during National Warri Month.
In West Africa’s Ịjọ language, warri means “houses,” and in Antigua, the game is played in homes, schools, on street corners — you name it. Originating in Sudan, warri (also called oware in Ghana and ayoayo in Nigeria) is played by all ages. Although the name resembles a wordplay on war and worry, neither occurs during the game, despite the fact that strong mathematical skills and critical thinking for strategic moves are required.
Warri involves two players and forty-eight seeds called nickars, which traditionally come from plants of the Guilandina genus. Grab a good-natured friend as your opponent, and try to capture more seeds than her. An elongated wooden board containing six hollows on each side (twelve in total) rests between the two of you, and each player’s territory is marked by the holes on their side.
At the beginning of the game, four seeds are placed in each hollow. To move, a player takes all the pieces from one hole and drops them one by one into the holes that follow in an anticlockwise motion. The next player does the same starting from any hollow on his side. Note that the seeds belong to both players, therefore a player’s seeds will deliberately go into the opponent’s hollows, and this will continue between the players until one of the two players manages to capture them. You are not allowed to pick up seeds from your opponent unless you’re capturing. Capturing starts when the last seed from your turn ends on your opponent’s side and there are two or three seeds in the hollow. The seeds are then reaped and stored in two supplementary holes on the opposite ends of the board, or simply close to the reaper.
Traditionally, the twelve hollows represent the months of the year. Since warri deals with seeds, each player becomes a farmer sowing where the ground is fertile, and of course he’ll have to defend his field. When conditions are favourable, he’ll raid his adversary’s territory to accumulate reserves.
Try making your own board, and join the fun. You can improvise a warri board by digging holes in the earth, as was customarily done in Africa, or use egg crates or bowls for the hollows. Depending on your artistic ability, you can even draw a board or carve your own out of wood. Who knows — it could be in the shape of a turtle, a seahorse, or even a barracuda. The seeds can be pebbles, small marbles, even seashells, but they need to be identical. Game on!
All About …
Outside the austere stone walls of Fort Zeelandia in Paramaribo stands a cluster of towering cylinders, made from stacked oil drums painted a slick black, and mounted with intricate forms in cut aluminium. Created by artist Marcel Pinas, these Kibi Wi Totems assert a presence in the landscape of Suriname, and symbolise a desire for refuge. Pinas, born in the eastern district of Marowijne, is Ndjuka, one of the six Maroon peoples of Suriname, descended from enslaved Africans who in centuries past escaped the horrors of the plantation and formed unique communities in the forested interior, and rich, distinctive cultures — celebrated annually on Maroon Heritage Day, 10 October. Ndjuka is also the name of a language, thought to be spoken today by about thirty thousand people in Suriname and across the border in French Guiana. The symbols on Pinas’s totems represent Ndjuka phrases — “kibi wi” means “protect us” — in a unique script devised over a century ago.
Around the year 1908, a Ndujka man named Afaka Atumisi had a dream in which, he later said, a spirit promised to reveal to him a series of symbols for writing the Ndjuka language, which at that point was entirely oral. Afaka eventually compiled fifty-six characters, which came to be known as Afaka script, creating a syllabary for the language, in which each character represents a specific syllable.
Afaka taught his script to others, and by the time he died in 1918 it was reported that over a hundred people in the Tapanahony area could read and write his script. It came to broader attention when a Catholic missionary named Brother Bernard observed Afaka’s nephew Abena reading a book written in what seemed to the friar to be mysterious symbols.
In later decades, the number of fluent readers and writers declined. By 1975, an article in the Suriname Museum journal estimated that “most probably there remain only five.” Today, it’s more common for Ndjuka to be written (or typed) in Roman characters, but Afaka’s script continues to survive — making Ndjuka the only surviving Creole language with its own indigenous writing system. That survival is in large part due to the efforts of Marcel Pinas and other Surinamese artists — Maroon or otherwise — who use the characters in their work as an assertive motif of cultural identity. Afaka script recurs in Pinas’s paintings, sculptures, and works in other mediums, spelling out a message of persistence and resilience for the present and the future.
Become an art collector
Artistic talent from the Caribbean is vast and diverse, owing to our mixed cultural backgrounds, modern perspectives, and intricate histories and geographies. This diversity makes Caribbean art exciting and competitive in the global market. LES ÎLES (“the islands” in French) is a new online marketplace for contemporary Caribbean art. It’s also building its own private collection dedicated to living Caribbean artists, while encouraging new collectors to do the same. Shelly-Ann Inniss learns more
Experiencing art increases dopamine in the brain, and captivating artworks can be found just about everywhere these days — not only traditional museums, but in social media and online galleries. With advances in digital technology combined with the volume of creative talent in our region, LES ÎLES was launched in 2020 to connect Caribbean artists digitally with the international art market — on a scale that can impact as many artists as possible, including both established and non-established figures who may not have had the opportunity to exhibit internationally before.
“Investing in our own people is our collective path to success,” says Anjeni Ramtahal, founder of LES ÎLES. Opportunities to speak with the artists personally, visit their studios, and learn more about them have significantly increased due to online avenues, too. But how do new collectors decide where to start without breaking the bank?
Ramtahal recommends understanding what you emotionally connect with, as a starting point. “Being a member of the Caribbean diaspora, I connected very strongly with Caribbean artists, as they address a lot of issues I recognise in my daily life,” she says, “particularly relating to identity and migration.” Joven Caribeño, a painting by LES ÎLES participating artist Walkind Rodriguez, depicts a young boy who leaves the Dominican Republic, the artist explains. He feels guilty about abandoning his country, and fears going into the unknown. Later, he learns new cultures and practices, which eventually enrich who he becomes — indicated by the colourful lines flowing through his body. This is one of the pieces featured in LES ÎLES’ private collection, and the personal story of many others in the diaspora.
New art collectors might be apprehensive about investing via online shopping, but LES ÎLES takes a personalised approach to the journey. “Our hands-on support involves customised presentations of the artist’s stories, works and trajectories, theme, and aesthetic. We provide images and videos of the works, and also visualisations of them in the collector’s own space based on their budget,” explains Ramtahal.
Fundamentally, there’s an immense difference between buying art and collecting it. You don’t have to be a collector to start acquiring pieces that you love. Buying is for fun and can be whimsical; whereas, collecting is more purposeful and strategic. Art collections are incredible investments that can have a profitable return in the future. Unlike stocks or financial investments, art is a tangible investment and its value remains even if the market dives. Keep in mind that investments are a waiting game as they take time before a profit is realised.
Over the past year, LES ÎLES has seen artist value grow significantly due to factors such as major public commissions, museum acquisitions, and international exhibitions. “The trajectory is different for each artist, and this is what we consult on when recommending art as an investment — from artists who are just graduating, to those that are already represented,” Ramtahal says.
In the end, the experience of art is always subjective; therefore, when purchasing a piece, buy what moves you, what you can afford. Be absolutely certain whether you are investing in an original or a copy, and document your purchases thoroughly. If you have any doubts about works you’ve purchased or refrained from buying, pause for a while, and engage in serious research and evaluation. Always remember that the quality of the piece is more important than the artist’s name, and art education is a continuous process.
The ibis and the heron
Across cultures, storytime is a treasured opportunity to entertain, pass on lessons, and share community spirit from time immemorial. During Guyana’s Indigenous Heritage Month every September, traditional tales are always on the programme, as storytellers from Indigenous communities share their wit and wisdom.
Among the Makushi — one of Guyana’s Indigenous groups, who live mainly in the north Rupununi — pantanî (pronounced pan-duh-nee) means stories, and there are many of them. The recent anthology 33 Amerindian Tales collects the insights of contemporary Makushi storytellers, sharing them with readers who can’t travel to Guyana to hear them in person — like this tale from Thomas John of Surama, translated by Kenneth Butler, illustrated by Géraud de Ville de Goyet
In a time before human beings, where everything lived as one with the sea and the forest, there were two fishing birds. One was for the river and one was for the ponds. The first one was a green ibis, which only fished for worms on the shores of the river. The other was a cocoi heron, which looked for fish in the ponds. Both were the best at what they did.
Rumours spread about their individual skills, and there were talks of one being better than the other. It came to the attention of the green ibis, which became very upset and decided to trick the cocoi heron into displaying his “charms.” Having heard about the rumours, the heron also wanted to see the ibis’s charms, so he accepted the challenge without further discussions.
They decided to hold a competition to see who was the best fishing bird of all. It was set to begin at the first sign of the full moon and to last for the whole duration of the full moon. The other birds would be the judges of the two. The ibis and the heron got themselves ready for the big event and after several days of hard training came the full moon, which signalled the beginning of the competition. Both birds took out their charms and rubbed them. Everyone was amazed at what was taking place in front of them. There were so many fish coming towards the heron and so many worms towards the ibis! Both birds continued fishing tirelessly for three nights.
When it finally came to an end, the judges started counting the number of fish and worms that the two birds had gathered. Both birds were so tired that they could not even stand on their legs anymore, so they just dropped right there, waiting for the judges to tally up the numbers. When the judges finally finished their count, it was time for everyone to know which was the best fishing bird. The ibis was certain it would be him, but so was the heron, and everyone had their feathers crossed for their favourite bird. But when the judges announced that it was a tie, the ibis couldn’t believe it and fainted upon hearing the result. Likewise, the heron was so disappointed that he started crying. And all the other birds left the ibis and the heron.
A few hours later, having digested the initial shock of the results, the ibis and the heron were still curious to know how the other had done. They decided to exchange their charms so that the other could feel how it works. But what they had not realised is that they did not fish for the same thing. And when they set out to test the other’s charm, they were about to get surprised. Using the ibis’s charm by the river, the heron started seeing worms crawling towards him and he got scared and flew away. At the same time, the ibis was doing the same thing with the heron’s charm and, seeing all the fish swimming towards him, he was so scared that he left the pond and did not return. He went to the river, looking for the heron, while the heron was looking for him by the pond.
To this day, they still haven’t found each other. That is why you can see the heron fishing in the ponds while the ibis is always by the river, looking for worms . . .
33 Amerindian Tales, edited by Dr Géraud de Ville de Goyet, is a selection of the best stories originally published by the Pantanî Blog’s digital storytelling project. It’s available for download at cobracollective.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/33_amerindian_tales_low.pdf