Barbados National Cultural Foundation needs an Oracle Octopus

Opinion by Poetic Jazztice

Some readers of my recent missives may have seen this coming. Some, will say it was inevitable. The reference to “Signs” in my last post was possibly an indicator: I am proposing that authorities at Barbados’ National Cultural Foundation (NCF) contract the internationally acclaimed oracle octopus Paul to help them chart the way forward for that organization.

The apostolic octopus has arguably established “animal divination” as a serious source of guidance in the modern era. The sooth-saying sea creature’s counsel was reportedly sought by a Russian national recently, who offered £100,000 for a prediction!

Therefore, cultural authorities in the third most developed country in the western hemisphere – surpassed only by the United States and Canada, according to Wikipedia – need not worry unduly about such negative publicity as may arise from their resort to this arguably unorthodox measure.

The NCF’s lack of direction is indisputable. At least this is what Antonio “Boo” Rudder, a former CEO of the organization thinks. He made his views known on the August 8th edition of Brass Tacks, a popular local radio call-in programme. He said that the organization has never been given a clear mandate or sense of mission since it came into existence.

His remarks were supported, guardedly, by the current NCF executive supremo, Donna Hunte-Cox, another guest on the programme. She stressed the role of artists in the shaping of Barbados’ cultural agenda. She said “Well, I think that we as uh, artistes, the professionals, have to do our own research and determine what the mandate should be going forward.”

“Often times we sit and wait” she said, “for the parliamentarians and persons at that level to determine exactly what the mandate should be, but I think it needs to be dialogue between the practitioners, the professionals and the ah, persons in, in the, hierarchy to, to- to come up with a, a common goal, a common strategy.”

The fact is though, that the NCF does seem to be functioning under a mandate of some sort. The organization’s website suggests that when it was established by an Act of Parliament in 1983, its mandate was “to oversee the cultural landscape of Barbados”.

That does seem rather broad. Part of the problem is certainly a lack of specificity – a vagueness of vision – among the NCF’s officers. Perhaps Hunte-Cox sees this being addressed through the “dialogue” she mentioned. That would be reasonable.

However, after about twenty-seven years of existence, you might think the NCF would have already established a fairly significant dialogue of some sort with Barbadian artistes by now. The issue is more helpfully viewed, I suggest, not as a need for a dialogue, but rather a forensic examination and reformation of the kinds of dialogues that have existed between the NCF and its artist clients.

This assessment is based on my own experience. I have had conversations and dialogues with the NCF going back to 1992. I met with Cultural Officer Ashanti Trotman that year, when I was seeking assistance to get my “Coco-nuts: humour in the islands” comics promoted at Carifesta (the Caribbean Festival of The Arts), held that year in the neighbouring island of Trinidad.

If I remember correctly, I requested funding to help cover the cost of a flight to Trinidad, but my request was denied. I am not entirely sure it was Ashanti that I spoke to. It could have been his colleague Andrea Wells. It was about eighteen years ago, after all. I do remember that I had to make it to Trinidad on my own though.

The NCF did take a quantity of my books to Trinidad – saving me freighting costs, I suppose. And I may even have seen my books displayed in Trinidad, at a Barbados book stall, possibly manned by one of our more prominent historians and cultural commentators, Trevor Marshall.

Mia Mottley was probably the Minister of Education and Culture, the next time my path and the NCF’s crossed. That would have been around 1995 or so, when I was seeking governmental assistance to put together a delegation of Barbadian writers to represent the island at the London International Book Fair. Somewhere among my records is a letter from Ms. Motley, expressing regret at her Ministry’s inability to assist my efforts and advising that I stood a better chance of getting assistance if I approached the Ministry in a more timely manner. Fair enough: I accept full responsibility for the fruitlessness of the “dialogue” in that case.

However, the meeting with Cultural Officer Cheryl Harewood that followed thereafter was decidedly not helpful. I went away from that meeting with the distinct impression that Ms. Harewood had very little to offer where a vision for the literary arts in Barbados were concerned. I felt as though I was being consulted by an organization looking for ideas.

Nothing wrong with that – strictly speaking; her British accent did suggest that she was in need of some kind of local orientation: a period in which to familiarize herself with what was happening in the literary arts locally. She cannot be faulted for that.

The question does arise though of how the NCF justified her employment and remuneration.

There was another meeting at the NCF’s West Terrace St. James headquarters with Literary Officer George Arthur Smith, around the same time. George was the first person to assume that post for a number of years. The NCF seems to have had a “crisis of conscience” and/or confidence, following the exodus of the previous post holder, John Gilmore, a British expatriate.
Now, if I wanted to make excuses for the futility of my dialogue with the NCF at this point, I could say this approach came to nought because George died not long after we met. The truth is more complicated. George’s replacement was Nailah Folami Imojah a.k.a Charmaine Gill.

Ms Imojah’s appointment filled me with apprehension! She and I had a bit of a history, stemming from my dissatisfaction with her “transformation” of a poetry-jazz fusion production I had been developing in conjunction and/or consultation with her and other Barbadian writers (especially Esther Phillips and Margaret Gill, a former girlfriend), saxophonist Arturro Tappin, singer-guitarist Cameron Lewis (since deceased) and other local musicians, and a variety of local business interests, including Andre Thomas of Banks Brewery, Bobbi McKay of Miss Lou Promotions and Chris Chandler of the Barbados Museum.

That project, called “Poeticjazztice”, somehow metamorphosed into another production called “Interludes”. Ms. Imojah – a founding member, with myself and others, of Voices: Barbados Writers’ Collective – claimed Interludes was the brain child of Chandler and I, therefore “had nothing to do with it”.

I thought this an extraordinary assertion, and assured Ms Imojah that I would never agree with it. Chandler seemed happy to accept this interpretation of events though. Maybe the “change” in the origin of the Interludes production is what is envisaged by an environmental activist associate of his, Dr. Basil Springer, a prominent Barbadian “change engine” and regional representative of Counterpart International.

Efforts to resolve my disagreement with Ms. Imojah amicably have proven futile. Among my records is a letter from Barbadian attorney-at-law Branford Taitt Jr, warning me against any attempt to tarnish her good name, on the one hand, and assuring me of her desire to live peaceably with me, on the other.

For my part, I would like nothing more than to live “peaceably” with Ms. Imojah. However, I share the view of Pamela Lowe and other members of Norwich Justice and Peace – with whom I do voluntary work in England – that any pretension of making peace without regard to the principle of justice is perverse. Authentic, constructive dialogue, in such circumstances is impossible.

Ms. Imojah has not worked with the NCF since about 2001. However that is arguably of little consequence. Current senior employee Aja, and Al Gilkes, the organization’s Chairman up to 2008, are just two of the NCF’s current or recent personnel or “associations” that, so far as I can tell, have assumed common cause with her, where anything regarding myself or my trading label Intelek International is concerned.

The same apparently is true of a number of persons employed with the Starcom Network – a division of One Caribbean Media and an organization with which Gilkes and Imoja have a strong association. An on-air broad-side offensive by Starcom’s David Ellis against myself and Intelek in March 2002 has left me in no doubt about the antipathy that my refusal to accept Ms. Imojah’s interpretation of the cause of our dispute has inspired among her supporters.

Sandra Sealy – a champion of Ms. Imojah’s, her successor as the Coordinator of Voices, and also as Literary Officer at the NCF – on one occasion went beyond words, physically demonstrating her dissatisfaction with my resistance to her friend’s interpretation of the Poeticjazztice-Interludes connection.

Katie Gash, Sealy’s successor at the NCF and – surprise, surprise – Sealy’s successor as Coordinator of Voices, summed up the situation reasonably well, when she said to me in 2001 or thereabout “Everybody hates you!” Gash was quick to say she did not mean that, but I feel certain that while she might not have felt that way toward me herself – and other than out of sympathy for the supposed victim Imojah, she had no reason to – other members of Voices, members of the local media, some NCF staffers and other persons whom I probably never met and will never meet, feel that on the basis of what they have heard about my dispute with Ms. Imojah (typically from Ms. Imojah, Sealy, her ‘counselor’ calypsonian Adonijah or other supporters) something approximating hatred toward me is justified.
Consider this: during our first encounter, at the NCF premises, Wayne Webster, Manager Administration with the institution expressed surprise at my modest stature, as reports of my infamy had apparently led him to believe I was a Goliath! “You are Junior Campbell?!” he exclaimed incredulously, then virtually sighed “Man, after de way people talk about you I was expecting a bigger fella!”

I had not even known of Webster’s existence until that day, but clearly, he had heard of mine: I, the terror of Barbados’ artistic community, whose dissatisfaction with the angelic Ms. Imojah’s conduct was clearly unfair and unjustified!

Brandford Taitt Jr’s legal colleague Marvalee Franklin may also have heard similar stories about this “bookish bad bwoy”. At least, I am assuming that is why she chose to hide the day I visited her legal chambers – shared with Taitt Jr at the time, if I remember correctly.

However, I was not pursuing her to make trouble – to show off my “rude reader” ways. I merely wanted to find out the status of the patenting process for the name “Poetpourri”, for which I and my wife (girlfriend at the time) had contracted her services.

Or perhaps Franklin, a pious Christian and mother of wonder- boy preacher Jamal Franklin, was caught between two minds – somewhat like my sadly schizophrenic fellow poet and former girlfriend Margaret Gill, whose support for Imojah from the very first “Interlude” show at the Barbados Museum has been critical to the propagation of the original “error”. Only the rashest, most unreasonable of fools would call it a lie.

In a reported call to “reason” published on Moday in the online version of Barbados’ Nation newspaper (www.nationnews.com) Steve Blackett, the Minister of Community Development and Culture sounds a note of compromise and conciliation, as he suggests that the NCF, its artiste clients and other stakeholders share a single common purpose.

His comments, made in an address at the 2010 Crop Over Awards last Saturday represent a nice thought. However, over sixteen years of “dialogue” with NCF personnel has convinced me that analogous to the multi-tentacled Paul, the NCF can hardly be described as being singular in purpose.
Arguably, Blackett’s own address reflects the confusion within the organization – as on one hand he calls for differences between the NCF and stakeholders not to be settled in the public domain, and on the other, urges his audience to “speak out” and not “sit idly by and shrug our shoulders helplessly when negative and destructive elements creep into our culture”.

These positions are not necessarily contradictory, of course: an artiste or other stakeholder can, for example, discretely initiate a dialogue with Ms. Hunte-Cox of the NCF (as I did with previous CEO Allyson Leacock) and in so doing “speak out” against something negative or destructive that threatens oneself or others. (And hopefully the NCF will be more proactive in responding to those concerns than it was in responding to mine.)

The real worry triggered by Blackett’s words – and I only have what the Nation published to go on – is the implied compartmentalization of culture into Crop Over spectacles and similar events that the NCF produces, on one hand, and the reality of its every-day interaction with Barbadians on the other. His words suggest a fragmentary, simplistic notion of the cultural industries – the kind of “technocratic” fossilized, fundamentalist thinking that facilitates elitist exploitation of a nation’s cultural produce, and the empty exhibitionism one associates with self-alienated people (see my “Haiti’s seismic silence” blog on this site).

Such thin thinking is patently at odds with Blackett’s apparent recognition that “If a festival is to be sustained, if it is to survive and not lose its appeal, then it must grow, it must evolve, in response to the requirements of the society out of which it springs,” to use his words.
Presumably he is aware that as members of the same society, persons employed as “Cultural Officers” and event coordinators with the NCF bring the baggage and burdens of their own socially shaped ambitions, connections and disconnections with them to their work.

How then, is their productivity measured? By what objective criteria does he assert, “…certainly none could surpass the stellar productions that emanate from your well-oiled machinery”?

Has he – for starters – access to an extensive catalogue and knowledge of comparable talent available on the island? Hunte-Cox’s appeals on Brass Tacks for artistes to become registered with the NCF, suggests that he might not.

Furthermore, as a former news broadcaster himself, surely he is aware that journalists and other persons (engineers, technicians etc) producing content for the airwaves and the print media perform a vital function in advancing the democratic dimensions of Barbados’ culture – or at least, that they should.

And surely as a politician, elected to office by members of “the pubic”, he must have some confidence in the people’s maturity and soundness of judgement. Does he not think the Barbadian masses can rationally assess opposing opinions?

Or is he, like the tourism Minister Richard Sealy, possibly inordinately concerned about potential tourists’ impressions of the island?
Take it from me brother Blackett (and Sealy): persons in the informed, enlightenment seeking heritage tourism market will not be turned off a trip to Barbados by evidence that our democracy is robust! It is not the transparent elements of our business culture that turns persons like Canadian businessman Isaac Goodine – an associate of mine – off doing business in Barbados.

Why then, this apparent anxiety about “stakeholders” openly ventilating differences of opinion over “a particular decided arrangement”? The Minister’s knowledge (presumed) and his words (reported) seem incongruous.
I have reserved one example of “dialogue” between myself and the NCF for my closing remarks. This encounter occurred in July 2006, mere days before I moved from Barbados to England with my wife and infant daughter.

The occasion was a job interview for the post of Literary Officer, following Ms. Gash’s resignation. I had applied for the post previously, but to the best of my recollection, not on this occasion. I was therefore rather surprised to receive a phone call one Sunday afternoon, inviting me to attend this job interview.

My wife questioned the point of accepting the interview offer. Our flights had already been booked for some time and our packing of what could be packed, sale of what could be sold and storage-with-relatives-and-friends of everything else, was well advanced.

I could not resist though. I thought I should at least see what was being offered. I was prepared, as I eventually told my interviewers, to accept the job even if it meant travelling a few times a month to Barbados from England!

My proposition might not have been as impractical as it might at first appear, especially when one considers all the video conferencing and other telecommunications facilities available on our third most developed country in the western hemisphere.

As it happened though, I was not offered the job. I left Barbados days after the interview, and heard nothing from the NCF, until I received an electronic letter from Chairman Al Gilkes, in reply to an email I sent inquiring about the outcome of my interview.

I thought this rather odd, as Mr. Gilkes had not honoured me with his presence at the interview. Indeed, he may have been the only NCF Board member who did not. That, though, was not the first time the behaviour of this veteran journalist and co-founder of Al Hart PR (with Hartley Henry) made me wonder if I was invisible or non-existent.

Ms. Hunte-Cox mentioned that the NCF is to be guided in the future by a “draft policy for the development of the cultural industries”. On that basis, I think it unlikely that the organization will be seeking a hand – or eight – from marine mystic Paul, as it seeks to more accurately reflect the reality of Barbadian life.

If Mr. Gilkes’ past vision is anything to go on, I would argue that they already have as many hands as they need in or associated with the organization. What they lack, apparently, are more eyes.

Originally published at AllVoices.com

http://www.allvoices.com/contributed-news/6539235-oracle-octopus-for-barbados?r=1

I’m an England-based Barbadian writer/activist, trading as Intelek International (www.intelek.net; site currently inavailable) in the UK. Intelek offers holistic communication and education services and products. I am also affiliated with the US-based (Puerto Rico) Institute for Global Church Studies (IGCS), submitting articles and other missives reflecting on UK and Barbados-based religious developments.

Before moving to England I worked as a free-lance writer for a number of Caribbean news providers – including Caribbean Week and the Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC), formerly the Caribbean News Agency (CANA).

3 Comments

Filed under Barbados, Politics

3 responses to “Barbados National Cultural Foundation needs an Oracle Octopus

  1. One of my regular readers sent this message which I feel is appropriate;-

    In the Advocate – Crop Over a success in spite of challenges Caribbbean dictionary a success against all odds the Diaspora Conference was a success. I wish I had been writing it down… everything in Barbados is a success… that’s why there is no improvement over the mediocracy that blankets the country. I see no ‘journalists’ in the local media who have the guts to tell it like it is. Life in de tropics I guess……

  2. What will they think of next

    Dennis Jones(Living in Barbados) has a new blog:-
    http://potomacgrasshopper.wordpress.com/