Word of mouth (May/June 2014)

Barbados’s biennial literary festival is back, and a popular Caribbean photography book becomes an exhibition in Toronto

Photograph by Pixachi/shutterstock.comPhotograph courtesy Robert & Christopher Publishers. Johana Foamz (2008), by James Cooper

Festivals need love too

Barbados’s literary festival is back this year, with a line-up of renowned Caribbean writers. Shakirah Bourne explains why the support of literature-loving audiences is crucial

What’s better than lounging in a historic park with an art gallery, sitting under a baobab tree and listening to steelpan music, and relaxing on a boardwalk while watching ultramarine waves crashing against the seashore? Doing all of these things while reading the newest Caribbean novel, or listening to live poetry performances.

For a country that boasts a ninety-eight per cent literacy rate, it is perplexing that Barbados’s first literary festival, BIM Lit Fest, only came into fruition in May 2012. Still, it was a welcome addition to the calendar of festival activities which normally revolve around drinking, eating, and “wukking up.” BIM Lit Fest, with its slogan “Words need love too,” promised to showcase the fictional, poetic, and dramatic works of Barbadian and Caribbean authors, conduct workshops for schoolchildren and aspiring writers, create a book village displaying the work of authors, and nurture reading and writing among audiences.

The latter was an easy feat, thanks to a line-up of Caribbean literary heavyweights like Kamau Brathwaite, Derek Walcott, and Earl Lovelace, plus readings by Austin Clarke, Lorna Goodison, Elizabeth Nunez, Kei Miller, Kendel Hippolyte, Courttia Newland, and others. These renowned authors were paired with Barbadian writers and poets to complete an intense five-day event, testing the literary stamina of word lovers. And you could have your cake and afford it too, because all the festival events were free and open to the public.

Given the success of that inaugural festival, it was disappointing to hear that BIM Lit Fest was not to be repeated in 2013, but would instead be a biennial event. So literature lovers need to come out and support the festival as it returns this year, running from 15 to 17 May, to show that books and literature are important to Barbadian culture, and deserve celebration.

The 2014 festival is already shaping up to be a memorable one, with Jamaican poet and scholar Edward Baugh scheduled to deliver the keynote speech. Staged in historic Bridgetown, under the theme “Crossings: Breaking Borders”, the festival plans to feature renowned Caribbean authors reading from a boat berthed in the Careenage.

There will be stimulating panel discussions that explore migration to Panama; identities and ethnicities; the “crossing” of sexualities; and the fragile line between sanity and insanity. This year’s writing master-classes will be conducted by Guyana-born Mark McWatt and Jamaican Erna Brodber, with workshops facilitated by Robert Edison Sandiford, Karen Lord, and UK publisher Verna Wilkins. Plus the BIM Lit Fest Children’s Fair will open with a parade of Barbadian folklore characters, a library mobile van, and musical performances.

Public support is key to keeping initiatives such as this literary festival in Barbados’s yearly programme. Remember, book festivals need love too!

 

A lesser-known paradise

Melanie Archer explains how the art book Pictures from Paradise has morphed into a groundbreaking Toronto exhibition

Around this time in 2013, Mariel Brown and I were plenty happy with the book we co-conceived and -edited: Pictures from Paradise: A Survey of Contemporary Caribbean Photography (Robert & Christopher Publishers). The title we’d selected for this collection was tongue-in-cheek, as we’d deliberately pushed aside traditional depictions of the Caribbean as a picture-perfect paradise, and focused instead on the contemporary art photography of eighteen artists who, like us, were more interested in speaking about the Caribbean as we see it today — a place filled with complex social, racial, political, and physical relationships and landscapes. Within a year of its release in April 2012, we had got Pictures from Paradise into bookshops and art institutions throughout the region, and the title was signed for North American distribution by one of the world’s leading art book distributors. Once that deal was set, and Pictures from Paradise was available via Amazon, we thought our project had hit the peak of its visibility. We were wrong.

In June 2013 we were contacted by Wedge Curatorial Projects, a Toronto-based, non-profit organisation with a mission to promote black and diasporic identity through art exhibitions. Wedge’s director, Kenneth Montague — an esteemed art collector and curator — had purchased a copy of Pictures from Paradise and wanted to know if Mariel and I were interesting in co-curating an exhibition based on the book as part of the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival. We said yes — held yearly in Toronto, CONTACT is the largest photography festival in the world, and one of the most prestigious, welcoming some 1.8 million viewers annually, and featuring the work of over 1,500 artists from around the world, in more than 175 venues. We were particularly thrilled that Caribbean artists would be given space and recognition with their international counterparts, adding a unique voice to the theme of this year’s festival: identity.

The Pictures from Paradise exhibition features roughly eighty images — a carefully curated, whittled-down selection of photographs from each artist included in the book: Ewan Atkinson, Marvin Bartley, Terry Boddie, Holly Bynoe, James Cooper, Renée Cox, Gerard Gaskin, Abigail Hadeed, Gerard Hanson, Nadia Huggins, Marlon James, Roshini Kempadoo, O’Neil Lawrence, Ebony G. Patterson, Radcliffe Roye, Alex Smailes, Stacey Tyrell, and Rodell Warner. The project is supported by the Canada Council for the Arts and Caribbean Airlines.

One of thirteen primary exhibitions for CONTACT, Pictures from Paradise runs from 1 to 25 May, with an opening reception on 3 May, and a panel discussion on 4 May, in a temporary exhibition space constructed from shipping containers alongside Lake Ontario, on the grounds of the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery. Like the book, the exhibition installation is designed by Richard Rawlins, and the works again arranged into four sections: “Tableau Vivant”, which shows constructed scenarios, “Portraiture”, “The Documentary Image”, and “Transformed Media”, which hails digital processes. If you’re in Toronto this May, consider questioning the Caribbean’s idiosyncratic identity by visiting our version of paradise — it’s a lesser-known version, but one we find beautiful and worth examining.