Rawle Gibbons: breaking down the Ivory Tower

Rawle Gibbons explains how the Centre for Creative and Festival Arts at UWI’s St Augustine campus rethinks the nature of arts education

Illustration by Marlon Griffith

“The energies of the mas, of steelband, of Hosay, these energies have all been politicised, because they have all been sites of resistance to colonial oppression.” Rawle Gibbons punctuates his words with large, expressive hands. “The popular arts are not necessarily divorced from popular politics.”

About a week before, when I’d stumbled into the bearded, bass-voiced Gibbons at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Learning Resource Centre, I’d promptly asked if and when I could sit with him to download his latest thoughts on arts education. After several days of playing phone tag and rescheduling appointments, and another half hour spent sitting outside Gibbons’s office at the UWI Centre for Creative and Festival Arts (CCFA), I’d finally got a few minutes with him. The transfer and exchange of ideas began immediately.

“Because we are the first formal tertiary-level programme in arts education in the region, we’ve inherited certain responsibilities,” says Gibbons, who has headed the Centre since its establishment in 1986. One of the most crucial responsibilities, he explains, has been to reconceptualise the popular arts and incorporate them into the formal arts education programme, an undertaking which goes far beyond the task of generating employable and professionally trained artists.

“We have very consciously sought to incorporate the indigenous arts. That is why we call ourselves the Centre for Creative and Festival Arts. It is not by chance. Nobody named us that. We have named ourselves that, because we recognise that we emerge from a society where festivals are the major form of artistic practice,” he says.

“Hundreds and hundreds of artists are turned out through the festivals that we don’t necessarily have any contact with. So what we’ve had to do as a new institution is to attempt to make those links, so that people coming up on the popular level can get access to university education.”

Making university education accessible to traditional artists is an ongoing challenge for the CCFA, which is constantly refashioning its arts education programme in order to bring the world of formal education and professional training into harmony with the world of popular arts. “One is shaping the other,” Gibbons says. “It is not just a question of bringing people into a formal education which they can get in any other part of the world. It is about shaping that education so that it can meet the demands of the indigenous arts.”

That process of “shaping” has been going on for close to two full decades, since the centre was launched as a small unit within the Department of Liberal Arts (then called the Department of English) in the Faculty of Humanities and Education. Today, the CCFA is a separate department of the faculty, offering undergraduate programmes in music, theatre, dance, drama, visual arts, and Carnival studies, as well as graduate level programmes in cultural studies and arts and cultural enterprise management (ACEM).

Throughout the years, the CCFA has maintained indigenous art as the core of each of its programmes, Gibbons points out, highlighting the example of the centre’s music education programme. “We declared from the very outset that the steel pan would be the principal instrument of instruction. You can go anywhere and get musical instruction, but if you come here, you’re going to learn through the steel pan.”

This approach, informed by the recognition that most Caribbean artists who have made any contribution have done so through the medium of the popular arts, was nothing short of revolutionary in a society where, as Gibbons observes, “the formal arts have, by and large, been elitist, middle-class activities.”

Moreover, the CCFA manages to operate from within the university, an institution which, Gibbons says, at one point developed a reputation for failing to contribute to the arts and which was actually perceived by some as hostile to their development.

“The university has never really been part of the evolution of the arts in the Caribbean. That is something that we also inherited: the idea that the university had no relevance to what mattered to the people,” Gibbons remarks.

“We’ve had to continuously fight against the concept of the university as an ivory tower,” he continues. “We inherited these legacies of university hostility towards the arts.”

“And I want to be clear on this,” Gibbons is now saying, his long fingers interwoven, pausing for effect. “When I talk about the arts, I am not talking about painting and drawing. I’m talking about these mass movements that Caribbean people have created.”