Carifesta’s festival of the arts turns full circle

Carifesta returns to Guyana after the first festival was held there 36 years ago. Ruth Osman looks excitedly at what’s planned

The Jamaican contingent in Trevor Rhone’s Smile Orange at the Theatre Guild, Georgetown, 1972. Photograph courtesy Raschid OsmanThe National Cultural Centre, Georgetown, Guyana. Photograph courtesy Oneil Rodney

Speak to anyone fortunate enough to have been at the first Caribbean Festival of the Arts (Carifesta) and their faces acquire a dreamy, faraway look. They’ll tell you how in 1972, hundreds of artists from all over the Caribbean and Latin America converged on Georgetown, Guyana, to celebrate the region’s diverse heritage.

The National Cultural Centre was commissioned for the festival, but was not completed in time, so performers danced, sang and acted on the building’s floor, surrounded by walls of palm leaves. Numerous productions and exhibitions were held by the various delegations. They’ll talk about the sense of community they felt. Visitors were invited to locals’ houses for a “cook-up.” There were processions every night as performers, accompanied by locals, sang, talked and danced their way from the cultural centre to the houses built for them in Festival City.

Those were the heady days. Caribbean countries were seeking ways to express their recently acquired independence, ways to define the word “Caribbean.” Carifesta 1972 became a baptism of sorts, ushering in what many now see as a Caribbean Renaissance.

Thirty-six years later, the festival has come back to Guyana, and the Guyanese people have embraced it with open arms. Nineteen committees are handling various aspects of the festival, scheduled to run from August 22–31. About 20 countries have confirmed that they will be sending delegations of visual artists, performers and writers.

This time, the delegations will be accommodated at various hotels. But the organisers are going to great lengths to ensure that the communal spirit that marked 1972 is not lost.

Local and visiting artists will be travelling to communities all over the country to participate in workshops, performances and exhibitions. These “community festivals,” besides giving visitors a chance to see Guyana’s wide vistas and lush landscapes, are expected to be interactive.

Georgetown, the capital, will have its share of activities over the 10 days. Lovers of literature will be able to attend a book fair, and various readings by Caribbean authors. There will also be a grand cultural market and trade fair, where participants will exhibit their craft and artwork. Full-scale productions will be held at the National Cultural Centre, the recently refurbished Theatre Guild, and a number of smaller auditoriums around the city. Designers will exhibit their work at Fashion Focus.

Performers from all over the region will compete in Carifesta’s calypso and chutney competitions. At the “Super Concerts,” however, there will be no competing, just high-energy performances as the region’s best performers show the talent that took them to the top.

The Youth Village, housed in the National Park, a huge expanse of green in the north of the city, will cater to those who are young at heart.

Even stamp collectors will have their day. An exhibition of stamps from national and individual collections has been planned.

But Carifesta is not just about shows and exhibitions. It’s meant to provide a forum where artists can discuss motivation, technique and other aspects of the arts. To this end, a series of symposia is being planned. St Lucian Nobel laureate Derek Walcott has confirmed his participation. Other well-known Caribbean writers such as Guyana’s David Dabydeen are also expected to be there.

The one thing that will set this year’s Carifesta apart from its predecessors is the involvement of the West Indian diaspora. For the first time, Caribbean people living in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada have been invited. The response has been enthusiastic. One group has actually commissioned a play about the immigrant experience to be shown at the festival.

In all, about 100 activities will be packed into Carifesta 2008. So whether you’re an artist seeking to hone your creative skills, an adventurer in search of different cultures, or just a lover of people, Guyana is the place to be this August.