The Good and Bad of Carifesta X

Carifesta — the Caribbean Festival of Arts — was staged for the first time in 1972, hosted by the government of Guyana. Originally intended as an expression of cultural confidence by the independence-era anglophone Caribbean, and a forum for Caribbean artists to exchange ideas and share their work with colleagues, the festival has been staged ten times at irregular intervals over the last 36 years. Now on a fixed biennial schedule, Carifesta was hosted by Suriname in 2004, Trinidad and Tobago in 2006, and the most recent installment of the regional arts event is now under way in Guyana (22 to 31 August, 2008), bringing Carifesta "home" after nearly four decades.

The decision by the Guyanese government to host Carifesta X was controversial. The Bahamas were the original hosts, but the new administration that came to power in that country after elections in 2007 announced, just about a year ahead of the scheduled opening, that it was not prepared for the responsibility. Guyanese presidentBharrat Jagdeo then volunteered his country as replacement host, setting off a barrage of criticism by commentators who argued that Guyana could not afford the expense of the massive week-long festival, and a semi-boycott by the opposition People’s National Congress party.

In the months before the Carifesta opening, some of Guyana’s politics bloggers expressed frequent disdain for the festival organisers and disbelief that the event would proceed successfully. Many took to using the disparaging term "Carifiasco". As usual, Living Guyana was the most prolifically outspoken. "Is this government really serious?"asked Living Guyana’s MediaCritic in July:

Sure every country in Caricom has poverty but how could we be proud to invite visitors to this nation when we have hundreds of our fellow countrymen and women who know no home but the pavements and the streets?

How could we invite visitors to this land when poverty, hunger and hopelessness are so pervasive and overwhelming?

Living Guyana also described Carifesta as a "deception masterstroke":

[President Jagdeo] is desperate to leave a positive legacy and his time is quickly running out (his current term is his last and it ends in 2011). He saw this as the perfect opportunity for Guyana to host the region and impress upon them that he has done well for Guyana as president….

But C.D. Valere, a US-based Guyanese literary blogger who posts atSignifyin’ Guyana , and returned to Guyana for the festival, disagreed:

Hopefully, Carifesta will be a chance for those who live in the region and those who claim belongingness to the region to (again) enjoy their commonalities and differences in a relatively relaxed and fun atmosphere.

A major planning hitch came two days before the opening ceremony, when the system for distributing free Carifesta tickets to the public broke down, leaving hundreds of people to queue for hours. Living Guyana posted photos of the crowd outside the Carifesta Secretariat. Meanwhile, Nicolette Bethel, a writer and theatre director who serves as director of culture in the Bahamas, reported on her arrival in Guyana and then the frustrating discovery that the Bahamian contingent’s entire container of costumes, stage sets, artworks and artifacts had failed to leave the Bahamas. And the night before the opening, Living Guyana posted photos suggesting that construction was still incomplete at one of the main exhibition sites.

The opening ceremony itself, televised live, drew strongly mixed reactions. Living Guyana described it as a "glorious disaster … disjointed and embarrassing". "I’d love to tell you that the opening ceremony … was a show of money well spent," wrote Signifyin’ Guyana . " It was not. But I’m having so much fun otherwise, I’d rather not dwell on the negatives right now." Press reports also described the disappointed reactions of the audience to the opening ceremony, and a "negative" story in the Guyana Times , the newest of Guyana’s newspapers (launched just a few weeks ago), even got a journalist fired. Living Guyana broke the story :

It is widely known that Guyana Times is owned by the Ramroop family who have very close links to President Bharrat Jagdeo and the newspaper has taken a decidedly pro-government/pro-PPP slant and does not encourage criticisms of the government or its activities to be published.

As Carifesta unfolded over the next few days, bloggers continued to post reports on specific events and general hitches in the programme. SkinUp Guyana noted that heavy weekend rain had produced minor flooding around Georgetown , the Guyanese capital (which lies below sea level and is protected by a series of drainage canals, sluice gates, and dykes). "Didn’t the government promise that drainage would be a priority during these periods?" At the same time, there was a shortage of running water at one of the main Carifesta venues, SkinUp said. Signifyin’ Guyana , on the other hand,wrote appreciatively of a symposium event featuring a panel of distinguished Caribbean writers, including Nobel laureate Derek Walcott :

It was a well-organized evening of reflection on the topic "Caribbean Culture at The Crossroads," and as expected, the topic generated both bright and gloomy views of the current state of the Caribbean and about its past and future.

SkinUp Guyana , however, complained that the symposium events were poorly attended, and blamed the Carifesta organisers.

Signifyin’ Guyana also posted a mini review of a play by the Caymanian writer Frank McField, and an account of an evening of literary readings. Nicolette Bethel described the highlight of her Carifesta trip: a performance of her play The Children’s Teeth in the village of Anna Regina, on Guyana’s Essequibo coast. And Antilles , the blog of The Caribbean Review of Books , suggested that "the best parts of big arts festivals like this are the encounters that happen informally if not spontaneously on the edges — random meetings, casual conversations, pleasing coincidences." Even MediaCritic atLiving Guyana , on visiting the Carifesta "Grand Market", admittedthat, despite many flaws in the displays at the venue, it was worth a second visit.

With three days still to go before Carifesta X closes, it’s certain that Guyanese blogs will have much more to say about the event. What’s less sure is whether the arts festival will make a great enough impact on the wider regional consciousness for other Caribbean bloggers to enter the debates raised by the event.