The greatest showcase of Caribbean talent is back! The Caribbean Festival of Arts, or CARIFESTA as it is more popularly known, has returned to Barbadian shores after 36 years.

In 1981, 2,500 performers, writers and artists from 30 countries coloured the island with creativity for two weeks of symposia, festivals and community events.

CARIFESTA ’81 was the fourth staging of the event, which began in Guyana in 1972. The idea of a regional exhibition of Caribbean arts and culture was first floated by Caribbean writers and artists such as Martin Carter and George Lamming, who were involved in the Caribbean Writers and Artists Convention in Georgetown in 1966 and Guyana’s Independence and Republic celebrations a few years later. The arts and cultural festival was also part of the push towards efforts at regional integration.

Guyana’s Prime Minister at the time, Forbes Burnham, supported the idea and offered to host the event in Guyana. The inaugural staging was held from August 25 to September 15, 1972 under the theme, ‘The Artist in Society with Special Reference to the Third World’. That first CARIFESTA brought over 1,000 artistes from over 30 Caribbean and South American countries to Guyana. Music, dance, drama, painting, sculpture, folk art, photography and literature were some of the art forms explored.

The success of CARIFESTA 1972 eventually led to the institutionalisation of the festival through the Caribbean Community or CARICOM.

The next CARIFESTA was staged in Jamaica in 1976 and landed in Cuba three years later.

As the regional cultural explosion headed to Barbados, local organisers grasped the opportunity to make the cultural explosion their own.
Myrna Belgrave was one of the members of the small, but powerful team tasked with managing CARIFESTA almost four decades ago. At the time, she was one of four Cultural Affairs Officers in the Ministry of Culture, who worked alongside a Permanent Secretary and Minister Louis Tull. She was named Artistic Director for CARIFESTA IV, and notes that while the Ministry of Culture had been able to organise national events such as Crop Over and the National Independence Festival of Creative Arts (NIFCA) — which was in its embryonic phase — CARIFESTA presented new logistical concerns, such as personnel and infrastructure.

“It was an exciting and exacting experience,” Belgrave said with a laugh.

Despite these challenges, they were committed to maintaining the standard of the event, and even introduced new initiatives. For instance, they included an awards ceremony to celebrate the work of Caribbean artists who have made lasting contributions to Caribbean culture. Chosen for the honour were: the late AimeCesaire, renowned poet from Martinique, the late Frank Collymore, late Cuban poet Nicolas Guillen, Jamaican sculptor the late Edna Manley, late Trinidadian dancer Beryl McBurnie and Slinger ‘Mighty Sparrow’ Francisco.

Additionally, Barbadian organisers introduced a Community Contact day. On the second Sunday of CARIFESTA, each delegation was invited to visit a non-urban community in Barbados. Some of the areas chosen were: Sargeant’s Village, Pinelands, Rices, St. Patrick’s, Wotton and Deacon’s Farm. A gala performance was also held in Oistins featuring a Cuban delegation.

A Bridgetown CARIFESTA market and the commissioning of murals on public buildings from participating artists were also part of the unique offerings found at CARIFESTA ’81. Additionally, staples such as the Caribbean literary workshops and seminars, book market and exhibition, theatre, folk, dance and film and music festivals were held across the island.

A Caribbean Kadooment ended CARIFESTA on a high. Coinciding with CARICOM day, delegations joined the sea of revellers in the annual costume parade.

“Persons did not have the experience like they do now. The National Cultural Foundation was formed after CARIFESTA (NCF was established in 1983). So now there is more structure through the NCF, and also people who have experience with the cultural industries. Barbados is now in a better position to host the event. We are in a better place now…as we have grown culturally,” Belgrave said. “I also believe this staging of CARIFESTA will also give a better thrust forward for culture.”

CARIFESTA 2017 is expected to attract some 3,000 artistes from approximately 20 countries to Barbados, in a celebration of arts in this 13th iteration of the Festival.

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