#MakeItRain – UWI DCFA Th?nk 3 Cultural Policy Symposium: A Stimulus for Action

By Marsha Pearce Thursday, May 18th, 2017 Categories: Features, Reports, Symposiums, Updates

Marsha Pearce reports on a one-day cultural policy symposium hosted on April 27, 2017 by the Department of Creative and Festival Arts at the University of the West Indies (UWI), St Augustine Campus, Trinidad. She recapitulates the main points, noting a recurring motif of policy with the potential to act like rain, coaxing growth in a society with latent possibilities or seeds. In a context where Trinidad and Tobago’s cultural policy stance has remained at the draft stage for many years, the symposium births a call to action; a rallying cry: make it rain.

Symposium folders feature the work of UWI DCFA alumnus Alex Kelly, whose latest art involves a look at Trinidad and Tobago’s development. All photographs courtesy the Department of Creative and Festival Arts.

Symposium folders feature the work of UWI DCFA alumnus Alex Kelly, whose latest art involves a look at Trinidad and Tobago’s development. All photographs courtesy the Department of Creative and Festival Arts.

The Department of Creative and Festival Arts (DCFA), UWI, St. Augustine hosted its third event in its Th?nk series – a programme designed to further national and regional discussions on matters pertaining to the cultural sector. The one-day symposium, titled No Luxury Item: Cultural Policy and the Necessary Art of Development, took place on Thursday April 27, 2017. Its aim was to provide a platform for: 1) Advancing a dialogue on a national cultural policy for Trinidad and Tobago, and 2) Driving the national policy decision-making process.

The event’s title was taken from a seminal publication by Augustin Girard and Geneviève Gentil who note: “cultural development has now ceased to be an article of luxury, an embellishment of plenty, which societies and individuals could do without; it is on the contrary linked to the very conditions of general development.” The symposium was also propelled by the view that nurturing development is a necessary art or vital skill in the global arena.

The one-day symposium commenced with stirring statements. These served as a strong foundation for proceedings, which built in thoughtful momentum as the day progressed. Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Education Dr. Heather Cateau gave her opening remarks. “How do we move forward toward a meaningful [cultural] policy paper?” she asked. Dean Cateau noted a number of articles in the local newspapers that raised questions about funding – pointing to what she calls a “who-should-get-what discourse.” According to Dean Cateau, “a cultural policy is more than who gets what share of the pie.” She was careful to recognise the need for the university to align with the needs of the society – “UWI must be a driving force” – and declared it is “time for action.” Mrs. Ingrid Ryan-Ruben, Director of Culture, Ministry of Community Development, Culture and the Arts offered her own provocations on the subject of a cultural policy. “I do not believe a national cultural policy will ever be approved. I say that because I want someone to prove me wrong,” she stated. Ryan-Ruben observed that we write policy daily, by way of our actions: “When we make new buildings and destroy old ones we write policy. We write policy every day. Policy is what we do.” In thinking about a policy for Trinidad and Tobago she urged: “Let’s be sure to build a framework that leaves no one out; one that includes a full value chain.” As part of her reflections she asked a number of questions: “Why is drama almost dead? Why is parang in decline? Why is Panorama almost….” she paused, deliberately leaving her question unfinished, hanging ominously after the word “almost.”  In doing so she underscored a society, a culture on an edge or brink of something unwelcome….a culture ALMOST.

Th?nk 3 keynote speaker Dr. Suzanne Burke.

Th?nk 3 keynote speaker Dr. Suzanne Burke.


Following Mrs. Ryan-Ruben, was keynote speaker Dr. Suzanne Burke, of UWI St Augustine, with her presentation titled “We Doh ‘fraid Nobody! Arresting Cultural Policy Stasis – Forging Pathways to Democratise the Cultural Development Agenda in Trinidad and Tobago.” Dr. Burke noted that cultural policy is important because “we are in crisis” economically, politically and socially. She sees a “retreat into tribalism” around the world and “these tribes are contributing to cultural wars because people are retreating to what they understand as culture.” She also added further dimension to this phenomenon of tribalism: “Society is resorting to silo behaviour, where we believe more opinions than facts. So the expert has less credibility in terms of how we make policy,” she shared. Dr. Burke took a close look at cultural policy as an “expansive field” and unpacked four concerns: 1) definitions; 2) ascribed values; 3) policy and culture and, 4) policy and development. With these four concerns she pinpointed the following:

• Regarding definitions, “culture means different things to different people”

• On the matter of ascribed values: “There is culture for culture’s sake, that is, culture’s intrinsic value; but we are engaging more and more with what culture can do – what is called instrumentalism or the instrumental value of culture. So we attach culture to every development problem, including but not limited to job creation, income generation, youth empowerment, destination branding, national identity formation and promotion of art. Furthermore, value [can be viewed in terms of] where cultural policy is positioned within the domain of government: education, sport, gender, health and more recently, trade and industry…Suffice it to say…culture and cultural policy still represent what in the literature is identified as ‘low politics’”

• When we think about culture and policy we must be aware that “policy is not a rational domain. It is a social construct. It is a political act. It is about power, about making decisions”

• In considerations of policy and development we need to ask: “Is culture an aspect, a means or end-product of development? When we say cultural development what do we mean?”

While Dr. Burke admitted there is a crisis – amplifying that “almost” tension established by Ryan-Ruben – she balanced the atmosphere with an optimistic perspective: “Crisis comes with opportunity. When there is a crisis, there is an opportunity to recreate. The current climate is a crucible of destruction and creation. How can policy change an environment in crisis?” She referred to Death Valley in Eastern California and used it as a metaphor. Death Valley is said to hold the record for the highest recorded air temperature in the world. Its name implies a punishing, dry locale, a space of demise. Yet, as Dr. Burke noted, in 2005, 2015 and 2016, the seemingly barren site sprung to life after more than average rainfall. Beneath the surface of Death Valley is a massive seed bank, each seed covered with a waxy coating. “When the rain fell,” said Dr. Burke, “the waxy coating came off and flowers grew, the birds came, then the foxes – a whole ecology was transformed. In the Death Valley the rain made a change. Policy can do the same. The rain did not fall on certain rocks. The rain fell on an entire ecology and the system was changed. We need a system approach to policy making.” Burke’s use of the word ecology is key as it speaks to relationships. She expressed a need to be aware of different kinds of relationships when thinking about policy: commensalism (an association between two organisms in which one benefits and the other derives neither benefit nor harm), amensalism (a relationship in which one organism is inhibited or destroyed while the other organism remains unaffected), mutualism (both organisms benefit) and parasitism (where one organism, the parasite, benefits at the expense of the other). She also called for a need to ask: “What are the various kinds of knowledge that we can bring to the crafting of policy?” Dr. Burke pointed to the French interpretation of the word development, that is, as an unfolding or a bringing out of latent possibilities and called for a bold approach to development. She delivered her presentation with the invocation of the warrior/stick fighter spirit of the 2017 Soca song “Buss Head” sung by artistes Machel Montano and Bunji Garlin. An excerpt from its lyrics read:

Tell them we doh ‘fraid nobody
All them bad mind people, dem who trying to stop we
See them with they big stick like they want paint we bloody
Hit them with powder tell them hold dey stink and dutty…

Dr. Burke’s keynote set a tone fed by a call to make it rain. If, as she noted, “when we make policy we tell people about our worldview,” then we must not be afraid to make it rain; the people of Trinidad and Tobago must not be afraid to tell the world its philosophy – they must show the world they “doh ‘fraid nobody.”

Debbie-Ann Estwick gives perspective on designing for cultural development. Joining her on the panel are Dr. H. Lincoln Douglas and Kriston Chen.

Debbie-Ann Estwick gives perspective on designing for cultural development. Joining her on the panel are Dr. H. Lincoln Douglas and Kriston Chen.


The symposium was organised into three panels: 1) Culture and Sustainable Development; 2) Policy and the Arts and, 3) A Culture of Remembrance – Heritage and Memory. Presenters offered multiple perspectives. Design and brand specialist Debbie-Ann Estwick focused on designing for cultural development. “Design is often overlooked or treated as art in many local policy documents and manifestos. However design is distinct from art, craft and engineering though it has a historical relationship with both the humanities and the sciences,” she observed. She cited the work of creativity and innovation consultant Linda Naiman who sees a design mindset as “not problem-focused [but rather] solution focused and action oriented towards creating a preferred future.” Given this understanding of design, Estwick insisted, “design must be recognised and treated distinctly from the arts and crafts in the development of cultural policy in order to capitalize on innovative opportunities for growth.”

Graphic Designer Kriston Chen gave insight into #1000mokos, a project he co-founded to extend and sustain a tradition of stilt walking in Trinidad and Tobago. Chen elucidated such principles as the open yard, generosity and networking as integral to the objectives of the project. The phrase “sticks like bikes” is a guiding credo for the growing community of stilt walkers, which includes children and senior citizens – with “sticks” referring to the upright poles used to elevate the body and “like bikes” giving emphasis to notions of accessibility and mobility.

Simon Dancey presenting as part of the panel on policy and the arts.

Simon Dancey presenting as part of the panel on policy and the arts.

Dr. H Lincoln Douglas, a former Minister of the Arts and Multiculturalism in Trinidad and Tobago, posited a need for a robust definition of culture and emphasised the value of policy: “We live in a society where, if we want to do something we are not always told no. Instead we are told we have to wait for a certain time. Yet, when that time comes we are told we need a policy to do what we wish to do,” he said. Simon Dancey, a former Director of the British Council Wales, shared extracts from his PhD research, using the contexts of Colombia and Brazil to address the question: Is there a hegemonic, trans-national cultural policy paradigm and if so, how is it being replicated and/or adapted in national contexts? Dancey demonstrated these countries’ counter-hegemonic efforts to reimagine and transform their realities through – among other strategies – adapted, hybridised notions of cultural policy. Of note was the final slide in his presentation, which featured a painting of a skull in the earth. Flowers and arms, with fists clenched, rise from it and break the soil’s surface. A human figure also emerges in a powerful stance. Included with the image are the words: “Nos quisieron enterrar. No sabían que éramos semillas / They thought they could bury us. They didn’t realise we were seeds.” It was a picture and sentiment congruent with Dr. Burke’s Death Valley metaphor and it served to heighten an already intense feeling to act – to make it rain.

Social entrepreneur, Dr. Marielle Barrow, argued for a cultural policy that shifts from a nation-state, “protectionist” orientation of cultural industries to global creative industries that are exchange driven – underscoring a methodology of networking across the Caribbean and Latin America and an interconnectivity that includes such linkages as the visual arts with urban planning and environmentalism among other fields. Educator, Elsa Carrington-Clarke, reiterated Elliot Eisner’s view that art education should be intended for all and not only for the training of artists. Carrington-Clarke advanced a need to teach art as “a state of becoming, something which is in a continuous state of flux.” According to her, art should be “accommodated as a process of discovery and experimentation…[and] the criterion for assessment must be flexible enough to allow for delays in meaning, invention, rule breaking and ‘failure.’”

In his investigation of archaeological heritage, Jalaludin Khan identified a blind spot in terms of human resources with his recognition of a dearth of trained professionals in the sector. Among his recommendations, Mr. Khan asserted a need to integrate a clear archaeological policy within a cultural policy, to develop archaeological heritage management and human resource capacity, to define standards within heritage legislation and to give archaeological heritage management a functioning legal framework with respect to execution. Curator and art historian Nimah Muwakil-Zakuri noted that Trinidad and Tobago’s art history resides in “scattered collections” and advocated access through the development of a national online art archive. Addressing the topic of a culture of remembrance, Dr. Louis Regis re-read Derek Walcott’s Mass Man poem as a summons for documentation. In his presentation he declared: “where are our records? I challenge the notion that they are safe in the memories of the septuagenarians, octogenarians and nonagenarians, those individuals whom [playwright/director] Tony Hall calls museums. For one thing, memory can be unstable, and for another, these living museums may not be with us for much longer.” Again, there was an allusion to Death Valley and an invocation of an image of rain by Dr. Regis, who began his presentation with lines by T.S. Eliot: “Here I am an old man in a dry month, being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.” It was a fitting epigraph that spoke to a wasteland (a dry month) and inaction (waiting for rain).

Invited speaker Dr. Ben Garner giving the closing address at the Th?nk 3 symposium.

Invited speaker Dr. Ben Garner giving the closing address at the Th?nk 3 symposium.


The day’s conversations closed with an address by invited speaker Dr. Ben Garner of the University of Portsmouth, UK. Dr. Garner drew on his research on trade and cultural policy in relation to the UNESCO Convention on Cultural Diversity. He examined articles in the convention, observing for example, that some countries have only ratified the agreement in order to access the International Fund for Cultural Diversity (a fund established under Article 18 of the Convention) but have not actually brought their policies fully in line with the Convention. He identified cultural diversity, cultural indifference and the limits of a top-down approach as some of the challenges to implementing policy. He also sounded a word of caution, noting that as culture becomes of increasing interest, policy makers can misinterpret its vitality. “There is a danger of culture’s sanitisation,” he said. With sustainability in mind, Garner cited the work of Duxbury et al (2017), offering four strategic paths for cultural policy: 1) to safeguard and sustain cultural practices and rights; 2) to ‘green’ the cultural sector’s operations and impacts; 3) to raise awareness and catalyse actions about sustainability and climate change and, 4) to foster ‘ecological citizenship.’

What's your vision for development? #MakeItRain

What’s your vision for development? #MakeItRain


While the symposium explored different angles, the dialogue on cultural policy coalesced into a critical concern with ecology: the interactions or interrelationships between people, between organisations, between places, between different disciplines/ways of knowing. It also framed policy in a certain light, that is, as having the potential to act like rain that does not fall on the few but rather irrigates all, coaxing an unfolding of latent possibilities. #MakeItRain.

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The Th?nk 3 cultural policy symposium was coordinated by Dr. Marsha Pearce who teaches in the Department of Creative and Festival Arts (DCFA) at the UWI St Augustine Campus.

Marsha Pearce
Marsha Pearce

Marsha Pearce is ARC’s Senior Arts Writer and Editor. She holds a PhD in Cultural Studies from the University of the West Indies (UWI) St Augustine Campus, Trinidad. She lectures in the Department of Creative and Festival Arts at UWI and is also a freelance arts writer for the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian newspaper. Pearce is the 2006 Rhodes Trust Rex Nettleford Cultural Studies Fellow.