By Keisha Oliver.
Keisha Oliver writes about her recent visit to attend the British Council supported five-day creative journalism workshop held at the Department of Literatures in English at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, Jamaica. The workshop addressed the shortage of trained arts writers and culture journalists across the Anglophone Caribbean and supported the attendance of eleven arts writers from Barbados, The Bahamas, Dominica, Jamaica St. Kitts and Nevis, and Trinidad and Tobago.
For far too long, creative communities in the Caribbean have danced around the notion of art criticism as a form of public discourse. For the professional artist and writer, who as students valued peer feedback and professional assessment, how is it conceivable to be expected to abandon the very thing that allowed you to grow? Art criticism by no means exists as a direct attack on the artist, but is an immediate response and personal interpretation of creative work. By providing authentic reviews to visual art, films, theatre, music, and literature, the critic creates an open dialogue making the arts more accessible to a wider audience. Without this critical discourse, our cultural ecosystem will disappear.
Last week, eleven arts writers from Barbados, The Bahamas, Dominica, Jamaica St. Kitts and Nevis, and Trinidad and Tobago participated in a five-day creative journalism workshop that challenged this issue. Hosted by The British Council in partnership with NGC Bocas Lit Fest, and the Department of Literatures in English at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, Jamaica, the workshop addressed the shortage of trained arts writers and culture journalists across the Anglophone Caribbean. Lead facilitator, Claire Armitstead, Books Editor for The Guardian and Observer in London, UK was joined by Gean Moreno, founder of [NAME] Publications and curator of programs for The Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami, USA, along with event partner Marina Salandy-Brown, founder and festival director of NGC Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad and Tobago.
Moreno, who serves on the editorial and advisory committees of several publications and foundations, namely the 2017 Whitney Biennial focused on art criticism and the critic’s obligation to authors, artists, and their audience. “Your responsibility as an art writer is to build visual literacy to engage your audience. If you don’t follow a generation of critical writers that created this by default this becomes your task.” He also touched on the importance of making information accessible to the audience. “In terms of democracy and accessibility, they function differently. Democratic principles in art writing are really about the way you write, not your use of language, but about the way you engage the work. This starts with the responsibility you take for the object.”
Armitstead also brings with her international experience as a literary and arts editor, focused on the styles, forms and new media associated with arts journalism. Providing insight into subjectivity and objectivity when writing on the arts she said, “Arts criticism is news reporting with an opinion, it should always have an uncomfortable relationship with the features and marketing culture. The publicity machines tell us what we should be interested in, but in comes the critic who has to somehow stand independently from that machine.”
Armistead lead the group through a series of intense writing exercises that responded to visual and literary material including a selection of Jamaican art and short stories by Caribbean writers Sharon Millar and Jacob Ross. Beyond its rigorous curriculum focusing on critical responses to literature and visual arts, participants benefited from an invaluable cultural exchange, professional networking, and information sharing experience. From academics to poets, to designers, to curators, there was an abundance of knowledge stemming from all parts of the region. While UWI’s Mona campus remained the learning hub that provided a safe space for sharing and enquiry, the workshop also included field trips and a guest panel discussion.
The group’s first visit included a tour of the National Gallery of Jamaica’s (NGJ) current exhibition ‘Spiritual Yards’ which explores the spiritual yard tradition in Jamaica, through ten Intuitive artists. The group also attended “Actions Between Territories” a public lecture by Trinidadian artist, writer, and curator Christopher Cozier at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts (EMC). Cozier discussed the potential free spaces Caribbean artists are constantly imagining, constructing, and navigating, including his creative practice and the independent informal art space that he instigates, Alice Yard.
The highlight of the week was a panel discussion on the role of Caribbean arts journalism and the state of its cultural ecosystem with special guests from the Jamaican journalism and publishing community. Two speakers touched on the forgotten identity of writers, their history and the history of their art form. Ian Randle, Founder of Ian Randle Publishers, shared, “I am disappointed that unless you have a personal relationship with these people, Caribbean authors are faceless and nameless people.
We don’t write about or discuss them.” Mel Cooke, Arts Journalist for the Jamaica Gleaner, supported Randle. “In reporting sometimes there is a lack of a sense of duty and history of the art form and its personal and national value.” Dr. Kimberly Anne Robinson-Walcott, Editor of Caribbean Quarterly and the Jamaica Journal and Tanya Batson-Savage, Founder of Blue Moon Publishing emphasised the lack of reviewers for both fiction and non-fiction publications. Batson-Savage said, “The region desperately needs good reviewers who are not afraid to be honest.”