We were mortified that we had to dance on concrete with bare feet.
The space for dressing us was tight and if we had to use the bathroom, well, it was in a completely different place. The villagers did their best to make us feel comfortable. They weren’t used to dancers, actors and musicians invading their humble space.
In the end, we achieved our goal, affecting them emotionally with our messages about family dysfunction and violence.
This experience dates back several years, before community centers with stages, lighting and changing rooms became the norm. Today, when we go to remote spaces to share our cultural interventions, the place worries us less than it did then.
Yet development in rural communities is increasingly part of the national conversation. Whatever you think of the way people in communities express their frustration, the truth is, these outbursts of discontent had been in the works for decades. The issues are complex, closely linked to history, patterns of human settlement and the political will to improve the quality of life in the countryside.
Why is all this important? As countries like Trinidad and Tobago adjust to the reality that the era of oil and natural gas draws to a close, new paradigms of sustainability will need to be established. As the world grapples with increased pressure for water and food, more attention will be paid to the value of rural communities.
Given the limited resources available for arts and culture, is it even possible that this sector could serve as a force for the rejuvenation of remote communities?
Globally, some arts-based organizations have implemented creative projects based on the belief that creative investment can help revive declining rural areas. These projects are aimed at communities that are considerably neglected or threatened with abandonment.
Their success depends on establishing this crucial link with the culture and heritage of the community. So, for example, in Portugal storytelling was used to connect with their history of winemaking. As part of the revitalization project, theatrical performances were performed in wine cellars and dances performed in the vineyards.
In the United States, a young woman who realized that her community was disappearing got support to organize a concert with a couple of well-known artists. Hundreds of people attended and she was able to achieve her revitalization goal by including the community in the search for a solution.
These experiments linking the arts and sustainable development offer us exciting perspectives.
Many of our notable novelists and artists came from rural communities. Many currently live and work in remote villages. From gatka to African percussion, stick fights and whipping to Indian folk dances, the potential to spark economic rejuvenation through the arts is there. But how?
Award-winning novelist Earl Lovelace grew up in Toco. Imagine the enthusiasm that a literary festival could generate in this community showcasing his work and the places close to his heart. Academics from all over the world would be invited to participate, an ideal opportunity to involve schoolchildren in the region as well.
The festival would of course ensure that entrepreneurs such as fishermen, popular bars and guest houses benefit from the experience.
The competition for the best village is already aimed at empowering communities. From Mayaro to Sangre Grande, Charlotteville and Princes Town, there are people in these communities who have dedicated their lives to culture.
It shouldn’t be difficult to adapt the structure of the competition to develop experiences that attract external audiences and at the same time encourage community growth. Arts and culture meet entrepreneurship.
At TT, we are fortunate that our rich culture and heritage provide opportunities for dozens of similar projects. However, as one expert warned, “Getting bigger is not the solution. To improve is. If you are designing it for tourists, you are making a mistake. Design it for your community. Then the others will come.
I often think of our performance in this remote place. We had an impact on them, but their humility and love for their community also had an impact on us. When we got back on the bus, the hugs and tears eclipsed any discomfort from the cold concrete floor.
Communities are fragile and need to be nourished. The arts can be a vital part of their protection, but in the face of a rapidly changing world, we shouldn’t wait too long to lift the curtain on including artists in a plan for their survival.
Dara E Healy is a performance artist and founder of the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN.