We can assert our truest Caribbean identity only by reaching beyond mediocrity
A perfectly-shaped orb, blood-red, stands on a pedestal. It seems to hold itself aloof from a sea of plastic flowers trying to pass themselves off as the real thing. I cannot resist. I feel compelled to touch, to sense the cool lightness of the medium – balsa wood – from which it is fashioned. I give in to the urge. There is a sense of completeness to it, of excellence all-round. I up-end the orb and find its place of origin – a country in the Far East. I wish that it had come from artistic hands in the Caribbean. What is it that enables craftsmen and craftswomen of distant lands to expend such creativity on ordinary objects and transform them into works of art, symbols of Excellence, while we seem ambivalent? This is not to say that our region does not have its share of fine artists – master potters, sculptors, painters, iron workers, coppersmiths and more, whose creativity finds favour with the iconoclasts, whose galleries and places of creation are sought after by those in the know. The dedication of these creative icons to excellence is unquestioned.
But where are the rest, those also given a spirit of creativity but who stand outside the gates of excellence, settling for the crude and the unfinished? When and how will they come into the circle? In less than a year, a flock of visitors is due within the region, on the trail of the God of Cricket. All being very well, they’re expected to enrich local economies through tourism, a vital ingredient of which is the purchase of memorabilia, souvenirs, reminders of sunny days and pleasure-filled island nights (or so we’re led to believe). How many souvenirs will fall under the heading of Excellence? How many will bear the mark of the beast of globalised trade – “Made anywhere but in the Caribbean?” There is little official record, as far as I know, of just how much of the Caribbean tourism souvenir trade is dependent on plastic factories in China and Japan instead of local production, but the evidence is there for all to see.
In the rush, many forms of indigenous craft are dying out. Not only because of indifferent craftsmanship, but through destruction of the sources of material – through deforestation and other abuses of the environment. Of that which remains, the hallmark of Excellence is its conspicuous absence. It is easy to connect Excellence with the output of art students and the grand old men – and the occasional women – who carved and painted their way into respectability, gaining their place in the Establishment. But as time takes its toll, there is less passion for excellence among the young carvers on the beach, or the creators of the bead necklaces and the intuitive paintings which have come to be seen as traditional island craft, at least from the tourists’ perspective.
“Traditional” should not have to mean clumsy or unfinished. There is room for Excellence. The sad fact, though, is that our guests will plod from one craft market to another, from one territory to another, to be confronted with the same-old, same-old straw hats, the listless straw mats and the clumsy bags, the tired calabash maracas, the ill-tuned steel pans coaxed into emitting a dolorous ping or pong, the jumbie beads which no self-respecting jumbie would be caught dead in, and other aberrations of a craft which seems to have abandoned the concept of creative Excellence. It is not that our Caribbean village artists cannot produce items deserving of the accolade of Excellence. It just seems that nobody is demanding it, or that too many take the line of least resistance. Governments talk and talk and talk, dispensing all the platitudes about “releasing the creative energy of the people” and (this one irks the most) “our greatest resource is our people”. Yes, but what about exciting them to respond to the call of Excellence? Maybe it is so difficult because true Excellence cannot be purely cosmetic. It has to come from somewhere. It has to stand for something. Never mind that we have enough HRD courses purporting to teach Excellence, from the boardroom to the factory floor. Never mind that we have enough clichés to keep us going for at least another millennium.
If all the graduation speakers who have extolled the virtues of Excellence were to be woven into one great long belt, we could circle the globe and back again, not to mention how much further we could go if we added political rhetoric. If we could stop to listen, however, we’d hear voices – real voices, reminding us that Excellence does not stand in isolation. Marcus Mosiah Garvey, one of the Caribbean’s visionaries, did not hesitate to call us to a reckoning. “We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery, because while others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind,” he preached, as he sought to lay the groundwork for the challenge of Excellence. Many years later, it was the Rastaman Bob Marley who took up the call and responded, for all the world to hear, with his own articulation of Garvey’s words. “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.” Bob implied that as freed men and women we can know Excellence.
So now it is time to sing it for the West Indies cricket team. If 2007 is to mean anything for the pride of the Caribbean, our side has to take to the field in the name of Excellence. Mediocrity simply will not do, gentlemen. If our team is not prepared to respond, then we will have to enlist the voices of the children of the Indies who are facing a world which gives no quarter, a world wherein they will need every motivation to succeed. Children, like cricketers, must understand that it is by Excellence that the survival game is won. We must sing too, to reach the ears of the politicians, the planners and the negotiators, to remind them that they hold our history and our heritage in their hands. Maybe it is time for a new regional motto: “By Excellence we will achieve.”
A wise man defined it thus: “Before the gates of EXCELLENCE the high gods have placed sweat. Long is the road thereto, and rough and steep at first, but when the heights are reached, then there is ease, though grievously hard in the winning.” Running between the wickets of life, maybe that is all that will save us. Excellence, in all its forms, may yet be our rescuer.
Barbara Gloudon is a senior Jamaican journalist, and has long been involved in the arts, especially Jamaica’s Little Theatre Movement and the annual Jamaica Pantomime. She has held editorial positions with the Gleaner publications, was a Deputy Director of Tourism, and is currently senior host on the Jamaican public affairs talk show Hotline. She is the holder of various honours including the Order of Jamaica and the D.Litt (Honoris Causa) from the University of the West Indies.
The first Anthony N. Sabga Caribbean Awards for Excellence, each valued at around US$80,000, will be presented in October.