Last Thursday, August 25, marked the 50th anniversary of the opening of Carifesta ’72, in Georgetown, the inaugural festival of Caribbean artists, writers, painters, sculptors, dancers and playwrights. The gathering, born out of the second Convention of Caribbean Writers and Artists, also held in Georgetown, to coincide with the celebration of Guyana becoming a Co-operative Republic, has become a staple of the Caribbean arts calendar, a legacy we can all be very proud.

The opening of the festival held at the national park was a grand spectacle, with much pomp and ceremony, as representatives of the 25 participating nations and territories marched past the grand stage, behind which a huge sculpture of an outstretched hand, the logo of the festival. In addition to the English-speaking Caribbean territories, invitations were also extended to our neighbors Brazil, Venezuela, Suriname, French Guiana, Colombia, Peru, Puerto Rico and other Caribbean countries, including the Dominican Republic , Haiti, Guadeloupe and Martinique.

The festivities followed closely on the heels of the Conference of Foreign Ministers of the Non-Aligned Movement (August 8-12), and our country’s capital, once again a center of international interest, was a bubbling cauldron of energy and activity. The fleet of cars bearing the GUY plates, once used for the meeting of ministers, now transported the guest artists to the various shows, shows, readings, presentations and exhibitions scattered around the city.

Today, in addition to the range of memories of the festivities in the service of the older generation, there are two lasting legacies of infrastructure of the festival; one wonders if the younger generation is even aware of this. First there is the National Cultural Center, which was built for the occasion, but unfortunately was not completed on schedule, and the events that have been hosted there, including The Legend of Kaieteur, a oratario composed by the late Philip Pilgrim, took place under a temporary roof of tarpaulins and scaffolding. Today its location is near the epicenter of Greater Georgetown, at that time the then sprawling city seemed to be on the edge of nowhere.

Secondly, there is Festival City, a sub-division of North Ruimveldt, or in local street parlance “part of the south” – an area comprising South Ruimveldt Gardens, South Ruimveldt Park and North Ruimveldt. Festival City, was a government-sponsored project carried out for the artists’ jamboree. Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite, discussing the festival soon after in a series of articles in the Barbados Advocate, wrote: “Many of the twelve hundred participating artists were housed in Festival City, a rapidly built gated community of 250 green houses on stilts. ,’ located on the outskirts of Georgetown, with a ‘security guard (you needed a pass or Carifesta ID to enter).” The performers were given a round-trip airfare, a living allowance of $7G per day, and a chauffeur-driven car to take them around town (Brathwaite’s fellow Barbadian Austin Clarke called them GUY-cars, according to their official Guyanese government plates).

The eternal legacy of Festival City is the nomenclature of street names. Two streets are named after two local pioneers of the arts. ER Burrowes Street, was named after the great painter and art teacher, a Barbadian by birth, who came to British Guiana as a child. Mittelholzer Street (incorrectly spelled on the street sign and on most maps as Mittleholzer) recognizes the first true West Indian fictional novelist, our very own Edgar Mittelholzer. Other street names pay homage to our Caribbean neighbors including: Blue Mountain Road (Jamaica), Hummingbird Street (Trinidad and Tobago), Flying Fish Street (Barbados), Nevis Street, Boggy Peak (Antigua), Nutmeg Street ( Grenada), and Soufriere Street (volcanoes of Dominica, Guadeloupe, Montserrat, St Vincent and St Lucia).

As we praise ourselves in the euphoria of this milestone in the festival’s history and with the 15th edition on the horizon, we should contemplate the true state of the event. Has the festival evolved in the general direction envisaged by the initial group of artists and writers? Or has it become too big and unwieldy, and choked with bureaucracy? Is this now very expensive affair worth staging? Do the festivities serve as a launching pad for new and emerging artists? Or are they forced to look for other ways?

Two festivals in recent memory have suffered from limited participation by local artists. In 2006, Carifesta IX, the festival’s third organization in Trinidad, found itself competing for an audience with a side event called ‘Galvanise’ organized by local artists in response to their perceived exclusion from the country’s cultural narrative and of the region by controlling the bureaucrats with political muscle. In 2017, Carifesta XIII host Barbados was hampered by a boycott by local artists who perceived a lack of interest from authorities in their work.

After Carifesta III, held in Cuba in August 1979, an extremely important affair, our famous artist, writer and anthropologist (now deceased), Denis Williams expressed the thought that Carifesta was deviating from its original conception. He floated the idea that the festival should become an annual single-discipline event with rotating host countries. For example, Jamaica would host a play one year, Saint Lucia as a meeting place for painters the following year, and so on. This way, it could focus more on the original concept of the festival to serve as a gathering for artists to meet, discuss and exchange ideas, exhibit their work and engage with local people. As such, it would start from a series of different events competing for public attention.

Fifty years later, the political and cultural landscape has changed considerably; the territories have recently ceased to be independent and cultural tastes have evolved, particularly in the musical field. Now is the time to rethink the concept of Carifesta, before it becomes another lost legacy. Williams’ suggestion could be the start.