Wednesday, December 19, 2012

What We Will Lose

When I was in College studying for my Degree in Crafts, I chose to do an option that allowed me to write a ‘thesis’ – I came back to St. Lucia and with a little sponsorship from NRDF and the help of the Ministry of Community Development, I took a look at the history of St. Lucia’s crafts, what was happening then and what prospects seemed to be for the future. It fascinated me and I’ve never lost that fascination – we are a mix of so many influences – a very few seeping through from the Carib days, some from African roots and a lot from more modern demands of commerce.
Livity Art Studio - lost in Hurricane Tomas, this was a haven for local arts and crafts
What I noticed was the distinct lack of a ‘visual language’ in most of what was made – no symbols that tied back to the melange of cultures that shaped us; we’ll very few – tudor rosettes on some woodwork, wooden fretwork fascia boards that harked back to wrought iron you might find in France maybe, a few Carib style huts or walls in Choiseul, but not much, no African symbols – drums, yes, but not adorned with motifs that tied them to their motherland. Somehow our mix of colonialism had done an efficient job of wiping the heart of cultural expression out of our crafts.
Vincent Eudovic - father of all wood-sculpture in St. Lucia - in the 70s, had begun to infuse our fledgling contemporary crafts with a new symbolism – taking inspiration from history and melting into it, images of life in St. Lucia, Rastafarianism, abstracted conceptual forms. ‘The Camp’ carved fabulously in relief and in the round, complex stories coaxed out of remnants of ancient trees and slabs of local timber … their heartwood stories found homes in the houses of many an appreciative connoisseur but try looking for one today in any public place, you’ll be looking a long time. Perhaps Anse Chastanet Hotel and Ladera are the best examples of where this type of work can be seen but I don’t believe they represent the depth that The Camp achieved at their height. Eudovic’s Art Studio remains a tribute to the Master and Jallim continues the tradition in his own way as an artist, celebrated in far flung corners of the world but yet to see, like his father, real tribute to their mastery on home soil.
So, where are we today? How far have we come forward? Forward? Chinese-made busts of our Nobel Laureates in Derek Walcott Square…well, I guess at least we changed the name from the erroneous colonial Columbus Square. And we do have one Ricky George sculpture in town and one at George FL Charles Airport. First Island to have a Cultural Policy - tailor-made for sitting on a shelf with those Final Reports. But still, no museum, no National Gallery, no ‘Percent for the Arts’…and that’s not all folks! We are about to lose a lot of the little that we have if we don’t do something serious and do it soon.
Khus-Khus grass basket, Choiseul Crafts, St. Lucia
When I first worked in the crafts back in 1992, Choiseul had well over 300 active Traditional Crafters – and for those that don’t know, that means persons working in basketry – palama, kus-kus, ti-kanot, awali, ponm dilyenn in three forms: interwoven, tubecoiled and ‘wicker work’. Traditional furniture makers, crafters making fishpots and chair seats with hex-woven strips of bamboo. We had a slew of carvers too – George Gerald, Marinus Francois, Lawrence ‘Uptight’ Deligny amongst others, still carried on The Camp’s tradition and daily trained youngsters at the Choiseul Art and Craft Centre.

Shaping a Canawi - Traditional St. Lucian Pottery
Then there were the potters: St. Lucia still has the largest existing group of Traditional Potters in the English speaking Caribbean – there are about 30 left. They pickaxe the clay from their own land, pound it with African style 3 ft pestles on flat rocks near their work spaces, pick rocks from the mounds of wet clay and shape coalpots, canawi, carafe, leshwit, plant pots, kettles and more using a technique that is straight from Ghana – soft, wet, large ‘coils’ of clay swiftly transform into full bellied vessels on the potter’s knee. It is an outstanding skill. I know, I learnt from a Ghanian potter in college and doing this is not easy. Then this earth, shaped so skilfully is carefully built up one on top the next, high as your nose, with coconut branches, dried tree-limbs and all sorts of wood to form a pyramid for a bonfire. Built and lit in the early hours of a day when the skies are clear and the breeze light and masterfully tended with a 20ft stick as it burns blazing until there is just ash and the yard-mud has turned to St. Lucian traditional pottery.

We pay this amazing tradition scant attention - at most buying a coalpot during October month where we apparently celebrate our Kweyol heritage. We seem oblivious to its value to our culture, to the Quarter of Choiseul where the average income leaves them sitting in 2nd last place on the island's poverty scale.

Bonfiring the pots
Soon though, if we do nothing, we won’t have a clay coalpot for Jounen Kweyol – this is the last generation of Traditional Potters in St. Lucia: it is a tradition passed on from mother to daughter and not one of the children of any of these potters has any intention to carry on in this beautiful but dead-end career. Without action – serious, thorough, practical, proud action - we will lose this tradition.
There are a few who realise what we have, realise the worth and have begun to  try to do something to save our tradition – MacArthur Phillip of Choiseul, Prof. Patricia Faye of Florida Gulf Coast University, myself to name a few, but it is hard to do this in what seems an ocean of disregard.
Steaming the vines for 'Wicker- work" deep in the rainforest
Steaming a Gonmye tree to make a dug out canoe, Praslin, St. Lucia
There are other similar stories, the potters are just my passion – we hardly ever make Gonmye Canoes for instance – I was shocked and happy to see a couple being made at Praslin a few months ago this year, but that’s a rare sight.  The ‘wicker’ workers number 2 elderly gents in Choiseul and one getting-older gent in Dennery. Traditional furniture, hand turned on hand-built, foot powered lathes…there remain two men making these. When last did you see a bamboo fish pot? The Choiseul Art and Craft Centre, last time I visited, was full of souvenirs ‘customized’ for St. Lucia and made in Colombia and hardly a genuine local craft was to be seen. This is government money buying these things. The training rooms are empty  – no woodcarving, no Taiwanese bamboo craft, no pottery – US$70,000+ worth of pottery equipment left to rot in the rains. I feel like swearing to end this article! What on earth are we thinking?