On Cultural Preservation and Local Arts

“…we all speak from a particular place, out of a particular history, out of a particular experience, a particular culture, without being contained by that position…” – Stuart Hall

The wonderful potential of possibility contained in that statement by Stuart Hall can be an empowering thing, especially when those places, histories, experiences, and cultures that we find ourselves in have become prisons. In order for us (I mean Virgin Islanders/Caribbean people) to avoid that mental trap, we have to begin to appreciate fully the parameters of those various contexts. I choose here to focus on that last item – culture – but really, to focus on culture is to focus on all of the above: place, history, experience. The BVI, like other small corners of the archipelago, is a community still in the nascent periods of its quarrel with history – still identifying historical sites, and physical spaces; still arguing over how to commemorate and recognise them; contemplating how to monetise both those physical spaces and their narratives; recognising the need for more agitations towards a Territorial Museum of Art and History; and perhaps just beginning the arguments about the usefulness of those narratives in the first place. I believe we are in a similar state in the area of culture.

A presentation at Elmore Stoutt High School during BVI Culture Week 2013
A presentation at Elmore Stoutt High School during BVI Culture Week 2013

It would benefit us then to agree first what it is we mean when we say culture. We often hear talk of cultural preservation – which, in my mind, positions culture as something in need of protection, something under threat by external factors. This may indeed be the case, and a worthy cause to be fighting for but it dangerously suggests culture as a dead or dying thing – a specimen that exists behind glass. This is the most insidious notion possible for a community like ours. It formulates culture as something indefinable and past, as static and inaccessible. It completely immobilises then decimates the possibilities that that quote suggests.

The reality is the contrary. Culture is alive and organic. It is supple and adaptable. It evolves at a rate similar to language. That function provides the insight then for a more workable definition: culture is the assortment of values, beliefs, traditions, ideas, and identities of a particular community or group of people. The processes by which cultures amalgamate and assimilate these various ingredients make interesting studies, and a sustained examination of the process at work in the British Virgin Islands would be no less intriguing. But in layman’s terms, the clearest implication for the above statement would be that BVI culture has room to contain both eponymous fungi band The Lashing Dogs as well as the various contemporary soca (Drastic and VIBE) as well as hiphop acts (NJAR) insomuch as those acts espouse the values, beliefs, traditions, ideas, and identities of the contemporary Virgin Islander.

The most substantial benefits for possessing a distinct culture are an equally distinct sense of identity and belonging. This sense of belonging bestows upon the culture’s practitioners and inheritors a cultural identity (despite their ability to observe it or fully articulate its meaningfulness and with the understanding that this sort of cultural understanding must be wary of the edge at which it can fall into the dark precipice of nationalism). This starting point should intimate to us the importance, or rather, the desperate need for a fledgling society and certain of its members to dedicate the resources of time and energy (both public and private) to invest in the sorts of activities, institutions, and traditions that study, support, and contribute to that community’s culture.

Over the past few years, steps have been taken by the current administration to establish certain touchstones that speak to civic duty and national/territorial pride. These touchstones – a territorial song; a territorial pledge; various symbols; and a territorial dress – have all had an observable impact especially in younger generations. By schools mandating that students learn the territorial song and pledge and actively perform them with consistency, the generation of school age citizens is being armed with a sort of belonging more powerful than any political ‘belonging’.

Painter Ruben Vanterpool at work on a mural.
Painter Ruben Vanterpool at work on a mural.

That being said, the best way to observe the culture of a place as it grows and evolves, is to read that place’s literature, listen to its music, and appreciate its art. This is because literature, music, and art – the creative industries of a place – are the ways that a community or nation communicates, quarrels, and struggles through its understanding of its own culture. We must then look to the contemporary artists, musicians, and writers in the territory in order to appreciate our culture in its present form; we must find sustainable ways of providing them with the proper platforms. I would argue therefore, that it must be a distinct priority of any territory with a sincere interest in its culture and identity, to patronise, support, and nurture the arts.

A legitimate argument can be made that, while our culture is not in need of preservation, our arts industries are in desperate need of management and protection while the people in them who have passed quietly from our consciousness are in need of remembrance and celebration. It is a dream of mine to see the establishment of a Museum of Art and History become a priority for our government. Imagine the cultural and social impact such an institution could have on the psyches of the generation for whom the territorial song and pledge are already committed to memory. Aside from such a large financial commitment, there are clear and much less expensive ways to facilitate and support those who are creating work of cultural importance. If local bookstores and libraries committed to local authors in the same way that some radio stations and their programme directors commit to playing local artists we will have achieved much. If local authors and performers were compensated what they were worth (and on time) we will have achieved more. And if our children can recite the poems of Rufus Faulkner and Sheila Hyndman the same way they can sing the territorial song the heart of this poet may burst in his chest.

Portions of this essay have been developed from my remarks at the launch of the recent anthology Where I See the Sun – Contemporary Poetry in the Virgin Islands and a brief talk I gave at the 2016 Culture & Heritage Week programme at Elmore Stoutt High School.

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