Caribbean Artists Tap Into Creativity To Cope During COVID

The past few months has been a challenging period for all industries.  As a consequence of the current global pandemic, artists and those in the creative industries have sought to tap into their inner creative spirit as a means of coping and getting through this crisis. Throughout the Caribbean, the resilience and adaptability of many artists have been put to the test in an effort to ensure their very survival.

Arielle John

Arielle John, Trinbagonian writer, arts educator and healer, whose work is centered in community and youth outreach, often applies poetry and performance to transformative justice initiatives throughout the Caribbean and its Diaspora. When asked how the current pandemic has impacted her work, she pointed out that what she has been able to do is be more reflective rather than creating about the present. “Most of my writing in the present covers a combing through of previous years (joy, trauma, the unresolved) and sometimes also envisioning future years. My work has grown in importance for me, in urgency. The world as we know it is perhaps going to continue changing at this accelerated rate, and my work here is to ensure that I am ready, that my people are made ready,” John remarked. 

While she or no loved ones have been directly impacted by COVID-19, she believes this period has provided a necessary pause for her and for many, especially as creatives. “We are tapping into so much abundance, so much connectivity, and so many opportunities for silence and ‘staying home’ for a bit. All this empty space then moves to fill us with everything that we need. It now has room to realize itself. I’ve managed to adapt relatively well to these times and felt as though some of my most important work so far has emerged during this period,” the Trinbagonian writer stressed.

Among the biggest challenge facing artists and those in the creative industry who are independents and rely heavily on the gig economy, is the financial fallout. With performances and travel being halted, and a range of projects postponed or cancelled, this has no doubt forced many to adapt and adjust and focus their creative energies into the online space, finding ways that the art can be used in the service of each other and the communities formed. “It is also a time of learning the more steep lessons of the things that were no longer working for us- places of work where our value has not been seen or sufficiently recognized, the parts of our lives that we had previously sacrificed in order to build successful careers in art, and the type of interrogation and self-mastery required to allow us to connect even more truthfully with our creative abilities. We are learning, moving through the challenges with greater resolve moving forward,” John emphasized.

Michael Sean Harris, an electronic musician, vocalist & educator, based in Jamaica notes that what has helped him cope during this period is the ability to channel his creativity and by finding ways to collaborate and stay connected. He cites among his recent accomplishments the composing of a folk-fusion piece for a collaboration with Shelley Maxwell, a Jamaican-born choreographer residing in London along with a host of international dancers for International Dance Day. “I’ve composed music for a guided meditation by a minister in the Universal Foundation for Better Living organization and I’ve since been asked to compose a theme for an independent movie being made in Barbados. I also produce a weekly podcast (Mike’s Moment Of…) and connecting with the guests as well as editing and production has kept me very engaged,” Harris noted.

The multi-talented artist who also serves as a music lecturer at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts cites adaptability as critical with courses now being taught online, adding that interacting with the students about their projects via zoom classes has not been without its challenges. 

Deslyn Williams-Johnson, Manager of the Nevis Performing Arts Centre (NEPAC), which falls under the umbrella of the Nevis Cultural Development Foundation, notes that due to the pandemic all operations at the facility have been halted and all bookings have been cancelled. She adds that presently, the Foundation is in the midst of planning, to transfer their programming to a virtual platform as well as brainstorming ways to have the center used, until they’re able to resume operation.

According to Williams-Johnson, this period has been very challenging for Caribbean artists and those in the creative industry. She’s of the view that it has given them a chance to slow down and focus on creating new things or adapting to the new normal. “Some have sought to remain relevant by using social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and YouTube to push their content. e.g. doing live shows from home. Some have turned to doing Podcasts, to basically keep conversations going. In the Caribbean region, one way Calypsonians sought to keep the vibe going was, singing their own version of a song that spoke to the issue of Corona and its impact on us or ways to keep us safe on one riddim/beat, which was sent around for anyone to sing on,” Williams-Johnson noted. She pointed out that generated a lot of interest in Nevis, as quite a few of the island’s Calypsonians engaged in that initiative.

Jason Hunte

Trinidad & Tobago Photographer Jason Hunte argues that while the pandemic has brought all work to a halt, he has taken the decision to use this time to improve spiritually, mentally, physically and creatively. “I have been eating a lot better, reading more and just rediscovering what it means to be present. Although it has affected me financially, so far, whatever I have needed has found its way to me. Initially, it wasn’t easy to adjust but there has been slow and steady progress with each day since the country was locked down in early March,” Hunte points out.

He admits that while it will continue to pose a challenge financially for the photographic industry and its practitioners, he believes that creatively though, the possibilities are endless. 

Neila Ebanks

Founding director of eNKompan.E™ Dance Neila Ebanks is a moving mind who choreographs, dances, makes performance, educates and writes. As Acting Director of Studies at the School of Dance at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston, she notes that much of her work time has been spent re-formatting student learning for the online environment and guiding faculty and her students to be able to complete the semester’s deliverables for practical and theory courses.

As a mover and maker, while she has lost access to regular studio space for training and creation, she has adapted and is now improvising with easily accessible spaces, living room, backyard. “A big aspect of the work I generally make is site-specificity, and so I welcome these opportunities to both stage movement in alternative spaces and to also see what these spaces want to say, through movement, how I can personify and embody them. I have also been able to test my audiovisual and film-based dance experiments on social media, through eNKompan.E™’s IG and Facebook pages, to investigate reach and impact by producing and posting short dance films inspired by my thoughts about the pandemic (‘DEM. INNA. PANIC.’; ‘…5 Minutes More..’ and ‘Touch. An Elegy,’ Ebanks stated.

Ebanks was quick to point out that she has adapted her day-to-day rhythm, punctuated by alternating cycles of productivity and rest.  As creative souls, she says we have to be clear that this is not a working holiday. “It is an unprecedented and tragic circumstance that, origins aside, has changed our lives and our human wiring into the not-too-distant future. My feelings about that must be acknowledged and worked through and this includes mourning the global loss of life, dignity, rituals and humanity. Sometimes that looks like poetry being written, or a stretch session on the floor, a decision to take a nap or a donation to a community in need. I am listening to myself at this time, more than ever, and sometimes, that makes art,” related Ebanks.  

International Consultant Clinical Behavioural Specialist-Psychologist Dr. Coretta Brown-Johnson offers a number of recommendations for coping during this crisis, which can also apply to creatives. She suggests finding a way to stay connected and sane through routine and ‘rhythm’, either by a simple meaningful schedule daily or by the flow of each thing and activity.

“Artistes should still find ways of expression as the creative process is always alive and easily accessible; paint if you can, dance/move anywhere…even walk…, practice dramatic expression in diverse ways, sing…vibe emote/play/practice as that never gets old and is not on quarantine,” Dr. Brown-Johnson emphasized.

The renowned Jamaican-based Clinical Behavioural Specialist-Psychologist believes it is imperative to maintain good mental health in these uncertain times. She says it’s also an opportunity for introspection, and to get to know who you are. Dr. Brown-Johnson contends that the arts is a powerful facilitator of this desired musing. “How you cope is entirely up to you, do it daily step by step, by the time you quantify time has elapsed and you will realize that you are still here; so embrace the opportunity to evolve through routine and rhythm; literally and figuratively,” she stressed.

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