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It may seem a far stretch to connect the current state of emergency that we are now in with the sudden collapse and subsequent death of Pat Bishop on Saturday (August 20) during a meeting meant to borrow value from the culture sector for national development. But is it really?
Pat’s death may in fact signal the kind of cultural state of emergency in which we find ourselves. If, as a society, we cannot link the killings and the curfew and other quick fixes with the state of our arts and culture in the struggles articulated in her life, and so poignantly in her last days, then it speaks volumes about the state of our nation as we look for solutions to crime and other social negatives across the country.
It also seems particularly significant as we prepare to ‘celebrate’ our 49th anniversary of Independence next week, celebrations which will take place under the shroud of the state of emergency. It certainly represents how far away we have moved from the aspirations and hope and optimism that must have hung over that moment in our history 49 years ago when the national flag of Trinidad and Tobago was first hoisted, when the national anthem was first sung, when the people of Trinidad and Tobago asserted themselves as a self-governing independent nation responsible for its own destiny.
In fact, part of the mandate of the meeting at which Bishop collapsed was to define ways of celebrating our next, the 50th anniversary of Independence in 2012.
Pat Bishop threw herself into the discussions with the kind of passion she is said to resonate in all her work as a painter, musician, conductor, orator, historian, lecturer, mentor; and that, despite her skepticism of the outcome of yet another committee, another panel, another meeting, to discuss the way forward for national development, for the culture of T&T, and the culture sector.
When I had expressed similar skepticism, she looked at me with that sympathetically knowing look that comes with the wisdom of years and the frank bluntness many expect of her and said: ‘and you are just a baby, yet. I can’t tell you how many of these I have been in; how many truckloads of reports I have at my home.”
It was a bitter pill for her to swallow that perhaps those were efforts in futility in pursuit of her stated vision “that my countrymen may find their place in the sun,” as she cites as her goal in her resume.
A child of pre-Independence Trinidad and Tobago, Pat Bishop was born at the crux of the nationalist movement of the 1940’s. The vision of people’s empowerment ignited by the trade unions, regionalism, federation and the movement towards self governance; of self assertion and of aspiration to be whatever a fledgling nation wanted to be, were all embedded in her ample personage.
She would have been twenty-two years old when the red, white and black national flag of Trinidad and Tobago was hoisted for the first time; when the national anthem with its assertion of “boundless faith in our destiny” and its final refrain, “every creed and race finds an equal place” was first sung.
But she lived those words. Independence was an iconic word then; icon is now the word that will attach itself to descriptions of her life and works.
I did not know Pat Bishop well before the few days within the last few weeks when I sat at the same table with her, and got glimpses of her encyclopaedia of experiences which she was so generous to share to those willing to receive knowledge. But I did, to some extent, know and was touched by her work as a musician, painter and orator and have interviewed her occasionally over the years.
In fact, one of my earliest inspirations for my work in the culture sector, following on gestation from involvements in our village community, was when I was preparing a special television report to examine the potential of the then upcoming Carifesta V which T&T was preparing to host in 1992. Her vision of a Caribbean united through the vitality of its arts poured out in images of quicksilver that seemed so tangible and so elusive at the same time. It is a vision that has kept its potency through the years and which she has tirelessly asserted through her every activity as vibrant, alive, real, and certainly, achievable.
She embraced in her work the cultural incubators that are in the main in the obscure and often invisible village niches and tried to connect them to the vast field of opportunities available at the national and international levels in her tireless pursuit to have her countrymen benefit from those opportunities as well as her experiences. She kept an enduring faith in the power of the arts to transform, regenerate, to provide sustenance for its users, benefactors and beneficiaries, and to nourish them both physically and spiritually. She was an academic who never lost sight of the significance of informal education influences and processes that included popular culture. She recognised the value of providing avenues for self expression in the language of various forms – music, art, design, words and the connection between such self-confidence and the self image it defined as essential life-skills and companion to critical thinking and a compelling alternative to those expressions that manifested themselves in violence and criminal activity.
She held firmly to the notion that well-visioned, well-structured and well-managed culture systems were the antidote to the negative self image, lack of self confidence and the essential elixir to cultivation of a sense of self and nation self.
Very little angered her as much as any suggestion that elements of the cultural sector were at loggerheads, or that differences among them were related to ethnicity. That was a position she derived from long experience of working with groups of all races and classes at all levels in T&T. It was not a dream to be realised; it was already real.
She embodied the reservoirs of cultural energy that resides in so many of our artists and culture practitioners. Where resources did not exist, (or was not accessible to the arts) she created them. Drawing on the creative power of her artistic genius, she continuously improvised facilities and methods to make up for the deficiencies. She once said that she could have stayed in Britain after her studies and indulge in its rich array of arts; but chose to return to these islands where “if you want to enjoy a concert, you better make it yourself.” And she did make concert after concert after concert, as she did painting after painting after painting. So graphic and lyrical were her expressions that those who remember her speak, also felt that each of those speeches was a song, a painting, a gem to be treasured.
The spring well of her artistic energy fuelled her faith in the potential of T&T to rise above its circumstances as small islands in a vast globe and tremendous countercurrents, and that despite the weariness that seemed to be overcoming her spirit in trying time and again, and again, and yet again, to represent that position in boardrooms, and committees and panels. She fought that those of us around the table would not have to be fighting the same fight and in the same words some half a century hence.
“I would get kicked out, and every time they fired me, they gave me an award,” she would often say dryly.
She had many words to add throughout the meeting, held on a Saturday, her sacred day of engagement with her students which she so reluctantly gave up for the meeting. With an expressed aversion to use of technologies that were negatively moulding and growing mould over minds of men women and children, she upheld a vision of Trinidad and Tobago as a collective of tremendously talented people that is not imagined but real. She vehemently rejected any notion that the culture sector is divided and fragmented and that its various elements are at loggerheads with each other, but saw it as perpetuated myths by those who can best benefit from fuelling such divisions.
After many words reiterating those experiences, her last words to the culture panel last Saturday were:
“I have no words to add to this discourse. I have spoken at meetings like this all my life I have no more words to add. I am very tired. Maybe I am too old now.”
Bishop’s last words resound the weariness of the culture fraternity who have sat around such tables and in forums like those, eternally planning for the culture sector, lobbying for the realisation of the options that she and others like her offered, even in the face of the violence and the crime and the depletion of the youth communities with which she worked, often with very little, if any resources.
An enabling environment that included changes in thinking about development priorities, how those priorities are addressed, how they could be accommodated and activated in a national blueprint for development were what she brought to the table. It was a vision that accommodated all of Trinidad and Tobago, even as it championed our creativity and the arts and culture as the fuel with the best properties to ignite such progress in a way none of the abundance of energy resources ever could.