My form two history textbook: The Caribbean People, Book Three, by Lennox Honychurch. On page 136: a photograph of Phyllis Shand Allfrey of Dominica, best remembered today as the author of the novel The Orchid House, who also served as the only woman minister in the Cabinet of the West Indies Federation, responsible for health and social affairs. The photo is undated, but Allfrey is elderly, looks careworn, in a simple dress, perhaps home-sewn. She is standing in front of the Federation flag, which itself looks careworn and almost home-sewn, its seams imperfect, its wrinkles unironed. A flag folded up and put away for many years, brought out again for some nostalgic occasion. On the facing page, Honychurch quotes Allfrey’s speech at the final session of the Federal House of Representatives: “Some things are miserable failures, but we have tried our very best and perhaps we could call this a noble failure.”1 For some reason I can’t articulate, this photograph of Allfrey and the Federation flag fascinated and almost obsessed my twelve-year-old self. Decades later, wanting to study it again, I knew exactly where to find the book, on a shelf a few feet from my desk.
An email from the Jamaican-Canadian artist Charles Campbell, mid-November 2011, with a Word document attached. A couple months before, Campbell had travelled to Port of Spain for a residency at Alice Yard, the contemporary art space of which I’m co-director. He had written a short essay reflecting on his time with us. The title: “Failure at the Yard.” Faced with a series of unexpected circumstances, unavailable materials, and logistical setbacks, Campbell’s ambitious performance project had failed to materialize as he intended. All artists have the experience of failed works, and few are willing to discuss them in public. But here was Campbell reflecting on failure as a form of learning, and the revision of expectations as a creative act. For my fellow Alice Yard co-directors and myself, this became a seminal text in our ongoing rethinking of purpose and method.
I cite these two artifacts — the photograph of Allfrey with the Federation flag, and Campbell’s essay — to try to begin to explain my interest in “failure”. (Eventually published digitally on the artist’s website, the essay is duly included in the collection below, and I found a proxy for the photograph in the online gallery of the West Indies Federal Archives Centre.) Autobiographical aspects aside, the artifacts suggest an organizing principle, two ways of considering the idea of “failure” in the Caribbean digital space. Thus, the first cluster of this collection gathers digital artifacts — texts, videos, and otherwise — that document and explore specific historical events that might be understood as failures. The second cluster asks how admitting or even enacting failure might be a generative process, through digital artifacts — all textual in this cluster— of creative or intellectual enterprises that might be said to have failed.
The history of the modern Caribbean begins in failure. There is the practical geographical failure of a Genoese navigator who crossed the Atlantic and erroneously believed he’d arrived in Asia; and his subsequent complete failure to grasp that these “new”-found territories already had inhabitants with legitimate moral rights to their own lives, homes, beliefs, and agency. Columbus’ ethical failure — exponentially multiplied, magnified to a global scale, and mutated by technologies of violence — became the immense and still unatoned failure of colonialism. “Failure” both is and isn’t too weak a word to encompass a rational and emotional comprehension of the Caribbean’s colonial history. But inasmuch as there are quarters where “empire” still arouses romantic notions, and colonial nostalgia stubbornly persists in political discourse, it feels important to call that centuries-long cumulative violence what it was and is: not the success of a superior culture or superior ideals, but a moral and intellectual failure unable to recognize itself as such.
Columbus does make an appearance below, in literal effigy, but I have chosen the digital artifacts in my first cluster on a more recent timescale, observing the period from the pre-Independence 1950s to the present. The artifacts are too few and too discontinuous to amount to a narrative, but I hope there is something meaningful in their sequence, running from the 1953 suspension of the British Guiana constitution through the short-lived West Indies Federation, and then the long aftermath of Independence, ending with an online petition, which remains current and active.
Declared or implied, failure is a common and enduring theme in Caribbean literature and art across genres, once you begin to look for it. We fail together and we fail apart. But for my second cluster I sought out artifacts that suggest how failure — small or large, singular or in series, unexpected or predictable, personal or collective, of execution, of energy, of timing — might be not just a subject for description or analysis, but a kind of praxis. An artwork whose failure is precisely what gives it meaning; failure as a way to think through what we create, our ambitions, our self-awareness, our effect upon the world. Failure not, or not only, as a source of shame, but as a motive for self-knowing. Sometimes, I think these artifacts suggest, it is difficult to distinguish between what we have done and what we have failed to do. That confusion means something.
Curatorial Note: Filmed in the mid 1970s and released c. 1978 (various online sources give release dates ranging from 1977 to 1979), this “symbolist documentary,” subtitled “Notes on Repressive Violence in Guyana”, was directed by Rupert Roopnaraine and produced by the Victor Jara Collective. As in the Martin Carter poem from which the film draws its title, “the time” is 1953 and “the terror” refers to the events following the election in April that year. Under a new constitution and universal adult suffrage, the Marxist People’s Progressive Party led by Cheddi Jagan unexpectedly won the election by a landslide, and immediately set about enacting a radical anti-colonial agenda. After just 133 days, under orders from the Colonial Office in London, Governor Alfred Savage suspended the constitution and dissolved the government. Key PPP leaders were imprisoned, and the multi-ethnic party split into Indo- and Afro-Guyanese factions, leading to often-violent tensions, which have shaped Guyanese politics and society to the present day.
Curatorial Note: After the dissolution of the West Indies Federation in 1962, the official federal archives were deposited in the Barbados National Archives, and remained there for over forty years. In 2004, the documents were formally transferred to a new West Indies Federal Archives Centre at the Cave Hill Campus of the University of the West Indies. Given the wealth of material in the center’s custody, the website is disappointing — none of the Federal archives have been digitized except for a collection of 46 photographs, posted (at low resolution) on the website’s “gallery” page. They range from official portraits of Federal politicians to documentation of education, culture, manufacturing, and housing across the Federal member states. Most poignant, at least to me, is a photograph captioned “Ministers examining new Federal Flag c. 1960,” with a beaming Phyllis Shand Allfrey at the center.
Curatorial Note: In the art history of the Caribbean, it’s hard to think of a more heartbreaking or enraging instance of public philistinism than the destruction in 1976 of Carlisle Chang’s Piarco Airport mural. Commissioned in 1961 and executed over three months, The Inherent Nobility of Man — forty feet long and sixteen feet high — was an expression of optimism and confidence, inspired by 1920s Mexican muralism and the ideals of the Independence moment. A decade and a half later, during a renovation of the baggage handling area, it was reduced to rubble by workers with sledgehammers, on the order of the minister of works and against the pleas and protests of Trinidad and Tobago’s artistic community. The ironies were massive: Chang was as close to an official artist as T&T possessed, responsible for designing the national flag and coat of arms. Yet his masterwork was destroyed — why? “There was a rumor that [Prime Minister] Dr. Williams’s suitcases had got damaged in the [baggage handling] machine,” Chang says, “and he ordered changes.” In this interview, recorded shortly before he died in 2001 and originally broadcast on T&T’s TV6 station, the artist gives his perspective on the events of 1976 — followed by the TV6 presenter’s distressing rundown of others of Chang’s public artworks “lost” or damaged due to sheer administrative indifference.
Curatorial Note: By 1986, Trinidad and Tobago’s People’s National Movement had been in power for thirty years, since the pre-Independence 1956 general election. Under prime minister Dr. Eric Williams, the PNM had led the country through Independence in 1962, then through the Black Power Revolution of 1970 and the “oil boom” of the late 1970s, before Williams’ death in office in 1981. His unpopular successor George Chambers had to deal with the collapse of oil prices and the inevitable effects on the T&T economy. When calypsonian Winston “Gypsy” Peters released his song “The Sinking Ship” for Carnival 1986, it captured the mood of a populace deeply discontented with the PNM government. “The Trinidad, a luxury liner, sailing the Caribbean Sea / With an old captain named Eric Williams / For years sailed smooth and free,” the song begins. “But sadly Eric Williams passed away / The ship hit rough water that day.” The song reflects the views of longtime PNM diehards for whom “The Doctor” could do no wrong, and the PNM’s political failures were laid directly at the feet of Chambers. “Captain, the ship is sinking, / Captain, the seas are rough,” went the chorus. In a December general election, the National Alliance for Reconstruction, a coalition of opposition parties, defeated the PNM in a landslide. And Gypsy himself entered politics a decade and a half later, running successfully for Parliament in 2000 and eventually serving as T&T’s minister of culture.
Curatorial Note: In May 2011, just over a year before the 50th anniversary of Jamaican Independence, the Gleaner newspaper provocatively commissioned the pollster Bill Johnson to undertake a national survey on attitudes towards the end of colonial rule. Sixty percent of 1,008 respondents said “the country would have been better off had it remained a colony of Britain,” according to the newspaper’s short but dispiriting report. “23 per cent said they did not know.” A few paragraphs later, the article said the government had set aside JA$50 million for the golden anniversary celebrations in 2012. The poll results were widely re-reported, especially by Caribbean and British media. Some failures speak for themselves.
Title: “Remove Christopher Columbus Monuments in Trinidad and Tobago”
Creator: CrossRhodes Freedom Project
Curatorial Note: Since 1881, a statue of Christopher Columbus has stood in downtown Port of Spain, in a small fenced square. For decades, activists have argued for its removal, but although Trinidad and Tobago deleted Discovery Day — the anniversary of Columbus’s arrival off Trinidad’s south coast — from the calendar of public holidays in 1985, the statue has remained in place. In mid-2020, with Black Lives Matter protests spreading globally in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, and colonial monuments under intense scrutiny, the T&T activist organization called the CrossRhodes Freedom Project renewed its campaign against the Columbus statue, launching an online petition with over 8,000 signatures thus far, addressed to the mayor of Port of Spain. It should have been a fairly easy decision to make: the statue is not popular, as a work of public art it is aesthetically unattractive, few people actually visit Columbus Square because of its semi-hidden location. Presented with the petition, the mayor deferred to the national government, which kept silent. The statue still stands on its pedestal, now splashed with paint, and the petition remains open for online signatures.
Curatorial Note: Confronted with COVID-19, in 2020 T&T’s NGC Bocas Lit Fest postponed its annual festival by five months and then presented it entirely virtually. The event with the largest live audience was a discussion panel called A Question of Leadership, presented on Sunday 20 September. As programme director of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, I can reveal that the original title of the event was “The Failure of Leadership,” and although we chose the neutral alternative, the question of whether and how the Caribbean’s political leaders have failed their citizens was the elephant in the Zoom. Chaired by Barbadian international relations scholar Andy Knight, the event assembled former Jamaican prime minister P.J. Patterson, former Belizean attorney general–turned–biographer Godfrey Smith, and Guyanese gender and Caribbean studies scholar Alissa Trotz, for a sometimes intense debate that ranged from the Grenada Revolution and the deposing of Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the 1992 West Indian Commission’s ill-fated report A Time for Action and the rise of new social activism across the region.
Curatorial Note: In 2011, Jamaican-Canadian artist Charles Campbell arrived in Port of Spain for a three-week residency at the contemporary art space Alice Yard. It was not an auspicious moment: Trinidad and Tobago was under a government-declared state of emergency and nightly curfew. Nonetheless, Campbell planned a public performance in which his “Actor Boy” persona — derived from traditional Jamaican Jonkonnu — would interact with a seven-foot mobile geodesic sphere, a Night Object. But the sphere threatened to fall apart, the details of its visual imagery were barely legible, and the actual performance was “unresolved.” Several months after returning to his studio in Canada, Campbell wrote this essay reflecting on what he learned about “failure” as a process of “ideas in the forming” — a companion to “collaboration . . . a way to share knowledge and skills.”
Title: “How Tania Bruguera’s Free Speech Performance Was Mishandled, and Misreported, in Cuba”
Author: Carolina Drake
Curatorial Note: The daughter of a minister and diplomat devoutly loyal to Fidel Castro, artist Tania Bruguera is an outspoken critic of the Cuban government. Through performance works such as the Tatlin’s Whisper series, she seeks to highlight and subvert official repression of free expression, by creating events where anyone in attendance may speak openly on any topic — most famously in Tatlin’s Whisper #6, performed at the 2009 Havana Biennale. In December 2015, shortly after the Obama Administration re-established diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, Bruguera announced a version of Tatlin’s Whisper #6 to be staged in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolucíon, inviting “anyone and everyone to step up to an open microphone for one minute of free speech.” The performance didn’t happen. It was preempted by the authorities, who arrested Bruguera and twelve others, igniting controversy in the Cuban and international art world, with widespread press attention and a petition demanding the artist’s release. As this report in the contemporary art journal Hyperallergic makes clear, it was inevitable the performance would not be allowed to happen — but its very public and pre-ordained failure was arguably the true performance: an artwork that needed to fail in order to be fulfilled.
Curatorial Note: In 2019, as she prepared to step down as editor of sx salon, Kelly Baker Josephs invited me to join a discussion on digital publishing. The final version took the form of a dialogue on the theme of “endings,” a subject on both our minds — for Kelly, it was the end of her editorship of sx salon, and for me, it had become time to publicly acknowledge that The Caribbean Review of Books (CRB), which I’d edited as a print and then online journal since 2004, had ceased active publication. Our exchange covers issues of continuity, longevity, motivation, and legacy relevant not only to Caribbean digital publishing but to broader creative and intellectual enterprises in the Caribbean. The word failure occurs just once in our conversation: “If resources and energy simply run out, if the thing just stops, without declaration or intent … it’s a moment that may look like, or feel like, a failure.” But whether the CRB had failed, or whether I as its editor had failed, was an unspoken question running through the entire exchange. A year and a half later, the part of the discussion I find myself musing on is our exchange about “the subtle implications of coming to an end versus coming to a finish.” Now it suggests to me that the same moment might be read as a failure or a completion, depending on the context — or both at once.
Nicholas Laughlin, born and living in Trinidad, is the programme director of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, Trinidad and Tobago’s annual literary festival; editor of the arts and travel magazine Caribbean Beat; and a co-director of Alice Yard, a nonprofit contemporary art space and network based in Port of Spain. He has published two books of poems, most recently Enemy Luck.
Honychurch, Lennox. The Caribbean People, Book Three. Cheltenham, UK: Nelson Caribbean, 1981.
Image used under a Pixabay license
Honychurch, The Caribbean People, Book Three, 37. ↩