COMMENTARY: The Relevance of the Visual Arts in Dominica

A painting by Roger Burnett made at his Antrim studio as a life-class demonstration

The recent launch of Dominica’s National Art Gallery begs the question: what is the relevance of the visual arts in Dominica.

It is the same question that I made the subject of an evening panel discussion three years ago at my exhibition “A New Lease of Life”. The venue was the Old Mill, the five panellists were distinguished in the arts, and the event was free and widely publicised.

Perhaps the answer was made conspicuously clear by audience attendance: no one showed up!

It was the same story when I attempted to introduce a full-time Pre-Degree Course in the Visual Arts at the launch of the Dominica Institute for the Arts. The syllabus was based on an award winning course that I had contributed to in the UK. The fees matched those of the State College and twelve participants would have made the initiative financially viable. Anywhere else in the world students would have been queuing around the block to enrol. In Dominica there were no takers!

More recently, I set up an interactive website specifically with Dominican CXC students in mind. But regardless of free tablets and internet access, my “Notes for Art Students” had virtually no local followers, nor any interest from the Department of Education. In contrast, my on-line diary pages (sculpturestudiodominica.blogspot.com) are accessed by thousands of students, artists and art lovers in over fifty countries beyond the Caribbean.

I could add more examples, but let me get down to what I perceive is the reason for the apathy. Fundamentally, there is little understanding of what art is all about. In Dominica we tend to confuse art with culture. Culture is something we all do and feel comfortable with: it may instil pride but not necessarily deep thought; it preserves rather than creates. Art is individualistic and often controversial: it questions accepted beliefs and breaks new ground.

Over a hundred years ago the American artist Robert Henri wrote:
“…You do not have to be a painter or sculptor to be an artist. Art, when really understood, is the province of every human being. Art Galleries will not make a country art conscious, but where there is the art spirit there will be precious work to fill galleries…The artist disturbs, upsets, enlightens and opens the way for a better understanding. Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, he opens it and shows there are still more pages to follow…”

As individuals and as a nation, creativity is our most valuable resource. Given the fact that at least 30% of all children are creatively, rather than academically inclined, we would benefit if creative subjects were given greater attention in our schools.
Moreover, Afro-Caribbean’s have the world’s highest incidence of dyslexia (15% of the population as against 10%). This alone should ensure that we have a super abundance of creative people, for dyslexia and creativity go hand in hand. Throughout history many of the world’s most gifted artists and thinkers have been dyslexic.

It would also help if parents had a different mind-set towards education. Too often it is the parent’s aspiration, rather than the child’s, that instils a preference for academic rather than creative subjects. Dominica does not necessarily need more lawyers but we do desperately need more people who are creatively skilled.

Finally, in answer to the reason for our apathy towards the visual arts, Dominica’s preeminent art icon told me recently: Roger, we’re just not ready!

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5 Comments

  1. Persia Stephen
    May 16, 2017

    The government is not interested in the visual arts . I heard a some top cultural persons saying that there is no representation for culture at cabinet level. Recently at the opening of the so called national art gallery only 1 minister showed up and did not view the exhibits but rather stayed at the bar talking to the pretty girls . They will support Marc Marie and his gang by allotting 1 million because musicians can be bought for campaign sewo

  2. Puppet
    May 15, 2017

    Hi Roger, To be honest I think it is crabs in a barrel. There are artists here that are incredible but there are only a couple of big names ever uttered! It is probably impossible for most artists to ever make a proper living here, just a couple! You are incredibly talented we are so lucky to have you here. You are white and not Dominican it should not be a problem but hey just maybe it is!!

  3. jaded
    May 15, 2017

    Our children are too absorbed with American culture to care enough about art and its appreciation. Our schools and the media in collaboration with local artists can play a roll in art appreciation too. Unfortunately everyone spends so much time on their electronic devices that they have come to believe that emojis are all the art they should care about.

    • Dominican
      May 15, 2017

      Whose is that if the children are not that oriented? Is art taken seriously in the school curriculum? Our education department needs a paradigm shift.

  4. Anonymous
    May 15, 2017

    Mr. Burnett I find the lack of interest in Visual Arts in Dominica very saddening as well. I didn’t grow up here and moving back recently I observed the stark difference. If I was around when you were offering your course I would have rushed so quickly to sign up…such a wonderful opportunity. Two questions stand out in my mind. 1. Why? What are the major factors hindering interest? Is it the lack of full exposure in school? That’s where I fell in love with art. In my second form art class with my fun and quirky art teacher you taught me the principles of drawing the human face. I still remember the awakened curiosity and joy that filled my heart as I looked at my finished piece. Do secondary schools even offer Visual Arts CXC in Dominica? 2. How do we get Dominicans…especially the young people… to be more interested?

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