Pursuing Art and Culture in Trinidad and Tobago: On recognition and sustainability of a career.

Commentary by Shannah-Marie Mohammed

Sitting in the audience of the packed Bocas Lit Fest semifinals, I was amazed at how many artists had the talent to express in words what so many of us only felt and could not describe.  Spoken word, as well as many other art forms is a talent to be honed and shared.

“Lady…for your information,

what I put down as my occupation

is not a mistake or a mix-up or a miscommunication

So miss me with dem judgy eyes,

miss me with those stupid replies like

“Excuuuuse me Sir, we doh recognise ‘artist’ as ah occupation”

(Excerpt taken from spoken word piece by Kyle Hernandez)

The rest of this piece describes the poet’s indignation upon going to the bank and being not only rejected, but laughed at for completing “artist” in the occupation slot. While anyone of us could groan and grumble at the bank’s motives at that point, this experience raises a more serious concern about the role and more importantly, the value of artists and their art in our society.

We are all prepped and primed to answer any question on Trinidadian culture, with our beloved Carnival (first and foremost) and soca artistes, as our vehicles to maximum hype. The idea of lucrative Art extends to our local fashion market with up-and-coming designers such as ‘The Golden Pineapple’ girls and household names like Anya Ayoung-Chee, as well as our local makeup artists, certainly monetising their talents, using social media as powerful platforms.

But what about in a broader sense? What about our classical musicians, spoken word artists and more?

Why, as Kyle Hernandez said, is it so difficult for us to believe and accept that “artist” is a viable profession?

The answer could be in our evolution as a society.

Derived from a plantation society – and, some would argue that we maintain this structure today – the vast majority could not afford to be a “frivolous” people early on. With an obvious aversion to agrarian work, after emancipation the ex-slaves moved away from the plantation with any other work in mind. Wealth and mobility remained within the hands of the ex-planters, land proprietors and lighter-skinned classes (a clear minority). This could have assisted in art and its appreciation becoming a niche activity, concentrated in the “upper class” of society.

Societal development is influenced by many factors. Throughout history, leisure activities have generally been considered and confined to the “realm” of the upper classes. This rings true in a plantation society, within a hierarchy largely based on colour. For the “lower classes”, leisure was a means of escape from dreary everyday life, not a viable profession. Since that generation, parents have continuously pushed their children into following what society has deemed to be “valuable”. Thus we – here in Trinidad & Tobago – have many doctors, lawyers, engineers and other practical professions. Art is valued a leisure activity and not a viable career path.

In general, leisure is defined as time free of work or work related demands. It is a time of individual judgement, according to Hans Voss. When prestige increases, however, involvement in many social activities also increases, so people participate in activities of their social standing. According to an article by Brendan Saloner, this difference in activities  is based on three things: 1/ taste – Tastes are socially reinforced and as a result, people with similar tastes form tight-knit groups, 2/ know-how – As certain activities require specific equipment or knowledge, they can become niche activities and 3/ access – relative to the financial accessibility of the activity.

So, why are our artists undervalued? I believe it is as a result of our societal structure. We are not all wealthy and in general, our leisure activities are related to extrinsic rewards. That is to say, we participate in activities to provide us with an escape from work. Our habitual drinking and partying is the release that continues to numb us to the everyday. Unless that art relates to our release, we do not value it as a career.

While we love our soca artistes, it is undeniable that the support for local Artists – regardless of their field/ domain of expertise – is nowhere near where it should be.

As a Caribbean island rich in culture, we should be nurturing the artistic flair instead of stifling, if not  undervaluing it. According to The European Alliance for Culture and the Arts, “art is important for a good quality of life, encouraging a positive expenditure of energy” and I would add, if we are to stimulate our lacking tourism industry, investing in Art & Culture is a necessity. Now, more than ever.

Shannah-Marie Mohammed


Kyle Hernandez is the founder and Managing Director of SoPoetic Productions and a teaching artist at The 2 Cents Movement.

Works Cited:

Saloner, Brendan. “Leisure Inequality-What Do the Poor and Non-Poor Do for Fun?” Inequalities: Research and reflection from both sides of the Atlantic. July 7, 2011.

Voss, J. (1967). “The definition of Leisure”. Journal of Economic Issues, I, 91-106.