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The Roots of Tobagonian Culture

Tobago Heritage Festival Photographer: Onika Henry

Tobago Heritage Festival. Photographer: Onika Henry

Traditionally, Tobagonians have never separated arts and entertainment from education. Families, friends and neighbours would gather outdoors around a fire, roasting nuts and corn while telling stories and sharing superstitions.

This was how Tobagonians passed on proverbs and the wisdom of the elders; it was how they relaxed after hard work on the estates or at home; it was an avenue for social commentary and village news and gossip; and it was a time to enjoy each others’ company and discover individual talents.

While the modern lifestyle has forced this regular gathering to be replaced by the television and internet, Tobagonians have managed to save many of their folk arts in  cultural archives, formally passing them on as part of the schools’ curriculum and sharing them at various shows and with visitors in hotels and guesthouses around Tobago.

Almost every village has a performing or cultural arts group, in which a repository of folk arts exists, including knowledge of traditional rituals and food, folk songs, folk dances, and traditional arts and crafts. Throughout the year, these groups have productions and some, like the Signal Hill Alumni Choir, have quite a few concerts. Since most of these do not have a fixed yearly date, one can visit the Department of Tourism or the Department of Culture for information on current activities. The Department of Culture’s reference library and research unit also has information on all areas of the arts in Tobago.

There are only a few active professional visual artists in Tobago currently, though there are many visual art teachers and students who produce work for exhibitions and for sale. The Art Committee of Tobago, an organisation dedicated to the visual arts, has not functioned for a few years, but in every secondary school in Tobago, you will find many of its members as art teachers. The island has a large number of practising art students and teachers. The visual arts community in Tobago is linked to the events and festivals industry and thus new and upcoming artists are trained to be versatile, particularly in design, since many will find work in producing costumes and sets for theatre and concerts, or decorating for weddings, graduations and other special functions.

The Tobago Museum is a great repository of information on visual arts and the art community in Tobago. The curator and executive trustee of Tobago’s Heritage, Edward Hernandez is himself a practising professional artist. Many students and teachers refer to him for appraisal of their work, for discussions and debate and for research.

Annually, during the Tobago Heritage Festival, the Tobago Museum hosts a book fair and special exhibition of art created by students from Centre for Creative and Festival Arts, University of the West Indies. Entitled ‘History of Art and Architecture – A Museum Project’ it showcases not just paintings, but photography, video, sculpture, and jewellery.

If you’re just looking for somewhere to hang out or ‘lime,’ a good place to go would be the sports bars or restaurants with live entertainment. Tobago also has the newly opened cinema at Gulf City Lowlands Mall. The restaurants feature the local talent, with some featuring regular artistes, while others would have different performers every week.

In addition to indigenous arts, which strongly reflect the island’s African heritage, one can find an international array of cultural entertainment on the island. Many restaurants and hotels also have nights dedicated to Jazz, Reggae, Hip-Hop, R&B, Latin and of course Calypso, Soca and Steelpan music.

Some Tobago Cultural Groups

  • Rhythmic Vibrations – Scarborough, 639-7672/773-1426
  • Itsy Bitsy Folk Theatre – Dinner Theatre featuring authentic Tobago folk arts and crafts, and food; a ‘must see’
  • Pembroke Folk Performers – 774-4683
  • Crusoe Gems Performing Company – 639-5997
  • Hands of Rhythm (African and Folk Drumming) – 639-9220/7210
  • Royal Sweet Fingers Tambrin Band – 639-5634
  • Youth Quake – 772-4440

Government Departments

  • Department of Community Development of Tobago House of Assembly (THA) – showcases/markets the visual arts and crafts produced by the villages and this includes paintings, designer clothing, sculpture and many others.
  • The Department of Culture, THA – hosts classical music concerts, featuring both local and international talent; produces many cultural events. A great source of information on active cultural groups on the island

Visual Artists/Galleries

  • Edward Hernandez – Curator-Trustee Tobago Museum, multimedia visual artist. 639-3970 tomuseum@tstt.net.tt
  • James (Jim) Armstrong – Chairman of Pigeon Point Heritage Park; some of his work is featured in the Tobago Museum
  • Earl Manswell – has an art studio in L’Anse Fourmi; does mainly traditional scenes in acrylic
  • Herman Charles – a “Heritage” painter/artist; self-taught and has a booth on the Scarborough Esplanade
  • David Knott – one of Tobago’s longstanding professional artists; does powerful landscapes and old buildings
  • Martin Superville – works more with figures; owns ‘The Art Gallery’ in Lowlands
  • Marcia Des Vignes – Designer, Visual Arts teacher at Scarborough Secondary School
  • Kevin Ayoung-Julien – Designer (clothes and jewellery)
  • Genesis Nature Park – Located in Goodwood, this is an interesting combination of a mini zoo and mini art gallery, well worth a visit
  • Deidre Prescod – Cosmic Essence Art Gallery (mainly crafts)
  • D’Art Yard in Crown Point – 631-8312
  • Luise Kimme’s “The Castle” – 639-0257

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A team of of writers discovering Trinidad & Tobago for 25 years and counting!

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