Blog: Dominique Le Gendre Reflects on her first month as new Artist in Residence

April 29, 2024

When I started my residency at the George Padmore Institute (GPI) this April, I could not have imagined the impact of reading reams of correspondence between writers in the early days of the Caribbean Artists Movement over the 1960s. Nor could I have imagined what I would find in the archives of the Negro Theatre Workshop; archives that include photographs, reviews and programmes of productions, minutes of their meetings and notes about the formalisation of their activities from the very early 1960s.

All these piles of paper, handwritten, typed and printed in newspapers and on programmes along with carefully preserved black and white photographs, were evidence of decades of powerful Caribbean artistic voices across political thinking, literature, music, drama, the visual arts and activism. Voices that were in constant correspondence and communication with each other and with some of the 'mother countries' - Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, Guyana. Voices that were establishing themselves here in the UK, in the Caribbean, the US and Canada, sensing the urgent need to come together in self-organised associations that would allow them to publish their own writers and serve their own communities simply by being visible and in print.

What struck me was the panorama of Caribbean politics that emerged from the correspondence between John La Rose and Edward Brathwaite. As they exchanged notes about New Beacon Books - the first black bookshop and publishing house in the UK created by Trinidadian John La Rose and his English wife, Sarah White - the student protests on the university campus in freshly independent Jamaica filtered through their typewritten letters alongside the reports of how 'so and so' was managing amid the Black Power protests in Trinidad. The letters always closed with exchanges of fond regards to each other and their families.

I was also struck by the strong sense of political and cultural responsibility present throughout their correspondence; a responsibility to ensure that the younger generations of the Caribbean diaspora should have access to the intellectual and literary Caribbean tradition, a counterfoil to the racist environment that surrounded their daily lives.

This weekly research, spending hours reading and sifting through evidence of presence in the reading room at the GPI feels like a coming home of sorts. This building, which houses the archive and the bookshop, represents the fruit of many unions. It is a reassuring and inspirational reminder that brings to vivid life the long tradition and ceaseless activity of Caribbean thinkers, activists and artists who made their home in the UK and without whom our paths, 70 years on, would have been even more difficult. The self-imposed sense of responsibility that leaps from their correspondence is another reminder that the common good, a quality that was second nature in much of their extraordinary artistic activity, is ripe for renewal.  

As for what this research will become, my original thought of using this as inspiration for a new song cycle feels paltry given the wide reach of these archives. Now I am searching for the form that can effectively juxtapose the intimacy of letter writing with the magnitude of what was being achieved by the letter writers against a backdrop of major transformation and change in the Caribbean and the UK.

Dominique Le Gendre, April 2024


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