Wayne 'Rafiki' Morris Speaks
Wayne 'Rafiki' Morris Speaks
"We are the solution"
The Mural 'Innocence' done by Wayne 'Rafiki' Morris (Left)
Interview recorded: January 26, 2006
Published: March 24, 2006
Wayne Morris, better known as Rafiki, is an accomplished muralist, painter, writer and poet. He was born in October 1956, and at the age of four years he was already revealing his artistic and literary potentials. In 1968, at the age of twelve, Rafiki was taking art classes at Morgan State University in Maryland, U.S.A. and covering the family home with his first murals. His professional artistic endeavors began in 1974 with the founding of "The New World Poets" and continued over the years into countless major programs and campaigns both nationally and internationally. Rafiki's paintings have been exhibited in Washington, D.C., Baltimore and New York City. His local murals are located at U.W.I.'s (The University of the West Indies) JFK Memorial Auditorium; City Hall Port of Spain; San Fernando Art Center; Rudranath Capildeo Learning Resource Center, Couva; the Fairfield Complex and Bacolet Tobago. Rafiki is currently serving as Artistic Consultant and Designer for 'The East of the River Pilot Project', 'Pan Theatre Project' with Trinidad All Stars and the Ministry of Culture, the 'Dragon's Nest Project' with the National Carnival Commission and the 'Crosstown Carnival Committee'. Rafiki is also currently preparing to publish his second book of poems and short stories entitled, "Space Between the Hard Lines".
We have just arrived on Prince Street for the Crosstown Carnival Launch which will be taking place shortly. We had the opportunity to interview Rafiki today who also happens to be a member on the Crosstown Carnival Committee. Actually, he did a mural right where we are standing now.
TRINISOCA: Rafiki, what was your inspiration for doing this mural?
RAFIKI: This mural in particular had a couple of things that came together. One was access to the wall because they had to ask permission. The second was, we had to work-in to try to do a mural project for some of the government agencies, the ministries, the National Carnival Commission (NCC) and so on, so we decided to put something on the wall. I am talking about me and the people at the Crosstown Carnival Committee (I am their Trustee).
I will share a bit of what happened. It was one of our members birthday and the President's daughter had a birthday party here. At the end of the party, tragically a young man by the name of Christian James got murdered; he was stabbed. There was no rhyme or reason, no drugs or anything; it was just a crazy thing. We had already decided to put something on the wall and seeing that Christian was a young man about twenty-three or twenty-four years old we wanted something that talks to youth and innocence and good things that young people are doing. It is also something that would uplift the area as opposed to the violence and the drugs and so on. I did a painting about two years ago with the same scene, so we took that paint and we created this mural. The middle guy with the marbles and the little boy is Christian James and that's why we call it 'Innocence'; there is still innocence in the world and nobody talks about it.
TRINISOCA: What kind of effect do you think this mural had on the people who saw it?
RAFIKI: It has been very well-received by the community. Some of the local businesses make contributions to help pay for paints and stuff like that. The kids all love it and it takes all the older guys and the women back to remembering older days. It is like a part of the community now. The vagrants used to come and do their thing on the wall but they do not do that anymore because the people from around here would stop them. It is like an ownership thing for the community. I think it had a positive effect. It beautifies the community and it kind of empowers them because it is a lot of community input that goes into something like that. Everybody has an opinion. I feel like it has the potential to do a lot of good in the community. In fact, if you look bad you will feel bad. If the community looks bad, like nothing is developing or growing that comes from the people in the community, then it leads to and it helps to promote the negative ideas that we have about ourselves.
By putting these images in the community, (and they are images from the community), it's going to show people that there are still values we embrace and there is still something that we can do. Nobody helped to pay for this. We paid for it. If it was expanded and funded properly it could also be a way of training young artists. There are very few muralists in Trinidad. I am not really aware if there is anybody working on this scale and I like to work bigger than this. Hopefully, I could bring these skills to Trinidad and train some young artists with plenty of walls to paint. It is a good way to help develop the community with, I have to say millions of dollars, which you can change the way it looks. It is about the ideas too, what's important to you and how it manifests. As an artist, it is a way to influence the society. The reason I am a muralist is because most of the stuff I paint, the people who I paint it for or who inspire it, cannot afford it when I put it on canvas, or they may never see it when they are at an exhibition and things like that. That is how I started painting murals in the first place; I wanted the public to have access to the work and public art is my thing.
TRINISOCA: How does your art relates to the art form of Calypso?
RAFIKI: Well, not just Calypso. It's also mas', stick fighting and steelpan. All these things come from people who really had no way to express themselves and had no resources to make that expression come into existence by taking in trash, garbage and discarded things around them and creating something out of nothing. To me, it is the same thing. It is a way to tell a story; a way to communicate something to somebody at more than the intellectual level, kind of at an emotional level to reach people. That is what goodness is all about; that is what Mas' is all about; that is what Carnival is really all about. Carnival is really a protest with people saying, "You cannot shut me up and you cannot keep me from dancing in the streets and having a good time and I do not care who you are," and so on. I, as a muralist, came out of an auburn kind of environment and history.
You would not trace my arts to the murals of da Vinci and Michaelangelo. You will trace my art maybe to graffiti writers in the auburn centers in the United States or influences of that kind. Not that I haven't been influenced by these other people, because they are the masters, and in a lot of the lectures they taught, you have to know. But the intent is more aligned with those people who started graffiti and different kind of auburn artistic hip hop expressions... and I am way past hip hop. There is an old saying, "Necessity is the mother of invention". I believe that, but I think that poverty is the mother of necessity which leads to the creation of this kind of work. The fact that this wall is falling down makes this design work; it's a design to fall apart. Murals are always like that; you have to fit them into an environment. You have to take the architecture; the culture...the reasons for the wall have to be considered. I think it is perfectly suited to Calypso, Carnival, Trinidad and to what we are doing here today. I do not know why it doesn't have more of it in Trinidad. I do not understand it.
TRINISOCA: What are the goals and objectives of the Crosstown Carnival Committee?
RAFIKI: This committee has a long history dating back to 'Lucky Jordon Club' and the Carnival that used to pass as a tradition as a part of Carnival. That committee went through a couple of transformations when it was passed over; they had some problems. The former President approached Mr. Prescott and said, "We cannot go any further with this but it needs to keep going" and they turned it over to Mr. Prescott. The objectives are really to revitalize Traditional Mas' and to safe guard the other Carnival Traditions that are quickly disappearing. For instance, like stick fighting, wire bending, Calypso, limbo and all of these elements of the traditions of Carnival that are slowly being pushed further and further into the background. We would also like to bring Mas' back into town instead of around town. That is a very difficult one and we haven't necessarily found it as yet, but we are still working on it.
We want to culturally vitalize the area. On this block alone there are about nine or ten striving businesses and they are not going anywhere. The reputation of the area and the way it looks keep people out, so we want to clean up the whole area. We plan to paint every building on both sides of the block, redo the basketball court and whatever it takes to raise it up so that the people will feel better about their environment. This is an important part of Port of Spain; there is a lot of history here and it needs to be maintained. Even things like the architecture... this kind of architecture will be gone soon. We are trying to keep those things alive and at the same time show that it is more than death and destruction going on in this part of Port of Spain. We want to highlight the positive things and the positive people. That is basically what we are trying to do.
TRINISOCA: What other things do you all have coming up besides this Calypso Launch here today?
RAFIKI: On February 17th 2006, we are having a 'Tribute to Bradley'. On Thursday 23rd February, we are going to have a Traditional Mas' Competition. On Friday 24th February, the school workshop will be building their own Mas' and they will pass by here. They will be coming from the South East School which is right around the corner from here. Last year they came up George Street, but this year we want them to come up Prince Street and then go up Charlotte Street. On Saturday 25th February, will be our biggest event which is the National Stick Fighting Competition and it will be held right here on Prince Street for the whole day. It is the only Stick Fighting Competition in Port of Spain. It is our second year and the guys will be coming to defend their crown. It will be great. On Sunday 26th February, will be the Junior Parade of Bands, but we are still waiting to hear what route they are going to take. Last year they didn't pass here; they went a different direction and they blocked them off. We are not asking to send them, but they shouldn't block them off. If they want to come, let them come. After that we go right into Carnival so we have J'Ouvert. We have King and Queen of J'Ouvert, Best Band (first, second and third) and The Bomb Tune.
TRINISOCA: Where will be the judging point?
RAFIKI: The judging point will be right on the corner by 'Lucky Jordon'. We will have bleachers for spectators, a judges' booth and we will have the stage set up depending on what we will need. J'Ouvert is actually going to run right into Monday, and then Tuesday we will be having a second King and Queen of Carnival, Best Band and Bomb Tune. The Sunday following Carnival is our excursion to Sally Bay. That is pretty much it for the season.
TRINISOCA: What was the community's response to the committee and what they are doing?
RAFIKI: It has been mixed. I say that because we have great support in terms of people actively attending and participating. We get a really nice crowd and we never had any bacchanal or problems, despite what people think about Prince Street. We never had any problems like that and we don't even get police protection. We have a really good relationship with the community. We even had a kids programme with birthdays and stuff, so that side is good. On the other side, you build the organization from scratch and you are building it among people who really do not have organizational expertise and experience, leadership, planning and all these different elements that it takes to pull this stuff off. So the next side is very difficult, but I have a lot of experience doing that stuff. Overall I think it is good.
Hopefully over the next couple of years we would have pulled more young people in because this is really their work and not ours. Overall we get a really good response from the people and we never had a failed activity. Last year Carnival we came up in the black and we raised more money from our sponsors than we got from the government. We are having a pretty good track record so far. We are learning and we do more now with less, so we are getting better.
TRINISOCA: What plans do you all have for the Community?
RAFIKI: Right now we are looking at some corporate sponsorship to do an improvement programme in here. We want to improve the appearance of everything you could see. All the buildings on the block need painting and the galvanize as well as the burglar-proofing need fixing and painting. We want to try to employ people from around here to do the work. We have a contractor who is a member of the organization to run the job and we are seeking funds from all kinds of different sources.
We also have a plan to put a mural called 'Guardian of the Dragon's Nest' over on 47 First Street at the top. Last year Carnival we were declared 'The Guardian of the Dragon'. The Dragon's Nest was born between here and Queen Street, but there isn't anybody there so they brought it here. We've got that title now and we want to put a mural up because we feel The Dragon, like all the traditional Mas' is dying out slowly but surely. You have people like Bunji Garlin and others who kind of help keep it alive, but other than that it is dying out. It is going to be new dragons and they will be coming from a nest so they are coming from little. We developed a mural with little dragon eggs, with dragons coming out of the eggs and the big dragon looking over and a panman is in the yard. The Pan Yard is where they safeguard these things. We are looking forward to doing that, hopefully before Carnival. We still have enough time if we get the money, but if not we will do it right after. Like I said, it's really to attract young people to empower them, to train them, and to turn this stuff over to them.
TRINISOCA: What are your plans for the future?
RAFIKI: I came here to paint and I have already done about eleven murals in Trinidad. My work is in places like down south, Tobago, UWI, City Hall and so on. I have done some work but most of that work has been inside work and most people don't get access to it. I would really like to bring in some young painters and colour Trinidad (laughter). I would like to paint Trinidad. I have seen some projects that I would love to have. I want to paint the water tanks and fix them and I don't think there's nobody else can do it; it is people who think they can do it. It is a very big job and I know I can do it. My band is 'All Stars' and I have a set of designs that I am doing for them. We hope to source funding to get that stuff up there.
TRINISOCA: Did you do the one they have up on the wall in the Pan Yard?
RAFIKI: Yes, I did that. Actually, anything you see on the walls in Port of Spain I did it. I did one on Duke Street, the NJAC Office with the Indian woman and up on Laventille Hill. I am busy, but it's really on a small-scale so I am looking to expand that and hopefully we could get something going because I would like to train some artistes and then take them out of here. There are a lot of places that are interested in cultural exchanges. I have worked for many international groups before I came here, so I have context and things can be set up. There are people who need to see the world. They need to see the Caribbean, Africa and America and this could be the ticket for them if we organize ourselves right. I am trying to do those things but I still have to deal with going back and forth with immigration and all of those things.
TRINISOCA: Tell me a bit about your involvement with 'All Stars Steel Orchestra'?
RAFIKI: Well, when I first came to Trinidad in 2000 'All Stars' was the first Steelband I was introduced to. Now I have friends, business partners and other people in the band. I have done some really great designs out of being around them and working with them. My idea for them was to change the 'Pan Yard' into a real 'Pan Theatre' and surround it with art (we are working on it). Trinidad is a very incremental place and the people are positive, but when they don't know, they don't know. Things take time. We have one up and we have four more images to go there and as soon as we get the money we will do it. Hopefully, that will lead to other things. People in Trinidad don't really know you so you have to let it wait. I also have prints of some of my images that are in some of the souvenir shops and I am looking forward to promoting and marketing the prints. I do not think that people in Trinidad have enough art in their houses. I am trying to find ways to make it affordable for people to get nice pieces of artwork in their homes so they could appreciate it. It can be done. It's just in this age you can find art work in terms of prints from very little money to extremely expensive. It's a whole range. I am trying to find ways to market it to the regular people and that's what kind of occupying my time right now.
TRINISOCA: Do you have any words of advice that you would like to give to the people out there?
RAFIKI: For me, it is important not just for artists, but for people in general to realize their own power, and that is kind of where I was coming from. I have listened to people real close and they talked about government, different races, economic systems, philosophy and all kinds of things that is the problem. But in none of those things is the solution. We are the solution. Whatever the problem is we have to solve it and we have to take responsibility for that. If our communities are run down it is because we left it to run down. We allow them to get run down and we don't fix them and they are not important enough to us to lift them up. However, many people are going to take how much they are going to get. That would be my words, "Don't take anymore because you don't have to" (laughter). Let's make this a better world because we can do that. One thing about Trinidad I don't like is people like to be coined "the victim". I do not believe in healthy, intelligent, African people who characterize themselves as victims. That doesn't make sense to me. We are the strongest people in the world, otherwise we wouldn't have survived all the things we went through. So we are not victims. If we are victims it is because we victimize ourselves, so I am against it. Let's come together and do something because we can do whatever we want and I think the art is just symptomatic of that.
TRINISOCA: Thank you sir.
Crosstown Carnival Launch 2006 in Pictures: