Muttoo recognition overdue

It’s long overdue, but it’s good news this week that the Queen’s New Year Honours are recognising the contribution to Cayman culture of the Cultural Foundation’s Artistic Director Henry Muttoo.

Certainly better known outside his homeland, Guyana, for his various cultural contributions, Henry came to prominence in his native country in the 1970s with the comedy combination known as “All Ah We” made up Ken Corsbie, Marc Matthews and Henry. A groundbreaking group for their reliance on dialect use in their shows, they were popular here and in the region for their fresh display of indigenous culture.

Henry went on to study theatre arts abroad, graduating from the Croydon School in London, England, and later worked as a teacher at the School of Drama in Jamaica, but it was in the Cayman Islands that his talents flowered with his appointment as Artistic Director of that country’s Cayman National Cultural Foundation in the mid-1980s. Working in tandem with his wife Marcia (theatre administrator), Henry initiated programmes for the country’s US$5 million Harquail Theatre, which had been in decline, and developed arts outreach programmes for the country’s districts and for young students. He also began generating local plays using his set-design and director skills.

I was involved in one of those early theatre projects when I began writing an annual comedy show, laced with original music, called “Rundown” (the name coming from the delicious Cayman meal of ground provisions), which was a comedic satirical mix based on Caymanian events, personalities and happenings. Henry was the set-designer and director for all the shows, playing a major role in the success of Rundown, which I wrote for 20 years and still continues under Henry’s hand with other writers. His patience with fledgling performers was remarkable. At times when I was ready to walk out when actors were late for rehearsal, or had not learned their lines, Henry, who was prone to let fly, found the restraint to press on when I was inclined to quit.

Henry’s contributions to Caymanian culture, now officially recognised by the MBE award, have been far-flung. He initiated theatre classes at the Harquail, including the training of lighting technicians (there were none in Cayman) and was able to achieve the refurbishment of the Harquail Theatre, as well as its later repair following the disastrous Hurricane Ivan in 2004 when the building was flooded with four feet of sea water and had to be gutted and rebuilt.

In the wider community, Henry was the first to recognise the value of the work of the now well-known intuitive painter Gladwyn “Lassie” Bush. Miss Lassie, who had begun painting in her 60s, and not able to afford canvas originally, had used her home instead. Her paintings covered the walls and every window of her house; she painted on the floor and even appliances, reproducing her symbols of Christian art wherever she could find a space. From this unusual display, and from her own volatile temperament, Miss Lassie had been generally seen as an eccentric (some said “mad”) woman, but Henry’s was a lone voice publicly praising her art and gradually the CNCF Board took up the challenge to recognise Miss Lassie’s work, and, with her death in 2003, to preserve her home as a memorial. This work, now well advanced, owes to Henry Muttoo’s determination and commitment. Miss Lassie’s later paintings on canvas are now known around the world, and there is a permanent exhibition of her work in the prestigious Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, USA. (In 2012 Miss Lassie’s home was added to the “Watch List” of the New York-based World Monument Fund, which draws attention to cultural sites globally that merit preservation.)

Henry also created the storytelling event in Cayman, known as GimmiStory, which has become an annual feature on the country’s entertainment calendar, drawing performers from the region and around the world. Now promoted by Cayman’s Ministry of Tourism, it is a popular event known for its relaxed under-the-trees ambience.

Henry’s success is a combination of a genuine creative talent, nurtured by professional training, and a determination to persevere that I suspect owes much to his beginnings in very poor circumstances in Georgetown, Guyana. It is the quality that I see time and again in Guyanese, and some Caymanians, who have come through the crucible of meagre beginnings and have been tempered in that process to be able to deal with circumstances, to improvise, to stay with the task, and to press on when others are quitting. Those qualities of resolve, determination, invention and patience live very strongly in Henry and, ultimately, as much as his creative talent is being recognised, those other aspects of the man are very much in play. One has to concede however that Henry, like so many creators, has (how shall I put this delicately?) his mercurial side, but his wife Marcia’s influences have served over the years to calm that turbulence.

Some years ago I wrote a song called “All O’ We” making the point that the achievements of Caribbean artists or athletes, while cause for their personal celebration, is also a celebration for all regional people. Today, writing all the way from Guyana, I add another verse:

So when Henry Muttoo, neck deep in culture,

and the Queen, quite in England, praising the banna

it isn’t just Henry getting that honour it is we, all o’ we, all o’ we.

Dave Martins