Culture, art and heritage are the bedrock of any society. In the Cayman Islands, they also play an important role in the local tourism industry and economy.
It is fitting then that to the Creative Director of the Cayman National Cultural Foundation, Henry Muttoo, these things are more than just a profession – they are his passion. And just recently, Mr. Muttoo was honoured for his service with an order of chivalry by being named a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.
For the past 25 years, Mr. Muttoo has dedicated his life to keeping the Cayman Islands’ culture alive. During this time, the wealth of knowledge and experience in areas such as stage design, directing, painting, and playwriting that he has gained throughout his career, have been reflected in the quality of his work, including stage productions such as: “Rundown”, “One White One Black” and storytelling productions such as GimiStory.
Growing up in a tenement yard in his hometown of Georgetown, Guyana, where storytelling and performance was a rite of passage, Mr. Muttoo was exposed to yard performances and storytelling, especially folk tales and myths.
He began to bring those stories to life at age 14, when he performed in his first play.
Four years later, he directed his first production in front of an audience of about 400 people. It was an outdoor stage performance for a youth event in Guyana. The stage was a “dray cart”, a long four-wheeled cart usually pulled by a horse, which he and his friends pulled and set up under a street light. The actors were all amateurs and there were no microphones.
Over the next few years, having travelled and spent time performing all over the region he realised that, culturally, the Caribbean was in many ways, more similar than different and that he could use his work to underscore this fact. He has been involved in culture, performance and the arts, ever since.
In 1984, at the invitation of Geoff Cresswell, of the Cayman National Theatre Company, he moved to the Cayman Islands from Jamaica, where he was a senior tutor at the School of Drama at Edna Manley College. He took up the position of production manager with CNTC and spent two years producing, designing and directing for the company.
Then he left the Cayman Islands for two years, but returned in 1989 to assume the position of programme director of the Cayman National Cultural Foundation. His first major responsibility was to transform CNCF from an organisation with a focus on theatre, to one whose mission, as stated in its law, emphasises preserving, developing and celebrating Caymanian culture, heritage and arts.
His work, he says, involved “taking the pulse” of Caymanian society – understanding what cultural treasures lay buried beneath the surface of a rapidly changing culture and creating programmes to present to the CNCF board for approval.
His output included programmes that placed tremendous value on Caymanian culture, heritage and arts, with an emphasis on recognising uniquely Caymanian individuals and enactments.
It was, he said, “… a tremendous opportunity to do a job I love”.
In 2000, he was named artistic director of the organisation.
Under his leadership, the foundation grew from a small, under-resourced office at the Harquail Theatre to an organisation that is highly respected both locally and internationally.
Despite the praises that he has earned in a job that he describes as stressful but never boring, he remains grateful for every opportunity that he has had – good or bad – as he says these have been learning experiences for him.
His advice to youngsters interested in pursuing a career in the arts and culture is that success requires hard work, diligence, cultural engagement and an understanding of the world’s heritage.
He ascribes much of his own achievement, and his recent recognition as a Member of the British Empire, to his mother, Cecelia, and mentors Ken Corsbie, Edgar Wilson and Dave Martins. He also offers thanks and respect to Caymanian icons Julia Hydes, Miss Lassie and a great many supporters of CNCF, including the organisation’s board. In particular, he pays tribute to his wife of 28 years, Marcia, the managing director of CNCF, and his three daughters Anjuli, 26, Janelle, 23, and Maia, 21.