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A Caribbean Icon – Prof. Rex Nettleford

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St.Vincent is this week hosting its phase of the Regional Travelling Exhibition organised by the Schools of Continuing Studies with which Professor Rex Nettleford has been long associated.
The exhibition was timed to mark his retirement from the position of Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies. In fact the title of the Exhibition, “From Bunker’s Hill to the Vice Chancellory, UWI,” tells its own story. {{more}} I have been told that Rex, as he is affectionately called, is not actually from Bunker’s Hill, but that it is the nearest recognisable area to the deep rural community from which he hails. His story is one from humble beginnings to the head of the University of the West Indies, a journey which also saw him conquer the world as can be seen from the many awards he received. I will list some of these in the order in which they came: Doctor of Laws, Illinois Wesleyan University, Doctor of Letters, University of Connecticut, Honorary Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, Doctor of Laws, Queen’s University, Doctor of Humanities, Emory University, Doctor of Laws, Grand Valley State University, Doctor of Letters, University of Sheffield, Doctor of Letters, University of Toronto, Doctor of Civil Law, Oxford University – Oxford University described him as “a man of the greatest versatility, effective in action, outstanding in erudition and most supple in dance”. In recognition of his work in Cultural Studies, Oxford established the Rex Nettleford Prize for Cultural Studies.
Nettleford attended the July CARICOM meeting in Grenada to bid farewell to the regional leaders with whom he has had a long relationship. CARICOM’s Chairman, Dr. Keith Mitchell, described him then as a towering son of the region “with legendary contribution to our Caribbean Life.” His Public Service contribution both in the region and internationally has been outstanding. Among others, he served as Special Adviser to the Jamaican Prime Minister between 1972 and 1980, but so respected was he by all political leaders that he was often consulted by the Leader of the Opposition. His service at the International level was also formidable: Founding Governor of the Canada -based International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Former Chairman of the Commonwealth Arts Organisation, Director of the London based News Concern, Consultant to UNESCO and the OAS, Former member of the Executive Board of UNESCO, One of a group of experts put together by the ILO to monitor the implementation of sanctions and other actions against apartheid.
Professor Nettleford is an intellectual giant with interests in Black and Caribbean Identity. One of his recurring themes was on the creative power of the peoples of the region. Another area of focus was the centrality of culture. His contribution to an understanding of and the development of Caribbean Culture led to the signal honour of having a Conference on Caribbean Culture dedicated in his honour. He has been labelled a Renaissance man because of the depth and width of his interests and intellectual work. As part of the Exhibition held in his honour is a two volume Annotated Bibliography. As listed there, his published works consist of 625 items, his unpublished ones, made up largely of lectures delivered, 128 pieces and his choreography 71 items.
He was an outstanding dancer and choreographer, and helped to bring wide recognition and acclaim to the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica which he founded. He remains Artistic Director and one of the Choreographers of that Company. His interest in Dance started early when he was a student at Cornwall College. At Oriel College, Oxford which he attended through a Rhodes Scholarship in 1957, he quickly became involved in life there and was elected President of the Ballet Club, an amazing feat for a Caribbean man. But his contribution there was to put Afro-Caribbean dance on the Club’s repertoire.
Rex has never forgotten his humble beginnings. While attending Cornwall College he had to seek part time employment, since his scholarship did not cover everything. He held positions of Office Attendant, Receptionist and Typist and has recognised their contribution to the development of his personality. The Guild of Students in paying tribute to him on the occasion of his installation as Vice Chancellor made reference to the ease with which he moved across the campus and mingled with everyone so that if you did not know him before you would never have imagined that he was the Vice-Chancellor. The Guild made the following comment too, “Brewed, bred and refined at the University of the West Indies Professor Nettleford brings to the Vice-Chancellory a uniqueness that the best of orators among us cannot quite capture.” He was, indeed, an outstanding Orator who was invited to lecture in different parts of the world. In fact, he was always in demand. We would remember him as Presenter of the 1999 Independence Anniversary Lecture. Rex was a man of words, one who was famous for coining words. I believe that he was the person who first began to speak about the CNNisation of the Caribbean. His love for playing on words and his outspokenness often got him in trouble as on the occasion when speaking before an audience in Trinidad that included American Ambassador, Roy Austin, he referred to President George Bush as a ‘weapon of mass -distraction’.
The citation read on the occasion of his receipt of the University’s Pelican Award perhaps best sums up the man: “Rex has impelled us as Caribbean people to create value out of our experience and the products of our own creative imagination and to believe in our intrinsic worth. As Pam O’ Gorman wrote when considering his work with the National Dance Theatre Company ‘It was inevitable that he pursued and developed his work in dance theatre in an intellectual context, as an instrument in helping to define a Caribbean World View – to sharpen self-perception and provide a visionary form in the shaping of national life.’
…Though Rex has served the international community with great distinction he has always been sure that ‘home’ was the priority. For him ‘home’ was the Caribbean, and, more specifically, the University of the West Indies. UWI NEWS salutes him as a graduate who has contributed with great distinction to the upliftment of this archipelago we call home.”
A great Caribbean son Indeed!

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