STICK FIGHT: Gilda Thebaud Nassief took me on a journey

Alex brought home a framed print of a painting of Caribbean stick fight. Three men with sticks and two women appealing or warning. It is titled The Cudgelling Fight (circa 1780). The artist, Gilda Thebaud Nassier. 

There was something reminiscent of the Agostino Brunias paintings, with its contrived tableau of stick fighters and spectators. I put it on the ground, leaned up against a wall, ambivalent towards its context. But, as I walked back and forth past the picture, it kept catching my eye. There is something about the position of the stick fighters, the coloured wash of paint across the characters that at an angle brings movement and life to the composition. And each time I passed, the stick fight seemed to be in motion. And it reminded me of my father who had witnessed stick fights as a child and did not take them lightly. And I thought of us as children, in Trinidad, pretending to stick fight in the backyard. ‘Who is m’friend don’t come in the ring!’

Kalinda (stick fighting in Grenada and Trinidad) is one of the defining rhythms of the Caribbean islands. The drums are the pulse of Calypso and Bélé, the echo of everything Caribbean. It is a primal memory woven into Caribbean identity. And although it can be traced to Africa, its roots are the struggle of Africans under forced labour. It is the thrum of rebellion, the resistance to oppression. 

‘No bois man no fraid no demon! No bois man no fraid no bois man!’’

In 1880 stick fighting was banned in Trinidad because of the part it played in the legendary Canbule riots.

Despite Trinidad bois men talking about ‘playing stick’, and despite the old tradition of bois men wearing colourful costumes for the entertainment of the crowd, Kalinda fighting is a dangerous combat sport that frolics with death. Two men in a gayelle (ring) with slender 4ft wooden sticks trying to hurt each other – dancing, parrying, blocking, attacking. 

The people gather round, the drummers set the pace, the chantwell sings the call (traditionally in kweyol) and the crowd responds with the lavwey (chorus)

‘Mooma, Mooma
Yuh son in the grave already
Yuh son in the grave already
Take a towel and ban yuh belly’

There is ritual in Kalinda. Libations are poured in the centre of the ring to respect the ancestors, and the drum patterns go back centuries. Like Brazilian capoeira, the music is integral to Kalinda. It leads the dances, the songs, the spirit and vitality of the fighters. The bois man who draws first blood is the victor. In the old days, my father told me, there would be a hole dug in the ground of the gayelle for a wounded bois man to bleed into. In 1937 when Stick fighting was legally reinstated in Trinidad and Tobago, official competitions were organised, with referees and judges.

Paintings of stick fighting go as far back as 1789, and come from across the islands.

IMAGES – LEFT TO RIGHT:,%2Dof%2DSpain%20City%20Hall.

I decided to find out about the artist, Gilda Thebaud Nassief.

Because of the (circa 1780) on the print, I expected the original painting would be at least 100 years old, a colonialist impression of a quaint local custom. But Gilda Thebaud Nassief was a Haitian artist in Dominica, circa 1970. Her family hails back to the days of Santo Domingo. Her father was minister of Health in Port au Prince in 1944. She moved to Dominica in the 1960s, having married prominent Dominican businessman Phillip Nassief, and she did work as an art teacher, instructing and influencing the work of renowned Dominican artist Alwin Bully in the 1960s and 70s. She was of the ‘elite’ classes of Dominica. She was of ‘fair complexion’, privileged and wealthy. But she was not an ‘outsider’. She was a part of the cultural tapestry of the Caribbean, even if the gilded threads of her story may have put her on the opposite end of the ‘gayelle’ in Dominica’s struggle for identity in the 1970s. 

In Dominica and across the Caribbean a drive toward independence had taken root since the end of WWII. The move toward autonomy had seen Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago gain independence from Britain in 1962, Barbados in 66, Bahamas in 73 and Grenada in 74. A battle for an emancipated Caribbean identity was being fought. It was the time of Stokely Carmichael, Walter Rodney, Maurice Bishop, Black Stalin, Bob Marley, and the rise of the Rastafari movement. The call ‘back to Africa’ was in the air. Music and the arts reflected the anti-imperialist mood at the time – Carnival and Calypso, Reggae and Crop-over. 

Yet the old prejudices based on race, colour and wealth were still an integral part of Caribbean social constructs. So, when the boldest expression of Black power in the western hemisphere rose out of the poorest, most unacknowledged classes of the Caribbean islands, it was summarily rejected by the established status quo. 

The Rastafari movement, hailing an African king, did not only challenge political and industrial authority, it attacked the dogma of the Christian churches. And the vision of an alternative social consciousness that was being sung and spread on the island winds terrified the established power structures. 

So in a year when Gilda Nassief was presenting her embossed metal work, Stations of the Cross, to the St. Dominic’s church in Barbados, the Dominican Labour administration of Patrick John, and the Freedom Party of Eugenia Charles voted unanimously, in 1975, to pass the Dread Act. The Prohibited and Unlawful Societies Act, which protected both civilians and police who killed or injured any Rasta found ‘unlawfully’ in a dwelling. It legalised the persecution of anyone identifying with the Rastafari movement. Citizens could be arrested for displaying any symbol of Rastafari, be it dreadlocks, jewellery, garments or artworks. The police gained rights to shave a Rasta’s locks, and detain them indefinitely without warrant. A draconian Act that only ended after 10 years and more than 21 deaths. 

Yet the influence of Rasta ideology, the uncompromising Afrocentricity, the bold assertion of Caribbean-ness did and still does impact on the mainstream culture of Dominica and the other ex-colonies. And Gilda Nassief, from a wealthy Dominican family, and one of the few known art teachers at the time in Dominica, produced Caribbean art that expressed her Caribbean view. 

As did so many other artists from the Caribbean. Artists like (the pictures in order) Canute Caliste of Grenada, 1975, Fielding Babb of Barbados,1975, Aubrey Williams, Guyana1973, Everald Brown, of Jamaica, 1969, Karl Parboosingh, Jamaica 1972, Leroy Clarke of Trinidad, 1972, Edna Manley, Jamaica, 1965, Dunstan St Omer, St Lucia,1965-1980, Carlisle Chang, Trinidad, 1969, Rose-Marie Desruisseau, 1974.

…and more and more and more, who persevered and inspired and built a foundation for the young Caribbean artists working now to define what it means to be Caribbean.

The Cudgelling Fight took me on a journey of rediscovery that I had not even been aware I needed to take.

References and Readings

Fabien, Marvin, ‘The Dictator Figure Denounced : Art and Politics in the 1970 ‘s in Dominica’, Open Edition Journals, 2018.

Bois Academy –

No Bois Man No Fraid, documentary, Director Christopher Laird featuring Keegan Taylor and Benjamin Rondel

Traditional Mas Archive,shining%20glass%2C%20mirrors%2C%20etc.

McKENZIE, EARL. “The Cultural Importance of Edna Manley’s Art.” Caribbean Quarterly, vol. 52, no. 4, 2006, pp. 49–56. JSTOR, Accessed 1 Sept. 2023.

Joseph, Glenroy R, ‘Culture, Kalinda (stick fighting) and me’, 2018 –

Gomo George, Franklyn, ‘Stories and Iyahlogues: Visual Memories, History and Identity’, (1997)

Santillo, Dave, ‘A Rastafarian Stair-step Through History on the Caribbean Island of Dominica’, (2015)

Samuel, Ras Albert, ‘Dread Rastafari and Ethiopia, The definitive report of the beginning and rise of the Rastafari movement in the commonwealth of Dominica‘, (1991)

James Rudin, Grenada –