Daniela Fifi

Arts Educator

Daniela Fifi graduated in May of 2020 from Teachers College, Columbia University with a doctorate in Education focused on Art and Art Education.

Originally from the Caribbean, Daniela had previously worked at the National Museum and the Art Gallery of Trinidad and Tobago (NMAG) as a Cultural and Heritage Assistant, and then as a Curatorial Specialist specifically within the art collection. Her research specialization is Caribbean Art and Intercultural Education and her professional background includes work primarily focused within museum education and exhibition development. While at NMAG her duties were heavily programmatic and research-based. In her time at NMAG, she found that a lot of the artists represented by the collection were not necessarily known within wider educational institutions both in the Caribbean and throughout its diaspora. It was from this experience working at NMAG that she cultivated a serious interest in bringing attention to the dynamic and important work of Caribbean artists.

It was during her time working at NMAG that Daniela was introduced to the Trinidad and Tobago artist Geoffrey Holder. She was enthralled by his paintings, but found he was also a choreographer, director, and a genuine renaissance artist, yet somehow he didn’t get the type of international acclaim that his work deserved. Holder positioned himself as a global artist and he viewed the Caribbean as a crossroads of the world and the crossroads of several different cultures. Trinidad is home to people of East Indian descent, of African descent, of Syrian, Lebanese, and Chinese descent, as well, among others. The artwork produced by Trinidadians and Tobagonians in general and Geoffrey Holder in particular is, in many ways, a manifestation and a reflection of that cultural diversity. Daniela’s doctoral research includes a historical narrative on Holder and an educational program based on his art and his views of what Caribbean art could become from an interdisciplinary and global perspective.

Daniela recently received a grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation to create a book from her research and various writings on Holder for public consumption. The grant allows for her to develop programs on these subjects for cultural and educational spaces.

In past years, Daniela Fifi has taught at the University of the Bahamas, The City College of New York, New Jersey City University, and Columbia University. Courses that she has taught include Global Art History, Human Artistic Development, and Art Education. Her courses cover topics that include a perspective of art from various global cultures and how these cultures have influenced Western art. In the upcoming fall semester, she has been invited to give talks on the interdisciplinary nature of Caribbean art by the Theater and Art Department of MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She has also been involved with teaching and creating programs for K-12 levels as a consultant, providing a more expansive view on art, including the works of notable Caribbean artists.

In the momentum that Daniela has developed on Caribbean Arts and Arts Education, she founded Scarlett Project, a nonprofit educational organization focused on promoting Caribbean art in global discourse.

Where did the idea for your career come from?

I’ve innately been drawn to art from a young child, I was always involved in the various aspects of it. I would say my career has been organic in this way. It developed as opportunities arose and as my passion and curiosity for art and education developed. I’ve been teaching in informal art spaces, such as museums, for a long time. I also love research and teaching university courses. I enjoy having the opportunity to focus on the development of art education programs for younger audiences; that can be from primary school to high school.

Additionally, I have founded a nonprofit educational organization called Scarlett Project that deals with the consultancy work that I undertake regarding the lack of representation of Caribbean art in global discourse within cultural institutions and spaces, once again, such as museums. Regrettably, this lack of representation also happens on an educational level in schools, too. My research deals with remedying this situation in both of these settings. Scarlett Project works with individual teachers on integrating Caribbean art into various parts of their curriculum. We also work with schools themselves, school districts, and with museums to create educational programs that include Caribbean art.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

Being productive hasn’t been difficult. I think trying to juggle all my endeavours is the main challenge for me. When school is in session, I teach in the afternoon and the early evening, and then I often do my writing work in the evening and sometimes even late at night.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I really believe in collaborative work and I have been very blessed with the opportunity of having strong collaborators on many of the projects that I’ve worked on. After all, no man is an island, as the saying goes. I don’t see myself as the sole person that can move an idea into manifestation.

When I think of an idea, I try to get to the essence of what I am trying to communicate to the audience that I have identified. Then I think of potential collaborators and creative people, including artists, performers, curators, people within the community, and writers that would be a good fit to work alongside me. I’ll reach out to them, and if their schedule permits, they are generally happy to collaborate with me. I firmly believe that by working together with other talented artists, the projects are stronger because various perspectives, talents, and minds come together. Ideas come to life through teamwork.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Right now, we’re all talking about technology and online innovation in the creative art space because of COVID, but this has been an interest of mine prior to the onset of the coronavirus. I think it has been important to me because I come from a small space, and I also come from a somewhat geographically-isolated space. With the borders being what they are in Trinidad and Tobago, there are limitations to movement because there is a sea between the islands. To know what’s happening in one country while in another country, from one island to another island, it’s different than in the United States where you can often drive to see an event because the lower 48 states are on a single contiguous land mass. Due to the separation of the islands and their proximity to the United States, the internet and technology plays an important role for us to keep abreast of what’s happening with each other, but also for us to imagine creative new ways of expressing ourselves through telecommunications. COVID has been a catalyst to push us forward. The technological advancements are the foundation of what globalization means now, particularly within the creative and educational community.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I think continuing to attend visual art shows is really important to my process. Also, speaking with artists in one-on-one conversations—sometimes in their own studios—to stay in touch with different ideas and perspectives from people in the creative community really sparks my imagination. It gives me a different perspective on something that I may have thought was static. It keeps the wheels churning for me.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I would tell her not to worry so much and let her know that it will all work out in the end.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

I think people tend to see the Caribbean as a very static, pigeonholed, one dimensional space. I put forward the notion that it is a global space that is incredibly dynamic. There is always movement, particularly within the creative community. It is interdisciplinary. It’s sort of multimodal in the way that different creative art forms come together with performance and visual art and a whole host of different elements. It’s very interconnected and dynamic.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I had a conversation with a colleague recently, and she asked me how I forge community. In her opinion, she believed that I had a strong sense of a community around me and that I had a strong sense of what community meant to me. In developing a business or any aspect of your career, you really need to identify the stakeholders that believe in you. Also, it’s important to not only believe in the product that you are delivering, but believe in yourself as a person, as well. I think that’s what helps you through some of the more challenging periods of developing a business or any major venture, for that matter.

I also think when a product is finding its way—because there are always iterations of what it eventually becomes—if the community or the stakeholders believe in you, your story, your initiative, in why it’s coming about, generally speaking, I think it always works in your favour. Cultivating the right environment and community for an idea is not easy, but I have been fortunate enough to identify people that believe in my mission, believe in my teaching, research, and writing, and curatorial practice. Their trust in my work has always been a priority to me. I think that’s very, very important and it requires a firm connection with people. This is a thing that I do over and over.

When I meet people who are interested in collaborative work or in artistic projects, I try to really connect with them creatively, intellectually but also as a human doing and making stuff in the world.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

I work as a consultant and I create different projects with creative or educational means, that means my business grows as my knowledge of the field grows. I am adamant that education and professional development is a lifelong journey. I’m very active in keeping current with trends in education and the arts. As I continue to expand my knowledge base my business and educational skills grow as well.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

At one point, I was doing all of this creative work and none of it was documented. A few people approached me and asked, “Why don’t you have a website? Why don’t you market yourself and what you are doing?” After thinking about it, I realized they were right to ask these questions. I am working on a website now in order to document and archive everything that I have done throughout my career.

My research is primarily focused on this idea of documenting knowledge, access to knowledge, and disseminating knowledge through education. It pains me as an educator that there are so many Caribbean artists that haven’t been documented and haven’t been archived. So it is ironic that I believe in the archive but have failed to do so myself. Generally speaking, are we or are we not obliged to do so for ourselves? As artists, as businesspeople, as writers, and in all of our different creative capacities as individuals? So, I’m trying to do a better job of that now. I’m creating a website so that anyone who may be interested will be able to find and appreciate the things that I do and the different projects that I have produced. It should be completed by October.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Opening a small art gallery in a location that can support black artists is never a bad idea.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

At the beginning of the pandemic, I was living in New York City. I went to the Caribbean for a job interview, and while there, the borders closed. I was unable to return home to see my family or return to New York where I resided at the time. I intended to simply work on a project and return. A few friends helped me tremendously during this time. My lease had ended in New York, and I was unable to get my belongings. They went into my apartment when nobody else would because of COVID, got all my things together, packed them up and secured them for me. I recently took those friends out to dinner. Money spent on the people that believe in you and provide a sense of community for you is always well spent.    

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

ASANA has really been helpful in scheduling my various projects. It guides you through the individual tasks over the course of a week or a month, laying everything out bit by bit. It really helps me to organize my week and compartmentalize everything floating around in my head into one document.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I really love Give and Take by Adam Grant. It’s a business management book, but it’s much more than that. He talks about the different personalities that have been stereotyped into what creates success, namely givers and takers, and there is another that he calls matchers. He speaks about givers not necessarily being people that are seen as successful. In fact, his research indicates—and he’s a professor at the Wharton School of Business—that givers, once they achieve success, tend to stay successful longer than people who are takers. Takers are generally perceived as successful, but in a cutthroat manner. I like this book because it’s one of the first books I’ve read that speaks about givers deserving of leadership roles, whereas the media often tends to push takers as leaders.

What is your favorite quote?

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” — Maya Angelou

Key Learnings:

  • Building community is vital to your growth.
  • Growing as a person creates success in your life.
  • It’s important to have fun by doing what you love.
  • Believing in your own ideas is really important.