SEATED AT tables around the world, she is often the lone woman.
Gender aside, Camille Selvon Abrahams said she brings two other traits to any table—she’s black and Caribbean too.
It’s often a pause moment for most. But its moments such as those that she’s had to embrace throughout her professional career.
A self-described pioneer, Abrahams has built the foundation for another generation to follow. And its taken her 20 years to do so.
Her field? Animation.
Long before animation became a mainstream form of advertising or storytelling or before digital became cultural, Abrahams returned to Trinidad, fresh from completing a degree at Goldsmiths University of London, and embarked on a task to transform the way stories were told.
And its a vocation which evolved from drawing stick figures on frames to working on tablets, which actually happened by accident.
As she tells it, she was first intrigued by video.
“I wanted to do film or video. At that time, it was MTV time and you know, you’ve seen all these music videos and I wanted to do that,” the 52-year old told Express Business in a telephone interview.
But a class in animation changed how she would spend the next two decades of her life.
Since then, she has built a business, she is a co-owner of Full Circle Animation Studios, founded a festival, Animal Caribe and spearheaded the creation of the Diploma in Animation Studies at the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) where she also operates as the Programme Coordinator for Animation Studies. Her university programme has now evolved into a BFA in Digital Media Arts with specialisation in Animation, Game Design or Music Technology.
As she retold her story, Abrahams’ voice is strong and firm.
She’s turned challenges into opportunities, learned lessons and remains passionate about her pursuit.
She recalled that at Goldsmiths, she had won the Royal Television Society Award in 2000 and was invited to many places: “And often I was the only female in the room. I was the only Caribbean person in the room in animation, you know, obviously, and a black person probably in the room was very few. So also at that point, not many people like myself were in that space. So the experience back then was that it’s new, it’s fresh, but the representation of a Caribbean person being in that space was non existent.”
Coming back to Trinidad, she said, “was even more so because when I came back it was all about oil and gas”.
She said getting a loan to start was a barrier because having to explain the concept of financing a cartoon was something unheard of.
“Animation is not tangible. Unlike other businesses, you couldn’t see it and people didn’t have that vision at the time. It took quite a while for it to get on people’s radar,” she said.
She credits the Animae Caribe festival, now in its 19th year, for bringing a group of creatives together.
“I felt that I needed to create the festival to make people aware of this thing called animation,” she said.
When it started, there were just about 20 people in a small room.
“I kept my international network in London so I kept inviting people. They would come for free. They would stay in my house. And it was important to keep these kind of people in the picture. And there was one year when I brought someone, she was the CEO and president of Toon Boom animation. And when she came, she spoke about the billion dollar industry that animation is and that is when we got attention. That is when the minister got involved and the ministry got involved because they realised that, you know, it’s not a frivolous industry. It is a multi-million dollar industry and that’s where it kind of took off and I got the support,” she said.
Building a diploma at UTT
Her success led her to the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) in 2008. She was recruited by UTT’s president Prof Kenneth Julien whose focus at the local university was on building a cadre of skills-based people to meet the needs of the energy sector.
But Julien saw the creative potential in animation to diversify talent.
“When I first started the programme at UTT, it was about 85 per cent men and 15 per cent female. We had to do outreach to get more women interested. We went to schools, we went to the poor communities. We had to do things deliberately so we started to see the shift. So we now kind of average 40 per cent female to 60 to per cent men. So there was a definite shift,” she said.
One of the biggest hurdles she faced was in 2015, when she was asked to leave her job at the UTT, where she had been employed for the past seven years.
“I was informed that UTT personnel felt that the programme leader for the department should have a PhD. I was then asked to gather my belongings, leave the compound and not contact staff as I no longer had access to UTT’s server. I was also told that I am no longer allowed on the UTT compound. I asked for the opportunity for me to address my staff members and this was denied. I was then escorted off the compound by UTT security,” she told the media at the time.
“This came without warning and though it has floored me, I will continue to do the work that I am passionate about. My major concern is the impact that this may have on my students and the years of work put into implementing one of the most important training programmes in the region,” she had said at the time.
Under the Keith Rowley administration, Prof Ken Julien, was reinstated as president of UTT and Abrahams was re-hired.
She is an advocate for technology in education.
“And not just animation. Teaming animation for virtual reality, augmented reality, you name it, that needs to get into the education system. And there’s a big push right now from my side for those who have the power to make those changes to understand that if we don’t agree on the curriculum, we are really mistreating our young people. We are really being unfair to our young people,” she said. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, she noted there has been a push toward digital learning.
A mother of four, Abrahams acknowledged that at times she put work first.
Does she have regrets? Yes.
“I was not able to be there as 100 per cent as a mother would like to be. I knew that and I know I paid the price in some ways. In the sense that sometimes my kid would say ‘Mum, when we were trying to get through to you, you weren’t there.’ However, it’s only now as they are adults, they would say to me, ‘Mama, now understand we have to share you, we had to share you in order to do the things that you needed to do.’ So that’s bittersweet for me,” she said.
Despite the continuous toil, she said there is more work to be done.
“I often say to people, that the work that I’ve put into this industry, I will not be alive to see it blossom. And the reason I’m saying that is it’ll take a long time for us to really get to where we want to get. So, it’s been 20 years of work. I have not seen the fulfilment of it yet- I don’t have a big house, money isn’t always flowing through. But if this is taken seriously, it’s a game-changer for the Caribbean and especially now with Covid,” she said
NOTE: This the the first of an eight part series, “A Diversity & Inclusion Initiative” in conjunction with the Women Techmakers Trinidad & Tobago, a Google owned-brand and global program for women in technology.
Women Techmakers provides visibility, community, and resources for women in technology globally across all career levels to support them in joining, thriving, and leading the industry.