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Masman: a profile of Peter Minshall

By Nicholas Laughlin

First published in Caribbean Beat, May/June 2006

It is the last Sunday in January, less than a month before Carnival 2006. At the headquarters of the Callaloo Company — in a World War Two-era hangar in Chaguaramas, some miles west of Port of Spain — people are milling about, an expectant buzz filling the airy space.

The centre of attention is a man with a white stubbly beard, dressed all in black and wearing a black fedora. Peter Minshall has summoned his lieutenants, the Callaloo faithful, to make a major announcement.

Minshall’s last Carnival band, Ship of Fools, appeared in 2003. For two years, adrift in sequins and beads and bikinis, Carnival has been bereft of Minshall, of the drama and the artistic seriousness that characterise every Minshall mas. But for weeks now, rumours of Minshall’s return have been flying. Yesterday the Trinidad Guardian ran a report saying it was true. Today the front page of the Sunday Express declares: “Minshall coming with ‘The Sacred Heart’ for Carnival”.

Here at the Callaloo Company, the mastermind is unfolding the plot to the men and women who will have to bring it to life, who will spend the next four weeks working backbreaking hours to have the band ready for Carnival. He sketches the outline: a band of nine hundred “sexy urban samurai warriors, cowboys and -girls”, in blue denim and black chaps and ornate metal helmets, each wearing over his or her chest a red fist-size heart. “Bad” hearts versus “good” hearts, in a battle to heal the broken “sacred” heart of Trinidad and Tobago — broken by greed, corruption, crime, disease. And at the head of the band, the first Minshall king and queen in a decade: Son of Saga Boy and Miss Universe, commissioned by the National AIDS Coordinating Committee, representing, respectively, the perils of HIV and AIDS and the compassion that overcomes stigma and hypocrisy. The involvement of the NACC, in fact, has been the catalyst for Minshall’s return to Carnival. The Sacred Heart will communicate AIDS awareness through its performance in the streets of Port of Spain and on the Savannah stage.

The man in black shows sketches to his audience; he describes the performance that will unfold at the Savannah, sings snatches of songs, demonstrates a few dance steps. The Callaloo crew are spellbound. But the task he is laying before them is close to impossible: a full-size band plus king and queen in just four weeks? They wouldn’t — couldn’t — do it for anyone but Minshall.

Then he mentions he hasn’t actually finished his final drawings yet.


It is the first Friday in February, and an exhibition of Carnival photographs is opening in Port of Spain. Perhaps a hundred people are gathered to hear the feature address.

Slowly, Minshall climbs the steps to the stage. He stands at the podium, shuffles his notes, lifts his head, and a look of mock surprise comes over his face: an audience. Pause for effect, and then with a rakish tilt of his saga-boy hat: “It’s me.”

He is here to talk about “The Artist and the Mas”, and, as ever with Minshall, this is theatre: script, music, dance, and the drama of his eyes and voice. He begins with his birth in Georgetown, British Guiana, in 1941 (but “I was conceived in Trinidad!”), and then tells the story of his childhood discovery of “the mas”, his delivery refined by many retellings over the years. He was twelve when he came to Trinidad with his family, thirteen when he made himself an African witch-doctor costume, from “a cardboard box, Christmas decorations, dried grass, old bones, and a lot of imagination”. With “43 cents’ worth of animal charcoal” he blackened his skin and entered the children’s Carnival competition. He won first prize for originality, and at that moment, you might say, the direction of his career was set.

Minshall’s grandmother, he says, told him he’d be either an artist or a priest. “She then gave me lots of pencils and paper to draw.” As a young man, he designed Carnival costumes for family friends and sets for productions of the Trinidad Light Opera, while working as an announcer at Radio Trinidad, where he was called on to give live commentary on Carnival Monday and Tuesday. But his artistic ambitions were growing, and when he was 21, Minshall left Trinidad for the Central School of Art and Design in London.

It was the Swinging Sixties, and Minshall immersed himself in all the theatre and music and art the old imperial capital could offer. But his final-year thesis was on the traditional bat character of Trinidad Carnival, and his first major commission — the set and costumes for a ballet production at Sadler’s Wells — came after a director happened to see Minshall’s design for a Carnival queen costume. Then, four years later, “the mas” issued a new summons in the form of a request from his mother: that he design a hummingbird costume for his adopted sister Sherry-Ann Guy to wear for the 1974 children’s Carnival.

“I must’ve spent off and on about five months . . . putting into this diminutive little work all my theories about playing the mas and its energy: it’s about performance, it’s about mobility.” It took twelve people five weeks to make the costume, Minshall recalls, and the finishing touches were applied only on the competition day, as Sherry-Ann waited to cross the stage.

“This little thing exploded like a joyful sapphire on that stage, and ten thousand people exploded with her. On that afternoon, a moment of revelation.

A revelation for Minshall — “so this too is art!” — but also for his Trinidadian audience. From the Land of the Hummingbird was a pivotal moment in Carnival history, the arrival of a talent who would change the way people thought about the masquerade and its possibilities.

The following year, Minshall designed a band for London’s Notting Hill Carnival, but his first chance to work at full scale in his true medium came in 1976, when veteran bandleaders Stephen and Elsie Lee Heung, who had previously worked with artist Carlisle Chang, asked Minshall to design their band. He chose Milton’s Paradise Lost as his theme.

Paradise Lost was a watershed in the context of Carnival,” he says. “It was epic. It was a visual thesis of many of the things I would do in years to come.” The Hummingbird’s mobile form evolved into the fixed wings of Minshall’s Fallen Angels; his imps were based on the traditional jab-jab character. He divided the band into four parts, imagining it as a symphony: “Pandemonium”, “The Garden of Eden”, “Paradise”, and “Sin and Death”. There were five hundred masqueraders in each, plus more than a dozen major individual characters, with Peter Samuel as the king of the band, The Serpent. As the band flowed through the streets and across the Savannah, a grand narrative unfolded. Thousands of onlookers were astounded. Carnival would never be the same. “It is doubtful that the work of any single individual has had so instantaneous and so searing an impact on the consciousness of an entire country,” wrote photographer Roy Boyke, one of the first observers to understand the scope of the masman’s vision. The Minshall era had begun.


Since 1976, Minshall has designed 26 Carnival bands, each requiring feats of technical innovation and pushing back the limits of what Carnival can be. Minshall has also designed extravaganzas for carnivals and other festivals in London, New York, Paris, Washington. His biggest audiences have been for the massive spectacles he designed for the opening ceremonies of the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

But the heart and soul of his work has always been the mas of the streets of Port of Spain, which serve as his design laboratory and his open-air theatre. Paradise Lost was followed by Zodiac (1978) and Carnival of the Sea (1979), both recognisably of the “fantasy” mas tradition. But 1980’s Danse Macabre — a chilling death masque — signalled an ambition to go beyond the conventions of “pretty mas”. And Papillon (1982) unleashed 2,500 human butterflies into the city in a vast meditation on the ephemerality of life, which achieved its logical conclusion when the masqueraders, having crossed the stage, dropped their ten-foot wings and carpeted the Savannah with colour.

In 1983, Minshall began the trilogy many consider his magnum opus with River. The “prologue” was his presentation, during the Carnival king and queen competition, of Washerwoman, symbol of life, joy, and trust, and Mancrab, representing forces of greed and selfishness. The stage was set for a grand confrontation. On Carnival Monday, dressed in spotless white cotton, his masqueraders, the River People, flowed through the city like a stream of purity, a white canopy billowing overhead, half a mile long. In a 1997 interview, Minshall recalled the performance at the Savannah. “As the band hits the stage, there is Mancrab . . . challenging Washerwoman. And with a symbolic square of white cloth, she dismisses him.

“But the story goes that that Carnival Monday night, Mancrab, using all his technological magic, fashioned an illusory rainbow.” On Tuesday, still in white, the River People paraded under a half-mile rainbow canopy, Mancrab’s tainted gift. At the Savannah, an astonishing ritual was played out. Thirty priestesses holding calabashes danced onto the stage. Suddenly they emptied their calabashes over their white dresses: a flood of red. Mancrab crawled onstage, victorious, followed by the broken, raped body of Washerwoman. Then the two thousand River People began a frenzy of pollution, squirting coloured paint over each other. Power-hoses stationed beside the stage were connected to three thousand gallons of more paint: colour rained down upon the once-white River. “This was a chaos of colour, a madness, all the colours running together till they got to a deep purplish muddiness.

But River was only the first battle in what Minshall saw as a symbolic war. In 1984, Callaloo depicted the next stage of the struggle, as the son of Washerwoman emerged to lead the fallen River People. The epic climaxed in 1985’s The Golden Calabash, really two bands, Princes of Darkness and Lords of Light, which clashed inconclusively at the Savannah before an awestruck audience.

The River trilogy was the masquerade at its most sublime; it remains the ultimate example of the moral seriousness that can be achieved in an artform usually associated with mindless abandon. But the Carnival judges were bewildered, or else they agreed with some other bandleaders who felt Carnival was no place for Minshall’s uncompromising artistic ambitions. The trilogy failed to win an official title, but River and The Golden Calabash both won the people’s choice award, decided by ordinary spectators, and for Minshall this was the true validation of his art.


From the beginning, Minshall has claimed he is not merely making costumes. “I provide the means for the human body to express its energy,” he says. “Mas is a vehicle for the expression of human energy.” And “mas”, he insists, is the only name for the art he practices — a unique artform that could not have evolved anywhere but Trinidad, a hybrid artform that combines the visual with the performative. This “living art that we make fresh every year”, Minshall argues, is the highest and deepest artistic expression of Trinidad. “Flesh and blood powers the mas . . . The energy passes from performer to spectator like an electrical charge . . . a moment that cannot, will not last — it passes quickly, leaving the mind singed . . . Our aesthetic is performance, the living now.”

But this aesthetic is also, Minshall says, an epistemological imperative: Carnival is the chance, once a year, “to be who we are in our own heads”, to truly understand ourselves. The literal mask liberates the masquerader from bonds of class, ethnicity, family, even gender (as Minshall himself discovered at the age of sixteen, when he dressed himself in his sister’s debutante dress for J’Ouvert, the traditional pre-dawn start of Carnival). Mas is an artform rooted in humankind’s timeless urge to use the decorated human body as a channel of communication, but also an artform bred in the hothouse of a 19th-century colonial society, where rigid social distinctions were enforced by the authorities. Mas therefore became a mode of resistance, as men and women used Carnival to defy conventions and prejudices by transforming themselves into any person or creature or object they desired.

Minshall understands and draws heavily on the traditions and history of the mas, and many of his iconic forms are derived from his close study of traditional characters like the bat, the fancy sailor, the devil. He acknowledges the influence of masmen of the past, from his homage to George Bailey’s African mas in Jungle Fever (1981) to, most recently, the “Body Politic” effigy in The Sacred Heart, inspired by the steelband Silver Stars’ portrayal of Gulliver’s Travels in 1963. Critics who complained about the “colourlessness” of River forgot John Humphrey’s all-white Snow Kingdom, two decades earlier, and the traditional white costumes of sailor mas. But Minshall, with his encyclopedic knowledge of Carnival, does not forget.

And though Minshall may be more of an auteur than any other Carnival designer, with a distinctive aesthetic and a strong vision for every element of each band, mas is an essentially collaborative artform. The Carnival Tuesday spectacle depends on the skill and imagination of the dozens or even hundreds of craftsmen and -women who build the costumes, and the crew members who manage the entire process. And Minshall’s productions draw on the talents of younger artists who design whole costumes sometimes, or even small sections within the bands; dancers, actors, singers, and musicians who perform on the Savannah stage; and the thousands of masqueraders who express their faith in Minshall’s art by paying their money for the privilege of joining the mas, and wearing their sometimes unwieldy costumes for an entire day in the blazing sun (“Suffering for the sake of the vision is part of the deal,” says one longtime Minshall masquerader).

Despite numerous accolades at home and abroad, Minshall’s career has been full of disappointments. At the very same time that he has been trying in his work to demonstrate the metaphysical possibilities of mas, Trinidad Carnival has entered an apparently unstoppable spiral of “bikinis and beads” — the triumph of money over art, the stifling of creativity by profit margins, the dwindling of once-proud traditions, and the re-segregation of Carnival along class lines. This decline, as he sees it, depresses Minshall, but his response has been that of the artist: in his art.

After the River trilogy was all but ignored by the Carnival establishment, Minshall replied with four years of biting commentary, as the pessimistic mood of the country, disillusioned by politics and currency devaluation, was mirrored by his productions. Rat Race (1986) invaded Port of Spain with an army of rodents, their long tails like whips of scorn, led by a king, Man Rat, embodying technology gone mad: satellite dishes for ears, a television glowing in his belly. Carnival Is Colour (1987), an exercise in abstract geometrical form “literally without meaning, as meaningless as the expression ‘Carnival is colour’ itself,” as Minshall said, mocked Carnival conventions. (You might say the judges played right along with Minshall’s script when they gave him the band of the year title.) Jumbie (1988) filled the streets with malevolent staring-eyed spirits; and in Santimanitay (1989), perhaps his darkest mas, sinister effigies loomed over each masquerader, ugly reminders of the vices that lurk in the human soul.

By the end of the decade, perhaps, Minshall was tired of these dark visions, or else he hoped he could intervene to change the mood of a tired and bitter nation. Tantana (1990) was a dream of harmony, the masqueraders dressed in outfits recalling “old time days”, and each equipped with an eight-foot square of cloth appliquéd with a bold, colourful pattern. They were free to use these as banners or capes, to tie them in intricate pinwheel patterns, or to colonise a corner of the Savannah by spreading them across the grass in a riotous patchwork. The queen and king of the band, Tan Tan and Saga Boy, were sixteen-foot-tall puppets that danced together on the Savannah stage while the audience in the stands roared with delight. It was a moment of pure happiness in a grim year: less than six months later, the attempted coup d’état of 27 July wounded the psyche of the country. For two years Minshall did not produce a Carnival band.

But the mas continued: Minshall was busy working on his presentation for the 1992 Olympics, where he was artistic director for the Hola section of the opening ceremony. He filled the stadium with a joyously rippling blue sea, and captured the imaginations of a global audience of millions.

Then, in the mid-90s, Minshall produced his second Carnival trilogy. Whereas River was a clash between good and evil, the trilogy that began with Hallelujah (1995) and continued in Song of the Earth (1996) and Tapestry (1997) was an immense praise-song, an explicitly theological expression of gratitude for the gift of being that drew on icons from various religions, and showed Minshall at his most baroque. For all the simplicity of his basic forms, when it comes to performance Minshall is a maximalist, and each appearance on the Savannah stage — a literally once-in-a-lifetime event — is planned as a major theatrical production, with music, dance, drama, lighting effects, a cast of thousands, and, in the age of live television, an audience of tens of thousands.

But the cycle began with controversy, as many Christian ministers condemned Minshall’s Hallelujah, claiming that the word was sacred and had no place among Carnival’s profanities. Minshall stood firm, instructing his masqueraders not to “get on bad”, but to “get on good”. On Carnival Tuesday, a “Band of Angels” led the way, to the strains of David Rudder’s song “Hallelujah”, and spectators, unfazed by the controversy, leapt to their feet. Song of the Earth metaphorically returned its masqueraders to the beginning of time and the start of the wheel of life, “placing man at the centre, giving birth to all and singing everything into existence”.

Tapestry — subtitled “Threads of Life” — brought the praise-song to its final crescendo. It was “a mas in celebration of humanity in all its diversity”. The masqueraders wore flowing robes and capes and carried squares of cloth, fragments of a greater whole. They were decorated with dried leaves and flowers, branches and old bottlecaps, discarded things gilded and made into ritual objects.

On Carnival Tuesday, the band arrived at the Savannah at dusk, Minshall’s traditional hour (as if to provide a grand finale for the day’s events). Nothing could have prepared the people in the stands for the glorious excess of what followed: the crash of a gong, dancers and incantations, a “cavalry” of traditional burrokeets, winged stilt-walkers; a golden, gliding Weaver of Dreams twenty feet tall; a tableau of Michelangelo’s Pietá; a masked Black Madonna with a huge skirt carried by attendants; an effigy of Shiva, Lord of the Dance, that suddenly burst into motion; and thousands of “ordinary” masqueraders made extraordinary by the power of this all-embracing mas. The state-owned television station postponed the evening news so the country could continue watching, and journalists in the Savannah reported that behind the music the audience never stopped screaming at the spectacle. Onlookers wept openly. For an hour or so that Tuesday night, Minshall could boast what probably no other artist anywhere in the world can today: that he held the attention of an entire nation.


It is late afternoon on Carnival Tuesday, 2006. Today The Sacred Heart paraded in the streets in full “samurai cowboy” regalia, the impressive helmets and tall flags compensating for reduced numbers — instead of the hoped-for nine hundred, the band has almost four hundred masqueraders, a blessing in disguise, since not even the tireless Callaloo crew could have finished more costumes in time. As the light fades over the Savannah, The Sacred Heart queues on the “track” leading up to the stage. Crew members in black run backwards and forwards, carrying props, shouting instructions. The atmosphere of thrilling confusion is familiar to longtime Minshallites. For many, The Sacred Heart has roused feelings of nostalgia for the heady days of Minshall’s two trilogies. For some masqueraders, it’s a relief having Minshall back in Carnival; others wonder if this band is a sort of farewell.

The drama begins with a tall all-white “diva” sailing across the stage, bearing a crystal heart, to the notes of an Italian aria. Dancers in white robes flutter on, carrying big red hearts, which they arrange in a circle. Another heart is symbolically broken in two with a karate chop, while what sounds like Japanese martial music fills the air. The “Body Politic”, a giant, bruised human form, is wheeled on; Minshall himself appears and drapes a cloth over its face. Then the samurai warriors march on, the “bad” hearts — “Greed and Power”, “Darkness”, “Fear” — followed by the “good” hearts — “The Heart That Sings”, “The Shining Heart”. Great banners like ships’ sails billow overhead, and the masqueraders, swaggering in their cowboy chaps and brandishing their flags like swords, look like a real army on the march.

Son of Saga Boy prances on, his masked face etched with stars, moons, hearts, and the AIDS ribbon, his pelt of black feathers gleaming, his rainbow dreadlock plumes flying. He is, Minshall says, “the wild tribal child of the future-world”. Behind him, the Shiv Shakti dancers in costumes of white hoops glide on, and perform a traditional Indian dance to a Hindi folk song.

Then Alison Hinds’s song “Roll It” begins to play, and a squad of Dame Lorraines — traditional burlesque characters, men clumsily disguised as women with heart-shaped masks and prominent bustles — drag a twenty-foot phallus to centre-stage. Two more Dame Lorraines follow with what turns out to be a giant condom, and to the delight of the crowd they unfurl its rainbow-striped length over the waiting phallus, which they then roll away. It is a moment of theatre that communicates a sincere message with comedy, by drawing on an old tradition of Carnival ribaldry.

Finally, the queen of the band — the giant puppet Miss Universe, all in white, her facial features modelled on those of Wendy Fitzwilliam, Trinidad and Tobago’s real-life Miss Universe 1998, known for her work with AIDS charities — dances on, leading the “Hearts of Hope”, angels without wings but with haloes of red, their tall banners streaming like kites.

For the audience, both in the Savannah stands and watching on TV, it is classic Minshall, if on a much smaller scale than usual: a glorious visual spectacle, an over-the-top performance, a serious message behind the costumes. Once again Minshall has proved that his mas can address a subject others think inappropriate, even taboo. That the judges will decide to award The Sacred Heart the medium-size band of the year award — though a vindication of the efforts of the crew and the faith of the NACC — is really beside the point, as prizes always have been.

“My work is not to make pretty pictures, but to make you shed your self-contempt,” Minshall has said. His provocative words gesture to the often painful and bewildering New World experience of the Caribbean, of a people transplanted from their ancestral homes, brutalised by history, and still threatened by global economic and social forces. Properly speaking, making the people of the Caribbean shed our self-contempt, and understand ourselves on our own terms, is the work of all our artists and thinkers.

Working in the most ephemeral of media, making art that exists for only a few hours and then can never be recreated (since most masqueraders discard their costumes after crossing the Savannah stage), Minshall has demonstrated that the “folk” art of mas, springing from the experience of a tiny hybrid island people, is capable of statements as grand and as universal as any painting or opera. Talking about mas, he deliberately invokes Picasso and Brecht; in his eyes, his medium is no smaller than theirs. Minshall’s greatest achievement of all may be just this: showing the people of Trinidad and Tobago — and the world — that mas is high art, and that “here on our island . . . we have a song to sing to the universe that nobody else can sing”. +