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That is mas

By Nicholas Laughlin

First published in the catalogue for Rockstone and Bootheel: Contemporary West Indian Art at Real Art Ways, Hartford, Connecticut; 14 November, 2009, to 14 March, 2010


Over a thirty-year period beginning in the mid 1970s, the Trinidadian artist Peter Minshall created a series of nearly three dozen extravagant large-scale performance works, whose influence on contemporary Trinidadian and Caribbean art is not yet fully reckoned. Incorporating kinetic sculpture, dance, theatre, and music, realised in collaboration with scores of craftsmen and technicians and thousands of performers, requiring months of meticulous preparation, each of these works was performed a single time under unrepeatable circumstances, and for a massive public audience of tens of thousands.

Drawing equally on Caribbean folk tradition and ritual, global popular culture, and “high art” forms like opera and avant-garde theatre, Minshall’s works unleashed epic narratives in the streets of Port of Spain. Papillon (1982) and Rat Race (1987) were allegorical swarms of butterflies and rodents. Paradise Lost (1976) and The Odyssey (1994) re-imagined the literary narratives of Milton and Homer, and The Lost Tribe (1999) alluded to Biblical stories of a people wandering in the desert. Hallelujah (1995) was a band of angels celebrating creation; This Is Hell (2001) brought a visitation from the underworld. The fantastic army of Red (1998) was an eruption of pure, glistening colour in the heart of the city, symbolising love and hate and heat and blood all at once.

The artist Christopher Cozier, writing about Red soon after its appearance, remarked: “If something like this were to happen in one of the alleged power locations for art theory, there would be miles of text.” This observation points to the crux of the dilemma Minshall’s work poses for Caribbean art history. His spectacles did not unfold within the chaste precincts of a museum or gallery, and were not shepherded or shaped by curators and catalogue essays. They were Carnival bands, created for Trinidad’s annual pre-Lenten festival and presented in the unruly company of hordes of costumed revellers and trucks bearing amplified music.

Both a form of state-sanctioned cultural display and a commercial enterprise, Carnival was designated Trinidad and Tobago’s “national festival” in the mid twentieth century, the era of Independence, and has come to embody a tangle of ideals, assertions, and debates about Trinidad’s cultural identity, heritage, and social change. But Trinidad Carnival is still not widely considered a location for serious art practice. As Cozier writes, “it is perceived to be a mere folk or street festival, the subject for more renderings of culture by local artists and foreign anthropologists.” The curator Claire Tancons adds: “the few books about so-called Carnival arts favour an anthropological perspective and tend to acknowledge tradition over creativity, and general Caribbean art books make little, if any, room for Carnival.”

Minshall’s body of work was and is a problem for Carnival itself, clashing with official culture guardians and their ideas of the festival’s nature and purpose. And, as Trinidad’s major contemporary artist, working in a medium largely unrecognised outside his home country, he is also a problem for the Caribbean’s contemporary art narratives. The scale, scope, and ambition of his work are unprecedented and remain unrivalled. To astute observers, this was obvious as early as his first full-scale band, Paradise Lost, in 1976. Writing then, the photographer Roy Boyke suggested: “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.” For Christopher Cozier, almost a generation younger than Minshall, the decisive moment came in 1983, when Mancrab, the king of the band River, made its first public appearance. This giant bionic crab with pincers thrashing and spouting jets of blood emerged on the Carnival stage before an audience accustomed to sequined and plumed fantasias. Mancrab was an allegory of social and political violence that many in the audience took for a violent act in itself, an attack on Carnival and its traditions. It provoked anger and confusion, which only intensified when the full spectacle of River — a visual fable about the collapse of creole nostalgias and ideals — was revealed on Carnival Monday and Tuesday. At that moment, Cozier later wrote, “to be an artist began to mean something again in this society. . . . Since this period it has been difficult for our art to settle down. There was a turning point in our sensibility and in the demands that we made on our art.”

Other “fine” artists had designed Carnival costumes and bands before Minshall. But he was the first to approach Carnival masquerade not as a diversion but as his primary medium — and to theorise a version of Trinidadian art history that places the “folk” visual and performance traditions of Carnival at the core of indigenous art practice.

We are still trying to devise a conceptual vocabulary for work like Minshall’s. For much of his career, Minshall has been described, inadequately, as a costume designer. Some critics define his work as a kind of theatre, but that label too seems incapacious. Minshall himself has consistently and insistently referred to his medium as mas, the popular abbreviation of “masquerade”, and calls himself a masman. Cozier invented the term “roadworks” to emphasise the public and unpredictable nature of Minshall’s productions, unfolding on the street. With the help of his team of engineers and artisans, Minshall creates objects that are themselves extraordinary sculptural works, but they are never intended for singular or static display. Rather, they are mechanisms for the creation of events and experiences; “means for the human body to express its energy”, as Minshall says. And he has not hesitated to claim this as Trinidad’s quintessential creative form.

Or, as Cozier has more modestly expressed it, after Minshall “it became clear that objects and actions could function with equal agency in the social and cultural space, and that the arena for creative expression was inherently much wider.”


No other contemporary artist in Trinidad has embraced mas with Minshall’s existential fervour, or worked on a scale to match his, but his oeuvre — operating within the context of older masquerade traditions familiar to most Trinidadians — has deeply influenced visual practice in Trinidad in the past quarter century. Minshall’s work gave other artists a sense of license to explore Carnival’s visual traditions, and furthermore demonstrated that mas as an artform is capable of engaging any idea or ambition, of any degree of sophistication or complexity. For some painters and photographers, mas remains merely a subject to be depicted in two dimensions, but a number of younger artists have adopted and adapted its aesthetic of collaborative and improvisatory public performance.

The annual Carnival celebration itself remains a viable space for provocative art-making (with a guaranteed mass audience). For well over a decade, Robert Young, the fashion designer behind the label The Cloth, has led a small band called the Vulgar Fractions. Fully masked, and borrowing the music of “left-behind sounds from other bands,” the Vulgar Fractions physically and conceptually disrupt the flow of security-patrolled, “all-inclusive” commercial bands, in explicit confrontation with contemporary Carnival’s capitalist mode. In 2009, the artists Richard “Ashraph” Ramsaran and Shalini Seereeram made their own Carnival intervention with T’in Cow Fat Cow, a band of about thirty masqueraders, taking inspiration from a protest song by the rapso trio 3Canal. Minimalist black and white cow costumes — basically, cardboard sculptures worn on the masqueraders’ heads — and hand-lettered placards made a strong contrast with the general revelry on the streets of Port of Spain, as the band portrayed a range of political and social messages, under the punning motto “The people must be herd.” The sequel for Carnival 2010 was Cobo Town, a flock of vultures in billowing black capes behind a flag blazoned “Let us prey.” One vulture wore an effigy of the Red House — the seat of the national parliament — as a crown. This commentary on government rapacity and official corruption referred to old traditions of protest and satire within Carnival masquerade, while the visual spectacle of a veil of black cloth swooping along the public roadway suggested a ritual of mourning and rage.

Individual artists also create playful actions within the bounds of the festival. In recent years Adele Todd has created sly public performances for J’Ouvert, Carnival’s raunchy opening act, when revellers covered in mud and paint and tattered clothing dance in the pre-dawn streets. In 2009, inspired by Aubrey Beardsley’s erotic drawing The Examination of the Herald (1896), she sported an enormous phallus, emerging from under a white gown, an inversion of traditional masquerades like the Dame Lorraine, in which men dress as and parody women. “Men were stunned and women giggled,” she recalled afterwards. “The brave asked to touch.” Her performance a year later was a kind of companion-piece. Dressed in black tights and high heels, draped in black tulle, she carried a small sign asking, “What caused the destruction of man?” In her other hand was a small box with peepholes. She dared passersby to look inside, and documented their — sometimes stunned — reactions on her website.

The large-scale public processions Marlon Griffith has staged in Gwangju (Spring, 2008), Cape Town (A Walk into the Night, 2009), and other places are not simple replicas or recreations of Trinidad mas, though they are shaped and informed by the knowledge of structure, scale, movement, and timing that the artist acquired during his years of designing and building masquerade bands in Port of Spain and Notting Hill. Rather, these recent works investigate the ways that public spectacle can deal with questions of memory, history, and space — both specific to a location and more universally. Mas, Griffith says, is “public, participatory, and interdisciplinary.” These works are carefully planned but subject to the vagaries of circumstance, and they rely on teams of collaborators including curators, other artists, musicians, and (sometimes untrained) performers. Their success ultimately depends on their ability to arrest their street audiences, engage their imaginations, and change their sense of the physical space where the encounter occurs.

Akuzuru is another contemporary artist whose work is inspired (obliquely) by the mas artform. Born in Trinidad and trained in fashion and textile design in Britain and Nigeria, she creates large site-specific installations that “costume” or disguise a physical environment. Her sculptural arrangements of fabric and natural materials make a room, a garden, or a grove of trees into a kind of masquerade. Semi-scripted, semi-improvised performances presented in these transformed spaces then subtly allude to mas as a means of claiming, charging, or even destabilising a physical space. Vein, a performance work Akuzuru created in Port of Spain in 2009, began with a nighttime gathering of costumed women in a small public park, which then turned into a street procession. Under a light rain and the haze of streetlamps, moving at a funereal pace, the artist led her audience into the driveway and back courtyard of the art space Alice Yard. As she silently completed a series of rituals, the other performers looped ceaselessly from the courtyard out into the street and back, setting up a circulatory system linking the city’s interior and exterior, private and public zones. As puzzling as it was eerily beautiful, Vein gradually revealed itself as an allegory of injury and recuperation, incomplete until the entire procession, escorted by its audience (now huddled under umbrellas), returned to the public space where it began.

Trinidad’s Carnival masquerade tradition offers a context and opens a creative territory for this kind of performance work. It seems to equip both artist and audience with certain ways of looking at and understanding the human form moving in a given space, and with certain attitudes to and expectations of public performance and ritual. (So that, to give two personal examples, my instinctive reaction to the baroquely choreographed and costumed films of Matthew Barney is a phrase of admiration often heard on the streets of Port of Spain during Carnival: “That is mas!” And when I first saw the bizarre sculptural figures from Hew Locke’s Kingdom of the Blind series, assembled from thousands of cheap plastic objects, I wondered how these stiff humanoids could be made to move into and through the streets outside the gallery.)

Mas also bequeaths Trinidadian artists with a repertoire of techniques and forms, a visual lexicon, and a model for collaborative process. An enterprise like Alice Yard, for instance — which is both a physical space for making and showing work, and a network of collaborators in visual, musical, and literary media — is informed by the model of the traditional mas camp, the site where costumes are designed and built. A mas camp is at once a workshop, a design laboratory, and a master class where skills and ideas evolve. Sean Leonard, the founder of Alice Yard, has studied the ways that particular spaces shape social interactions, and vice versa. His architectural practice, and his work in theatre and as a Carnival designer, have shaped the evolution of the urban back yard where since 2006 he has quietly instigated a series of events and exchanges among dozens of creative practitioners, among them Cozier, Griffith, and myself.

Through its website, aliceyard.org, the collective is also a central node in a growing network of artists’ blogs, small magazines, and online galleries and screening-rooms. In the past two or three years, these have shifted the Trinidadian contemporary art world’s centre of gravity towards a virtual, hyperlinked, and inherently international space. Alice Yard is now a portal for artists in Trinidad and their contemporaries elsewhere to work and imagine collaboratively, and to extend their particular Caribbean-inflected ways of seeing into a global economy of attention. It is perhaps not too far-fetched to recognise these interactions also as a process with roots in Carnival masquerade. Traditional forms and characters culturally sanctified by the passage of decades were often influenced by the global visual culture of their moment of origin. Indian mas and the midnight robber were inspired by images of, respectively, Native Americans and Mexican bandits from very early cinema; sailor mas parodies early twentieth-century American imperialism; and many “golden age” pretty-mas bands of the 1950s and 60s derived their themes and decorative details from Hollywood epics. Mas has always been a medium in which to imagine relations with the world outside Trinidad, to creatively negotiate the worries, dreams, and aspirations arising from our awareness of our place in global narratives. In this way too it is a resource for our contemporary artists as they play themselves on the international art stage.