There was a time when designer and masman Peter Minshall had only two dogs: Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Norman Manley. But he encouraged them to enjoy themselves, and “they enjoyed themselves all over the house and the yard, and in front of guests when they were drinking tea.” Such enjoyment resulted in the night Elizabeth Taylor, a white dog with a look of Labrador about her, gave birth to ten jet-black puppies on the landing outside Minshall’s bedroom. “In that moment, I realised: one little black dog is just another little black dog, but ten little black dogs is a more beautiful, interactive work of art than the Mona Lisa!” He calls them his children. There are only eight of them now, but they fill the yard of their home, which they share with their parents (two canine; one human), with an exuberant kinesis of barking and play and joy.
Minshall, who has just completed a late-afternoon shave in the open air, leaves the yard to give his first interview since the band he designed, Miss Miles—A Band on Corruption, was presented at Carnival 2014. But first he must negotiate with Mr Mauvais, a ginger tom with hazel-green eyes, sitting on the stool at the kitchen counter Minshall would like to claim for himself. Gentle words are deployed, persuading Mr Mauvais to exchange his perch for a fruit bowl on the counter, where he lounges and listens with feline solemnity. One can see echoes of Miss Miles—a small band with every member identically dressed in black—in the sable children of the yard. One black-clad mas player is just another black-clad mas player, but four dozen of them is a statement. It is a statement Minshall regrets was not made on Carnival Tuesday, in the full context of the Band of the Year competition.
Minshall loves a sailor band—it is a mas form he regards as entirely original to Trinidad Carnival—and he does not begrudge All Stars its title for Carnival 2014. Still, as he maintained in an e-mail to Tony Hall, co-producer of the band Minshall designed this year, if the white masks and black costumes of Miss Miles had marched to the Savannah on Tuesday afternoon, crossed the stage with their banners and placards held high, each individual step amplified by the identically-uniformed steps of the rest of the band, “WE WOULD HAVE EAT DEM UP!” This is not a critique of All Stars. It is Minshall’s way of describing the power and effect of mas as an original art form. And he knows, as few others do, the impact mas can have when it is done right.
It is the impact once described to Minshall by an admirer of his work as “a statement as lasting as the pyramids.” It is the impact Alyson Brown described to him after a day of playing Tan Tan on the streets of Kingston for Jamaica’s Carnival.
“Minsh, rub my shoulders, they are so tired,” he recalls her saying. Minshall was concerned. “A modern king or queen costume is designed for someone to carry it for five or ten minutes, then rest,” he says. He asked her why she was so exhausted, why she hadn’t stopped for rest. “I couldn’t,” he remembers Brown saying. “Everywhere I looked, all I could see were the smiles.” “Now tell me,” asks Minshall, “Can you achieve that with a painting in an art gallery?” Few who saw Tan Tan will ever forget her. The face of Miss Miles in 2014 is also powerful. Minshall recalls labouring with terror over the mask for Miss Miles. His first effort to make the face which would define the mas and the band “came back looking like Hulk.” Working quickly, Minshall adjusted the lines of the face in clay—refining Miss Miles’ features, making her superlative, but not slapstick. He sent the new mask out to be turned into plastic, “and they sent it back to me painted white—I had to become the make-up artist.”
Knowing the first mask was the only one he would make himself, knowing he was creating a template for others (working under greater time constraints than himself) to follow, knowing this one had to be perfect because only perfection could withstand the inevitable errors that creep into a harried mas-camp production line, he set to work. “I made mistakes. I ran inside, got white paint to cover my mistakes, worked on the line of the eyebrows.” He mimes trembling hands and nervous glances at the sky, “Oh Lord… Lady looking from heaven, this is your eyebrow—and I’m sending you out on the road.” All in the service of one objective: getting it right. When the moment arrived that he looked at his creation and did not feel the urge to run back into the house for more white paint, Minshall felt a thrill of nervous energy: “Miss Miles… you’re real.”
His voice is barely a whisper at the memory. It is the same whisper he used to describe witnessing the puppies squeaking into life on his landing: “I had never been that close to birth before.”
Mas, like the frenetic swirl of love and noise that greets Minshall every time he enters his yard, is powered by life. When Minshall looks at pictures of Miss Miles on the road and sees a headband out of place or a costume too hastily assembled, he is angered by the opportunity missed to affect people the way he knows mas can: “You only have one shot!” There may be no repeat performance, but it is a mistake to call mas ephemeral. A statement remains until it is retracted or superseded. Minshall leaves the room to change into a lighter-weight shirt. Mauvais raises his head to interrogate the space his companion has vacated: is he coming back?