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Mama, what is mas?
A review by
The assertive title of the latest exhibition Mama Dis is Mas sets up an expectation that it will point viewers to a definition of T&T’s annual ritual of masquerade and performance art. Yet, the show of over 70 works unwittingly raised more questions about the state of Carnival rather than offering its own consciously illuminating interpretation of the subject matter.
A number of the artists featured in the group exhibition presented costumed human figures as isolated elements, extracted from the throngs of people—that heady context of crowded flesh, falling sweat and concentrated indulgence—usually associated with Carnival revellry.
Ann Stapleton’s Bottle n’ Spoon was an acrylic rendering of three men in a picture of percussion set against a background of blue and yellow. Similarly, Nazim Baksh’s jab jab’s cracked their whips while his minstrels shook their tambourines in paintings with backdrops described in red, yellow, orange and pink.
Martin Superville’s Spirit of Dance in oils and Jeffery Pataysingh’s colour pencil images of a blue devil and jab jab situated characters in white surroundings.
Sherlann Peters’ free-standing clay sculptures also offered individual looks at such characters as the dame lorraine, baby doll and fancy Indian. The space of the gallery became the setting for these traditional mas characters, with Peters’ skillfully executed Flag Woman waving from a white, wooden plinth instead of the Queen’s Park Savannah.
Disconnecting these figures from the Carnival commotion had the effect of a sense of intimacy, allowing the viewer access to single portraits from a multidimensional festival. These works heightened the human component of Carnival in a manner that, if asked what is mas, one might say: mas is about the people. In particular, Kenderson Noray’s strong visuals of sailor masqueraders underscored the idea that mas is to be found in a facial expression, in a body gesture, in the tilt of a shoulder, the twist of an ankle, the bend of a knee.
Generally, however, this exhibition lacked variety and quickly became dull and repetitive in its excessive display of panmen, stickfighters, minstrels, jab jabs and devils. The incorporation of beach scenes was another hackneyed feature of the show.
Is mas about monotony and predictability?
Works by Samantha Rochard and Fay Ann Ryan also demonstrated an unmistakable lack of understanding of human anatomy and proportion.
Is mas now less about skill?
These questions feed into current debates about waning creativity, feather-and-bikini formulas for designing costumes and disappearing skills in the dramaturgy of Carnival. Do we know mas when we see it? What can we call mas today?
Perhaps another way of reading this show is to see it as positioned in bold contrast to the rise of sequin-and-bead manifestations of mas.
The show’s merit might reside in its foregrounding of aspects of Carnival that are not often found in the limelight—in its nudge to look in the shadows of the festival where we might declare: that is mas!
Mama Dis is Mas, an art exhibition, ran from February 10–28 at the Gallery at Fine Art, corner of Warren and Rosalino streets, Woodbrook.