Until June 7 at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) in New Orleans, the new exhibit En Mas': Carnival and Performance Arts of the Caribbean delivers what nine very different artists with roots in the Caribbean and the United States offer up as a kaleidoscope of how artists see and interact with Carnival as performance.
Curated by Claire Tancons in collaboration with Krista Thompson, the exhibit is currently being scheduled to travel to the Caribbean starting this summer. This exhibit is not about the world of bikinis, beads and feathers; nor about the history of mas. It is an exhibit that started with new commissioned performance pieces which then had to be corralled into museum space; the result is an exhibit that tries to capture performances through photos, costumes, and video.
Mounted at the CAC in a circular path designed by Gia Wolff, you go from the Trinidad to the Jamaica with stops on the way through Martinique, New Orleans, and the Dominican Republic.The Trinidadian piece is by the Guggenheim winner Marlon Griffith, now based in Japan, who has been putting on Carnival based performance pieces from South Africa to South Korea, from London to the Bahamas, often in projects curated by Tancons.
This summer will be creating a piece for large-scale public street procession programmed in conjunction with the Parapan Am Games and an exhibit in Art Gallery of York University in Toronto this Fall. The exhibit features costumes, the movable stairs, photos and a short video. It documents a performance piece that took place on 2014 Carnival Tuesday evening. As night descended and people were making their way home on Las Lap this very different mas band made its way from designer Robert Young's studio in Belmont to Alice Yard in Woodbrook.
Marlon Griffith's Positions + Power featured two masqueraders in costume on a moving ladder. One worn by a woman, was the Overseer with a helmet with two piercing bright lights. Another, worn by a man, and often positioned at the bottom of the stairs, Doberman, with helmet and video of teeth biting with a handful of masqueraders in black with powdered stencils on their chests an almost otherworldly design to their outfits.
The video depicts the strange mix of reactions as those on the streets face the exhaustion from a joyful day jumping up to see as they headed home something completely different, this solemn procession paraded down the streets. There was no soca music playing, instead an electronic heartbeat coming from a small music cart. I was one of the masqueraders, it was a striking and mysterious band to be in and equally so reliving it in the exhibit.
Two of the other sections of the exhibit are films, unique, distinctive artist's films. One is an hour-long piece from Martinique that is best absorbed in a couple settings; the other a short piece on New Orleans that is easy to watch in one setting, both are running continuously.
Paris-based musician and artist Christophe Chassol's Big Sun is a meditation on Carnival in his home of Martinique that moves on the roads of the island, there are times when you are so close that you seem part of the movements driving on the roads in the mountains, on the streets of the town with the Carnival bands, or up in the trees singing with the birds. Big Sun features a hypnotic, prominent, unsettling music score; indeed, that is not unexpected given his background.
Chassol has composed soundtracks for almost 20 films, besides recording albums and doing unique performance events. After over a decade of doing film scores for others and having a home studio set up to do film scores, it was perhaps natural that Chassol wanted to create and film images he wanted to choose.
Big Sun is the third of a trilogy of films that started with a commission from Tancons about New Orleans for the CAC in 2011, then one in 2013 in India before this last of the three. He refers to these efforts on his website as "ultrascores" and they have been issued as albums and dvds.
The short 12-minute New Orleans film, H-E-L-L-O (Infra-Sound/Structure) by filmmaker Cauleen Smith is an evocative piece that I returned to watch several times. It focused on bass notes in the landscape of New Orleans, indeed a natural association for the vibrant brass music that is a major part of Carnival and indeed almost all aspects of music life in New Orleans. Cauleen Smith has previously embraced the rich music of Sun Ra and Afro-futurism and that serves as a background to this piece.
This meditative film is a rumbling joy, almost a decade post-Katrina, the landscape of the city seems peaceful, rich in vegetation and construction and renewal. The city moves across the screen to sites key to the music history of the city and on the shore of the Mississippi river with the series of musicians presenting overlapping bass solos played on sousaphone, baritone sax, bass sax, contrabassoon, cello, and trombone by nine leading musicians from the vibrant New Orleans music scene.
Each musician plays the same five tone sequence of notes that composer John Williams created for Steven Spielberg's film Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the famous scene involving communicating with the mothership. The locations for the scenes chosen came from a map, Bass Lines; Deep Sounds and Soils from an amazing book, Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker's Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, which is filled with maps and essays on very non-traditional ways of looking at the city of New Orleans.
This map is a perfect example noting important location in the city as seen from the view of "bass notes". The film places the bass soloists at sites that resonate with New Orleans music and social history from Congo Square in Louis Armstrong Park to Preservation Hall. The loops and movements of the film make it seem soothing and contemplative, a city driven by bass rumblings. Deep bass notes are a constant in a city like New Orleans, which is exploding with brass bands and may have more tuba and sousaphones per capita than anywhere in the world.
This brass and bass heavy music is part of the constant music on the streets, in the parks and the constant Carnivalesque parades through the city. I don't know if I felt a Sun Ra/Close Encounter otherworldly "Space is the Place" sense from it but definitely the rootedness of bass notes sinking into the rich New Orleans soil.
John Beadle, a distinguished artist from the Bahamas who had grown up around Junkanoo and as an adult has spent almost three decades working as a designer and builder/fabricator in first the Saxons and now the One Family junkanoo band. His project Inside/Outside is about those who play mas and those who come to watch mas and photograph it as mas has evolved in the Bahamas.
His two pieces of mas were also part of a larger mas project that was just part of the first ever Junkanoo Carnival, which took place from May 7-9. Junkanoo occurs traditionally with two night time parades on Boxing Day and New Year's Day with different themes where the mas bands create different mas for each event. Now there is this new event in May that seeks to monetise and create a day time Carnival more of the model of Trinidad Carnival. As Beadle noted recently, the traditional Junkanoo community will have to wait and see how this new event effects the traditions.
The evolution of Junkanoo, from the nighttime mas where participants took on the persona of other characters to the new focus on everyone being just themselves in a daytime Carnival in scant outfits where they take on no other persona but are just themselves and the voyeurs–those watching the mas but taking photos of masqueraders, and photos of themselves with masqueraders and selfies. The two mas pieces in the exhibit are stylised representations of the barriers on the streets, the masonry and fences that often divide masqueraders and observers.
The two elaborate headpieces of mas in the exhibit are finally detailed and make you want to wear them and bring them to life. The two pieces are unpainted, complex and layered. They are lighted to cast evocative shadows; in the exhibit, they seem almost like prototypes in a mas camp before they come alive, awaiting their appearance on the streets.
John Beadle's hope was that the exhibit could be done in such a fashion that exhibit attendees could put on these pieces and walk through the exhibit with them. His concept was for attendees to see the exhibit through the barriers they carry as mas, thus to be themselves part of the mas as they proceed through the exhibit.
Also given the massive photography that is now part of every Carnival both by folks lining the streets and the participants themselves to then have the exhibit visitors be photographed wearing his mas with these photographs becoming part of the exhibit, to be viewed by others wearing his mas! This could not be realised in New Orleans. Perhaps it can, when the exhibit goes on the road.
�2 Ray Funk is a retired Alaskan judge who is passionately devoted to calypso, pan and mas.
�2 CONTINUES TOMORROW