Sculptor and visual artist Hew Locke's Give and Take depicts a processional performance curated by Claire Tancons for the BMW Tate Live series at Tate Modern in London (an indoor Carnival at the time of the last Notting Hill Carnival in August 2014).Locke grew up in Guyana but spent most of his professional life in London. He experienced Notting Hill Carnival over the years but in recent years, has been put off from going by the police barricading and tight control of the event.
It is a commentary on our current world of Carnival carefully blockaded and circumscribed whether in Port-of-Spain, Brooklyn, Toronto or London.The costumed masqueraders acted like police pushing back the audience in the hall like the police in their riot gear but wonderfully transformed with shields that have images of government power and multi-million-� mansions of the rich who now live in Notting Hill.
The shield holders were supported by the Brazilian samba-reggae group Batala London–often seen at Notting Hill Carnival–and the shield holders joined in the rhythms beating on the back of the shields.
It was a very clever take on mas taking back the streets from the authorities. As Locke notes for the performance, his mas makers "alternate between encouraging the audience to join with them in celebration or parade, and then turning on them, herding them and restricting movement around the architecture of the hall, eventually sweeping them from the space entirely. Push and pull, give and take."
There are two Jamaican artists in the exhibit who give very different takes on the mas. With Invisible Presence: Bling Memories, Ebony G Patterson has created a stunning mas band with full-sized coffins with "colourful fabrics, beads, tassels, and plastic flowers" carried on sticks at the 2014 Jamaican Carnival with a marching band.
A related, earlier version of this work had been part of a performance at Alice Yard with a short procession through Woodbrook in the summer of 2011. It was described as "a 'bling' funeral using the artist's characteristic heavily decorated objects."
Patterson commented at the time that she had heard someone in the Port-of-Spain store Samaroo's lament a death, which led to her making a coffin a day for several days. Perhaps there is a some conscious or unconscious connection to the custom coffins in Ghana.
The bright material of Patterson's mas coffins, the unexpected orientation of coffins on sticks pointed upward toward the heavens (except for one that is carried without a hearse in the hands of the masqueraders) with an exuberant marching band music–like the band cutting loose at a jazz funeral after it has reached the cemetery and the raucous dancing and music therafter–makes one wonder why coffins have to be so drab and somber.
Other parts of the exhibit are harder to fully take in. The other Jamaican artist Charles Campbell, showed a piece called Actor Boy: Fractal Engagements.
Campbell described it a mixing of uptown and downtown. It was a performance with a neighbourhood tour in a poor, potentially dangerous community of downtown Kingston areaswith a number of street artists, singing coconut man, musicians, a contortionist, and Campbell himself as "Actor Boy" all in white with a white mask, handed out masks of geodesic design.
It was one of the more abstract pieces in the exhibit and left many questions about Campbell's artistic intentions.Nicol�s Dumit Est�vez, a Bronx-based artist from the Dominican Republic, in an exhibit area of photos and a video, reflected a private ceremony rooted in Dominican Vodou traditions which occurred at the edge of 2014 Carnival when he returned home to his village Santiago de los Treinta Caballeros.
As exhibition curator Tancons notes, the ceremony is transformative and unsettling, "an array of previously utilitarian elements (kitchen utensils, bathroom wares, and bedroom apparel, alongside organic refuses) transformed into adornments (overturned sifters became hats; hollowed orange peels, goggles; netted hats, face veils; clothespins, ear and nose pincers; thin stockings, long arm gloves)."
In Looking for a Headpiece, the conceptual artist Lorraine O'Grady seeks to take the viewer into a meditation of the artist seeking inspiration by looking into footage of Brooklyn Carnival and other footage, looking for a headpiece with her commentary.Just outside the exhibit is a range of books on Carnival and classic footage by Jules Cahn of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians shot on the streets back in the 1970s.
Carnival cannot just be the latest versions of encrusted bikinis, it must carry on complex traditions, find new ways to reinvent itself, stay relevant and vibrant, seek to unbalance the status quo, and return to the root politics of Carnival itself.The richness of mas traditions has always looked to individuals and small bands who bring unique visions, new creativity, bring surprise and delight, indeed the totally unexpected.
This exhibit is a fascinating exploration of how performance artists seek to unsettle and engage with Carnival as the resonant chord.
�2 Ray Funk is a retired Alaskan judge who is passionately devoted to calypso, pan and mas.