Vulgar Fraction “Playing White” for Carnival


A report from Loop T&T News.

Robert Young, the designer of the iconic Caribbean fashion brand The Cloth, is intent on bringing masking back to mas.

In 2018, he will be doing that with his guerilla mas band Vulgar Fraction with a presentation called “Playing White”.

Playing White refers to an all-white band but in this Creole space, says the band in a press release, playing white can mean a whole lot of other things.

“Lise Winer’s Dictionary of the English/ Creole of Trinidad and Tobago defines “playing white” as: “A negative judgement that a nonwhite person is attempting to identify with white people.” As Professor of Gender and Development Rhoda Reddock writes, “Caribbean history is closely related to the emergence of modern racism, usually dated at the point of the encounter between Europe, Africa and the New World.” And it raises questions about whiteness itself: what is it, who can claim it, and how do they claim it or reject it?” the release said.

Young came up with the idea for the presentation in a conversation with writer and academic Douglas Brunton and academic, photographer and cultural researcher Dr Kevin Browne. Browne is the author of the forthcoming book High Mas: Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Photography. The concept of Playing White was discussed at a panel discussion at the band’s launch on Wednesday.

Vulgar Fraction is known for the full masks which its players wear.

It’s a tribute, Young said, to the egungun ,a Yoruba word that refers to the ancestors as a collective. In Nigeria, the egun is a masked dancer who embodies an ancestor’s spirit.

Linking the concept with the traditional sailor mas of our festival, Young said his costume design is “a voyaging egungun mas”—travelling in space, in time and in the imagination.

“Mas is masking,” he said. “The tradition of masquerade is about becoming something else other than yourself.”

He’s contrasting the mas made by artists, wirebenders, painters and artisans with mass-produced costumes, which he calls “identity mas” or “fashion mas” after an expression used in the French Caribbean.

The mas speaks of an identity: “I can afford to play in this band, I can afford to get my body the way it is to play in the band, and I can play in Chaguaramas without anybody watching me except a howler monkey and a bamboo. I playing it with myself with my people, and it is not to engage a public or to engage anybody else.”

In his band, masqueraders have to get involved in making the mas. They do it at weekend workshops at his Propaganda Space, Erthig Road, Belmont. Just as traditional sailor mas builds on the same foundation every year, Young’s costume elements of mobile white circles become a canvas for self-expression. Traditional sailor mas is a shape-shifter, he said; the Vulgar Fraction is too. It is a basic costume of parts that each masquerader can embellish and arrange uniquely.

Making mas is “a revolutionary act, an act of deciding to risk playing with your own creativity,” he said. “It is masking yourself and having the experience of being on the street and nobody knowing who you are.”

More information is available via the Vulgar Fraction Facebook page and Instagram @vulgar_fraction.

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