[Many thanks to Veerle Poupeye (Critical.Caribbean.Art) for bringing this item to our attention.] In “‘Mas’ in a time of mourning: How the spirit of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival shines through,” Janine-Mendes-Franco (Global Voices) writes, “'[E]veryday life in this pandemic moment is a ritual of mourning.’”
With its irresistible soca rhythms, colourful masquerade, fetes and steel pan competitions leading up to the two-day street festival preceding Ash Wednesday, Trinidad and Tobago Carnival is typically a joyous celebration — and one that was born out of deep pain.
The 1881 Canboulay Riots, which are reenacted each year, are a startling reminder that Carnival’s freedom of expression, its refreshingly wanton bacchanalia, its imagination and creativity, were hard won. Derived from the Latin carne vale — literally translated as “farewell to the flesh,” meaning a last wild frolic before the deprivation of the Christian Lenten season — Carnival’s very name points to the fact that life and death, joy and sadness are inextricably intertwined.
For this year’s Carnival, which, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, will be stripped down to a basic display that the government has dubbed “A Taste of Carnival,” designer Robert Young, who brings out a “mas” (masquerade) band called Vulgar Fraction, has chosen to examine the presence of death in what is arguably the country’s most life-affirming festival.
“Mas Mourning — Becoming Wreaths” was launched on February 17 at Young’s atelier in the heart of Belmont, a neighbourhood on the fringes of the Queen’s Park Savannah that is famous for producing outstanding Carnival designers, musicians and photographers.
In a departure from most Carnival band launches, where the focus is on costume presentation and sales, a panel that included cultural studies scholar Marsha Pearce, rapso artist Wendell Manwarren, singer/songwriter Addelon Braveboy and art therapist Celeste Walters, discussed how “the mas explores remembering, commemorating, celebrating,” particularly during this time of pandemic, when so many have lost so much.
The theme of the mas is certainly timely; it feels like the world has been trapped in a state of collective mourning for the past two years, whether it be for loved ones struck down by coronavirus, for connection, or in the case of Carnival lovers, for the festival itself, which was cancelled in 2021 because of the pandemic.
Pearce, whose student cohort at the University of the West Indies (UWI) will participate in the band, was careful to explain that revellers can “become wreaths” either instinctively or by intention. Both, she said, are “future-oriented acts,” but one leads to closure; the other to connection and community. [. . .]
It is an idea expertly bought into existence through the lens of photographer Jason Audain, who is passionate about preserving the legacy of Trinidad and Tobago’s traditional mas through portraiture. In a series of photographs shared on Robert Young’s Instagram page, the costumes, which are predominantly constructed out of dried banana leaves and tropical flowers in keeping with the funereal wreath theme, come to beautifully stark and uncomfortably compelling life. [. . .]
[Photo above (detail) by Jason Audain, accessed through Global Voices: A costume from the Carnival band Vulgar Fraction‘s 2022 presentation, ‘Mas Mourning—Becoming Wreaths,’ by designer Robert Young.]