Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 3, 2018
Claire Tancons and Krista Thompson, eds. EN MAS': Carnival and Performance Art of the Caribbean Exh. cat. New York and New Orleans: Independent Curators International and Contemporary Art Center, New Orleans, 2016. 230 pp.; 100 color ills. Hardcover $49.95 (9780916365899)
Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans, March 7–June 7, 2015; National Gallery of the Cayman Islands, January 14–March 18, 2016; National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, April 28–July 10, 2016; DuSable Museum of African American History, May 23–August 13, 2017; Museum of the African Diaspora, September 20, 2017–March 04, 2018; Ulrich Museum of Art, April 21–August 12, 2018
Installation view, EN MAS': Carnival and Performance Art of the Caribbean, Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans, March 7–June 7, 2015 (photograph © Sarrah Danziger; provided by CAC New Orleans)

EN MAS’: Carnival and Performance Art of the Caribbean was published in conjunction with the launch of a traveling group exhibition showcasing the work of nine contemporary artists, each from the circum-Caribbean or its diaspora: John Beadle, Charles Campbell, Christophe Chassol, Nicolás Dumit Estévez, Marlon Griffith, Hew Locke, Lorraine O’Grady, Ebony G. Patterson, and Cauleen Smith. The artists were commissioned to create performance works in public spaces in cities with active carnival traditions, from Nassau, Bahamas, and Port of Spain, Trinidad, to Notting Hill, London, and New Orleans, Louisiana. The catalogue features archival documentary traces of each performance using photographs, artists’ written reflections, and responses to each work by scholars, curators, culture and art critics as well as texts by performance studies scholar Shannon Jackson, modern and contemporary art historian Kobena Mercer, and the curators of the exhibition, Claire Tancons and Krista Thompson. Their texts demonstrate how to see carnival and associated artworks beyond the limiting frameworks of anthropological preconceptions, or traditional aesthetic, social, or political categories, and offer historical context for why this field of artistic production is largely underrecognized.

The title EN MAS’: Carnival and Performance Art of the Caribbean is a play on the words Mas’ and en masse. Mas’, a shortened form of masquerade, or masque in French, means carnival in Trinidad and the English-speaking Caribbean. The French phrase en masse means “all together.” Though carnival forms are a nexus of traditional categories of art—sound, dance, music, theater, visual—the title points to the project’s relationship to performance art specifically. Fundamental to this connection is the fact that carnival and transnational black identity are intertwined. Carnival’s force as an index of diasporic subjectivity is underscored by its multivalent and mobile forms, and supports the conclusion that “the legacy of carnival exposes a racial and colonial history within the canons of avant-garde experimentation” (48). If carnival had not been overlooked by art-historical and performance art scholarship, the historical narrative of those disciplines would have developed with terms determined by its presence, likely altering the conception of performance art we know today.   

The traditions of enslaved people and colonial subjects substantially influenced European carnival’s transformation into its Caribbean forms, and continue to permeate contemporary versions within the Caribbean and throughout its diaspora, rendering carnival an embodiment of postcolonial expression. As carnival was appropriated by black communities in Trinidad, it provided unconstrained space to express and experiment with identity and political ideology. From the Canboulay riots of 1881 to the postcolonial movement for independence, and into diasporic communities’ search for place and freedom when they emigrated from the region, carnival frameworks functioned as resources for political agency. However, contemporary forms of carnival also include swaths of commercialized spectacle. Critics suggest the potency of carnival is becoming lost because of state and corporate policies for security- and tourism-based profits. EN MAS’ artworks and texts critically confront what some call the decline of carnival, including the social currents of race and class underlying this decline, and provide countering perspectives by examining alternative spaces of carnival.

Claire Tancons, the primary voice in the push to recognize the aesthetic force of carnival and processional forms, calls for the term “carnival” to be reconceptualized to account for the history leading to its present iterations. Not only does the common etymology of “carnival” fail to recognize the “historical, political, economical and cultural entanglements of black Atlantic modernity” (17), but the common framework of exhibition spaces—what sociologist Tony Bennett, in his book The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (1995), critically calls the “exhibitionary complex”—cannot do carnival justice. In citing Bennett, Claire Tancons raises the question “how might Carnival be critically reinserted within the history of the exhibitionary complex” (26)? Tancons expresses a concern shared by many of the artists and authors about whether or not the inclusion of carnival in the museum exhibition space severs it from its vernacular aesthetic and sociopolitical forms. In addition to her essay, Tancons also created a history of exhibitions, a timeline for EN MAS’ that expands the notion of “exhibition” to include the broad spectrum of fields in which carnival has appeared. It features exhibitions of performance and visual arts, presentations of literature, music, protests, games (such as the Olympics), television, and awards. As Tancons demonstrated in past research, Caribbean carnival has been marginalized throughout museum and art gallery presentations of both international contemporary art and art specifically from the Caribbean region. Tancons’s timeline manifests a revolutionary strategy to resist the exhibitionary complex, which applies to the EN MAS’ project, providing a new perspective from which to see and understand carnival and related artworks.

In the catalogue’s second essay, Krista Thompson focuses on the carnival form called Junkanoo in the Bahamas and Jonkonnu in Jamaica. Examining masks, signs, costumes, props, and performances in past Junkanoos and in the works of the EN MAS’ artists, Thompson demonstrates how Junkanoo provides alternative modes for individuals to negotiate and represent social identity. Junkanoo opens up momentary methods of social, political, and economic resistance or freedom to members of society otherwise limited due to race and class. Costume making, for example, is a labor-intensive process often using recycled materials produced by black labor. Thompson proposes that we might “reinterpret the incorporation of the products of black labor into the costumes as a redirection of black labor toward aesthetic ends” (34). In a discussion of the role photography and videography play in Junkanoo, she reflects on the structures of inequity that can occur through representation. As photographers began to document Junkanoo participants in the Bahamas and were gradually accepted, they served colonial interests of both the tourism industry and the state. As the number of cameras at contemporary Junkanoo and carnival has increased over the years, such footage is now the primary medium through which these forms are seen and preserved. Thompson provides a nuanced meditation on the representation of the fleeting performative spectacle of carnival, and the relationship of the lens-based mediums to the performative.

Shannon Jackson elucidates the relationship between Caribbean carnival and the Euro-American canons of “performance art” as well as older traditions of performing arts. She recognizes a “renewal of art-world interest in the phenomenon of performance” (49), wherein carnival has resurfaced as a subject of interest. She echoes Tancons’s assessment that this resurgence does not mean art world structures have changed. Performance studies critics suggest the art world’s return to performance reflects what B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore coined “the experience economy”—the shift from an economic focus on object production to the production of services and experiences. However, Jackson defends against this criticism of carnival being reduced to a form of spectacle or entertainment that serves the experience economy by recalling that history of performance and carnival far predates the notion of said experience economy. While this revival might seem like a new direction to the art world, “these laborers” (the performers) experience a continuation of the same: “the performative turn feels more like a strange appropriation of forms that historically had more potent things to do than to play handmaiden to a newly spirited service economy” (53).

In the final essay, Kobena Mercer introduces a chronological history of Caribbean carnival forms, weaving together the various ways they have functioned as resources for political agency and the related theoretical journeys of carnival studies scholars. His progression emphasizes the importance of the underrecognized field of carnival studies and reveals the relationship of carnival to notions of Caribbean cultural identity. Rather than create an academic, fixed definition of Caribbean carnival forms or their history, he investigates the “worldly conditions” that create their fluctuations. Carnival offers participants a brief moment in which they can participate in a kind of superorganism of a great Caribbean or Afro-diasporic identity, or experience the bliss of abandoning their defined selves to exist as the many possible selves contained in each participant. By highlighting carnival’s unusual potential to dispossess participants of identity, Mercer provides an inspiring view of carnival’s radical potential and the controversial act of elective identity loss.

This compendium of texts questions the truth conveyed by conventional documentary forms by making visible the structures of power embedded in display and reception of Caribbean carnival and associated works. The second half of the catalogue features artist statements, photographic documentation, and individual essays dedicated to the nine artworks. These additional texts are written by the previously mentioned scholars, curators, culture and art critics who attended the performances. Their texts represent an important component of the documentation and further explore crucial perspectives that contextualize individual works of EN MAS’, such as the relationship of carnival with the localized politics of queer, gender, and religious identity formations, or the many facets of virtual carnival accessed through YouTube and social media platforms, as a diasporic resource. Tancons and Thompson assert that the artists’ innovative mediated forms—the installations and projects created for the exhibition that did not include in-person performance—can be understood as creative expressions in their own right. Along with the catalogue texts, the artworks act as critical archival documents, new primary and secondary source material to be introduced into national and academic archives. These mediations between site-specific performances and offsite viewers capture the texture of the performances and provide archival remnants with which to decolonize the archive, making the EN MAS’ catalogue a powerful tool for future carnival studies.   

Katherine Cohn
MA, Department of Art and Archaeology, Columbia University