Word of mouth (January/February 2013)

Carnival dawn at Trinidad J’Ouvert, preview a new show by artist Christopher Cozier, and savour the spice of controversy at Guyana’s Mashramani

  • Photograph by Michael Lam
  • Christopher Cozier. Photograph courtesy Akiko Ota
  • Attillah Springer. Photograph by Andrea De Silva

Dancing for dawn

Attillah Springer holds up her flag for J’Ouvert, Trinidad Carnival’s opening act

A little enamel cup of coffee, with a shot of puncheon rum. The extra heat steeling me against the freshness of the air at 1 am. I have not slept in about a week, and I can’t hear anything else but pan and drums echoing in my ears.

The glorious morning has come, and I don’t know if to laugh or cry. Because I’ll have to wait another 364 days to feel this way again. J’Ouvert is what happens when someone opens the prison gates. J’Ouvert is the moment of truth in lives of endless fiction.

I am wearing my J’Ouvert panty and a plastic bag. I am wearing nothing but disdain for decency. On the outskirts of Port of Spain’s National Stadium, the 3Canal faithful are gathering. The air is electric, but the night is always darkest just before the dawn.

J’Ouvert is more than what you want to see, and more than what I can say I feel. So I stretch my arms out wide and allow myself to be anointed with paint, oil, rum, mud, whatever. Cold paint and warm hands. We are a living, breathing canvas. You see your reflection in the haphazard streaks of others, marvel at the new shapes that emerge from the imprints of your embracing.

And then the Laventille Rhythm Section rolls up and begins to sound conch shell and drums.

Jacqueline hands me a flag. I hold it up to the breeze. We begin to walk towards the east. The light is not there yet. But we know it is coming.

This is my tribe. We are one voice, one shuffle of feet.

Flagwomen lead the way. We walk and wine. I threaten to beat a man with my flag when he comes too close. It is about ownership. Of the road. And your body. It is about letting go. Of the fear of being anything other than your true self.

We storm the Savannah stage as the sun comes over the hills. We are screaming for joy and terror at how good this feels.

The Thursday after Carnival I am walking in downtown Port of Spain. A newspaper vendor sees me and calls out. “Family!” I smile out of manners. He adds with a note of admiration, “You does play J’Ouvert wild, boy.”

I want to deny it was me. That it was some other version of myself. Hiding behind a mask of darkness to be free.


Making progress

Nicholas Laughlin previews a show of new work by artist Christopher Cozier

You could interpret the title of Christopher Cozier’s show In Development — which runs at David Krut Projects in New York from 25 January to 16 March, 2012 — to mean “work in progress,” which is entirely accurate. This solo exhibition shows the Trinidadian artist in pursuit of visual questions and answers, through a repetition of images in works on paper that suggest notebook drawings — elaborated, in some cases, to the scale of a gallery wall.

But In Development also slyly suggests a different story of “progress,” in which the survival of small tropical nations — like Trinidad and Tobago, like most of the Caribbean — is linked to construction of highways and factories, skyscrapers and dams, in a matrix of tax-free zones and free trade agreements overseen by development experts with development studies degrees, working for development agencies, both local and foreign. The happy ending of this story, the experts say, is to become a “developed country,” certified by statistics like GDP and per capita income.

But what about those messy, intangible things — hopes, anxieties, personal ambitions — that can’t be rendered into sanitary numbers? These are Cozier’s real subject, and in these drawings, the artist’s habit of small acts of observation becomes a counter-narrative: his memories of counter-development, you could say.

He usually begins with a mundane object, apparently unremarkable in its ordinary context. Repeated renderings are an investigation of line and shape, but also a form of conceptual scrutiny. Here, one obsessed-over object is the concrete breeze brick, an essential component of tropical suburban architecture, its varied geometric pattern familiar in countless Caribbean houses and government buildings of all kinds from the post-Independence era: schools, hospitals, community centres. “In the past, these patterns represented modest hope,” Cozier says, “property ownership and employment in a narrative of development. Now these patterns are the backdrop of crime scenes in the media.”

Other images are similarly drawn from the collective barely-conscious: the silhouette of a forlorn tree that becomes a default landmark; or an empty lot of land, the site of a bulldozed Victorian house, still enclosed by its wall and gateposts. Our everyday landscapes are composed of such objects, invisible in their ordinariness — yet they mark boundaries of movement or confinement, ownership or dispossession. And in Cozier’s new works, these images — drawn in graphite or ink, or cut into the surface of the paper — become a map of the artist’s attempt to occupy his own imagination, find value in his creative impulses.

“Drawing is my note-taking,” Cozier says — a form of remembering and analysing, but also of simply being aware. The works in In Development pose a question to the artist as much as to his audience: “What’s the value of that awareness?”


Mash it up

Vidyaratha Kissoon explains that controversy is part of the formula for Guyana’s Mashramani

“Mash in Guyana, people going crazy / Moving left to right, and shaking up their bodies . . .” The lyrics of Rudy Grant’s song often start off articles about Mashramani, Guyana’s Republic Day celebrations. Sometimes described as Guyana’s Carnival, Mashramani has its roots in the Independence festival organised by the Jaycees of the mining town of Linden in 1966. In 1970, when Guyana declared itself a republic, the Jaycees decided to create a three-day celebration. The name is an Arawak word meaning “celebration after hard work.” When the Forbes Burnham government nationalised the event, Mashramani became an annual spectacle with all the colour, vibrancy, and controversy symbolic of life in Guyana.

The Mash season usually starts in January with different competitions — chutney, calypso, soca, steelband. There might be one or two “mega-concerts” and other parties, and those who seek intellectual stimulation in addition to the “wining up” can attend the Republic lecture series, art exhibitions, and cultural workshops.

While Trinidadians have J’Ouvert to start off their Carnival, Guyanese revellers begin the big day — 23 February — contemplating the state of the Republic at the flag-raising ceremony held near the Parliament Buildings. A few hours later, the costume and float parade — or Road March — gets under way. Guyana’s Road March features diverse participants: political parties, big companies advertising their products, government ministries marketing development messages, religious groups marketing salvation, NGOs with healthy messages, privately organised Mash bands making money — even, in recent years, the highly anticipated Commercial Sex Workers Band. The music is played on big sets and the dancing is, well, free-spirited.

Not everyone approves. A few years ago, the Guyanese Indian Heritage Association said what many people feel about the celebrations, describing Republic Day as “consumed by . . . obscenities and vulgarities.” On the other hand, at the launch of Mashramani 2013, culture minister Frank Anthony called it “the greatest festival of Guyanese creativity . . . It is a festival that promotes Guyanese pride and patriotism.”

So Mashramani, as a very Guyanese thing, is not immune to political and other controversies. These often spice up the festivities. In 2002, after a tense election period, the main opposition party organised its own celebrations, boycotting the “government’s events.” In 2012, it seemed possible that the Youth Coalition for Transformation — a socio-political group which emerged after the 2011 elections — might do something similar. The nation held its breath, but the YTC did participate in the end, saying, “It provides ample opportunity to embrace our culture, showcase our talent, and highlight true Guyanese unity and pride.” The thousands of people who enjoy different aspects of Mashramani probably agree.

For details of the 2013 Mashramani schedule, visit the website of Guyana’s Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports: http://www.mcys.gov.gy

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