Word of mouth (July/August 2014)

Dispatches from our correspondents around the Caribbean and further afield

  • Illustration by Darren Cheewah
  • Illustration by Darren Cheewah
  • Maquette of the “shield” to be carried by participants in artist Marlon Griffith’s No Black in the Union Jack. Courtesy Marloin Griffith

Fasting beauty

In the month of Ramadan, which this year begins at the end of June, Muslims around the world observe a daylight fast. Muhammad Muwakil describes the sense of wonder that comes from this “singular devotion”

The man who has to walk five miles for a bucket of water will not soon forget its worth. The man who has ten faucets in his house and an icemaker in his large fridge cannot help but take it for granted. Even the most mindful soul will at some point become wasteful, if a given resource is abundant and easily accessible. This is the dilemma of human existence.

If I were a cleric, I would explain to you the historical and religious significance of the month of Ramadan. I would tell you that it was the month in which the Holy Qur’an was revealed, or that there is a night within the month called the night of power, which is of great religious significance to us Muslims. Instead, let me give you something you can use.

Every year, Muslims fast from just before sun-up to sundown for twenty-nine or thirty days, in the month of Ramadan. During the hours of fast we do not consume any food or drink. We watch our manner and our mouths, and we try to meditate on the better part of ourselves and our existence here. Ramadan is, in this way, our reset button. Each year, for every single year of our lives, we are forced to stop and reflect on all that we have been given. It is not a choice: so long as you are healthy and have crossed into puberty and beyond, you must fast.

After a few days of fasting, your body becomes very sensitive. First to water, and how much we waste it — because, believe it or not, it isn’t the food you miss, it is the drink.

Then you begin to realise just how much time is spent in the pursuit and consumption of food. In a world that is driven by consumption, Ramadan is, for us, a beautiful pit-stop. For the strong, Ramadan is a reminder of how frail we truly are. For the weak, it is a chance to gain strength. To both, it is a reminder of what true strength is.

To be as grand as that which we embody demands a type of singular devotion that is rare in this world we have made. A man who lost his leg and had been living as such for years told me once that he would fast, but he lacked the courage. We say these things as if courage, all we need, doesn’t live in our hearts. Fasting causes you to be more sensitive, and strengthens the heart. We watch a child build a sandcastle and we laugh at the uninitiated, saying to ourselves, “a wave will come, a wave always comes.” We have lost our wonder.

Fasting slows the body, giving the mind a chance to wonder, so that the minutest things become a joy again. The food and drink that you consumed until it became bland sustenance have meaning and taste once more. The mind begins to think on what else has it has taken for granted. Ramadan weakens the cage to let the trapped bird remember its song and its wings. Fasting helps us to remember that we are always more than we can ever imagine.


Feel free

Trinidad and Tobago was the first country in the world to mark Emancipation Day with an official holiday. Lisa Allen-Agostini explains the significance of the anniversary

Every year on Emancipation Day, 1 August, a procession winds its way up from Independence Square to the Queen’s Park Savannah, filling the otherwise silent city of Port of Spain with the sound of drumming, music, and singing. Trinidadians of all hues and races — though predominantly of African heritage — turn out in their best African garb to remember the past and declare a better future, clapping and chanting as they walk and dance.

The carnival atmosphere is underpinned with gravity, however. After all, the holiday commemorates the freeing of enslaved Africans in British colonies in 1838, signalling the close of a horrific chapter in world history, but not the end of the story, by any means.

I’ve walked in the procession alone and with my children, and it always fills me with a deep pride to see so many people of African heritage coming together in joyful praise of freedom. The procession culminates at the Lidj Yasu Omowale Village in the Savannah, where African food, culture, and art are celebrated. Vendors sell everything from African black soap to kente cloth and cowrie shell jewellery. Stages at various parts of the village feature drama, dance, and music, all with African roots.

Trinidad and Tobago was the first country in the world to declare Emancipation Day a public holiday, in 1985. 1 August was chosen because it was on that day in 1838 that the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect. (Despite the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, enforced in 1834, it would take another four years before the “free” former slaves would actually be let off the estates where they grew sugar cane, cocoa, coffee, tobacco, and other goods on which the British Empire depended.)

Whether you argue that Emancipation was a capitalist imperative (as Eric Williams did), or a humanitarian one (look up the story of the Wedgwood Medallion for that side of the story), or that it was the Africans themselves whose acts of resistance forced the hand of an empire, it’s indisputable that Emancipation changed the world significantly.

The Emancipation Support Committee, which mounts the annual procession and runs the village, is the primary mover in the international observation of Emancipation Day, but other T&T bodies are part of the movement. In the weeks preceding the celebration, the ESC and other organisations host readings, lectures, concerts, and dinners in preparation for the big day. It’s usual to have special guests from the continent — from politicians to celebrated performers such as Angelique Kidjo, the late Miriam Makeba, and the National Senegalese Ballet. And Emancipation Day is now commemorated in several other Caribbean countries, following T&T’s lead.

My own favourite memory of this day is walking in a light drizzle with my then-toddler daughter Najja, and being hoisted up onto the back of a truck carrying a rhythm section. Playing percussive music on drums, bits of scrap metal, and a kind of steel pan called a dudup, the rhythm section seemed to me to embody the best of the spirit of Emancipation Day: we have made something completely new and unique, and we remember why we had to make it.


Space invaders

Philip Sander on an “invasion” of London’s Tate Modern by contemporary Caribbean performance art

On the afternoon of 23 August, 2014, when the invasion of the Turbine Hall begins, it will start from the opposite side of the River Thames.

Gathering on the riverbank below St Paul’s Cathedral, a force of sixty or seventy performers will assemble in formation, carrying large plastic shields. To a soundtrack of shouts, breaking glass, and other found noises, the phalanx will cross the river via the narrow Millennium Bridge. Spilling out onto the lawns and gravel in front of Tate Modern — London’s most celebrated museum of modern and contemporary art — the procession will enter the massive building through its Turbine Hall, famous for large-scale artists’ commissions.

The event may surprise passersby enjoying the summer weather on the South Bank, but the Tate’s curators will be expecting this invasion force, the opening act of a specially commissioned project called Up Hill Down Hall — which “brings Carnival into the indoor street that is the Turbine Hall and translates the costumed parade into a contemporary art procession,” according to a museum press release.

The title refers to Notting Hill Carnival, a fixture of London’s cultural life since the 1960s, and the city’s most visible celebration of its Caribbean population. Assembled by curator Claire Tancons in collaboration with the participating artists, Up Hill Down Hall “conceives of Carnival less as a theme than as a medium,” says the Tate. Indeed, the event will be a very high-profile acknowledgement of the ways that Carnival performance traditions have influenced and shaped contemporary Caribbean art.

That opening “invasion,” for example, will be a large-scale procession devised by the Japan-based Trinidadian artist Marlon Griffith, who has a growing international reputation for his performance works that cross elements of Trinidad Carnival masquerade with cutting-edge contemporary art practice. Titled No Black in the Union Jack — the name is borrowed from the seminal book by scholar Paul Gilroy — the work draws on Griffith’s experience designing costumes for Notting Hill Carnival bands, and the artist’s reflections on the social realities of twenty-first-century Britain which erupted in the 2011 London riots.

The shields which Griffith’s performers will carry recall those borne by riot police. But their form is based on a hummingbird motif. The hummingbird, Griffith reminds us, despite its tiny size, is fiercely territorial, unafraid of confronting much larger predators. The work “talks about standing one’s ground,” Griffith says, “and claiming space.” It also raises questions about “the voice of the West Indian within the chaos,” and the relationship of Carnival, and Caribbean culture more broadly, to the metropolis.

That theme will continue in a performance work by the Guyanese-British artist Hew Locke, also part of Up Hill Down Hall, in which a line of drummers will occupy the Turbine Hall and claim its space both physically and sonically. Meanwhile, architect Gia Wolff, a third collaborator, will disrupt the Turbine Hall’s vast space through a series of temporary structures.

Up Hill Down Hall is an obvious allegory of the Caribbean’s invasion of the art world’s power spaces. (And Tate Modern, which occupies a former electricity generation plant, is a “power” centre in more ways than one.) It’s also no isolated incident. Curators of all continents, be warned: there’s much more where this came from.

For more information, visit www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/performance-and-music/bmw-tate-live-hill-down-hall-indoor-carnival


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