#UpsideDownHistory Part Three: Notting Hill Carnival
Instagram Residency winner Marsha Pearce blogs about her curatorial work and shares an interview with Trinidadian photographer Maria Nunes for the third instalment of the British Council “Americas IN Britain” Art Project
Notting Hill Carnival, Europe’s biggest street festival, takes place annually. Its mark on the British cultural landscape is a manifestation of Caribbean immigrant presence. It is another example of the stamp of the Americas in Britain. Put another way, it is a phenomenon that exemplifies history flipped on its head – an upside down history. The Caribbean’s colonial past bears the tremendous weight of British power but it has not entirely been a one-way relationship. Writing about the massive flow of Caribbean people to England, Jamaican poet Louise Bennett-Coverley noted a reversal or what she called colonisation in reverse. “See how life is funny?” she asks, “see the turnabout?... Man an’ woman, old an’ young jus’ pack dem bag an’ baggage and turn history upside down!” It is this notion of an upside down history that feeds my curatorial work with the National Portrait Gallery London (NPG) as we explore the nuanced connections of places on both sides of the Atlantic.
For the third instalment of images, I wanted to look at the roots or sources of Notting Hill Carnival. While many individuals have and continue to play key roles in the event – for example, see what has been described as the largest blue plaque installed this year to salute 70 pioneers – the Carnival can be traced to two chief instigators: Trinidad-born activist Claudia Jones (1915-1964) and London-born community advocate Rhaune Laslett (1919-2002). In 1959 Jones organised an indoor carnival at St Pancras Town Hall in response to the Notting Hill race riots, which occurred the previous year. The event was broadcast by the BBC. Later in 1966, Laslett arranged a street festival in the Notting Hill community to assuage tensions and unite different cultures. She invited Trinidadian steelpan player Russell Henderson to lead a street procession. He was joined by fellow pannists Sterling Betancourt and Ralph Cherrie. Both women have been honoured with blue plaques. However, their portraits are not found in the NPG Collection. My preparatory work for an Instagram story, therefore, involved reaching out to other entities. After some sleuthing, I found an image of Laslett by photographer Val Wilmer, who gave her permission for its use. Generous support also came from Getty Images Hulton Archive. They agreed to provide a picture of Claudia Jones for the Instagram feature and, in an incredible show of magnanimity, they gifted a print of Jones to the NPG Collection. I am grateful that my work with the NPG has facilitated this significant acquisition and I extend thanks to Getty.
A look at the roots of Notting Hill Carnival reveals fraught interactions between police and masqueraders. Debates on the subject include a want to ban the Carnival to safeguard police and the view that excessive policing will be the downfall of the Carnival. To acknowledge these anxieties associated with the event, I chose to showcase Spirit of the Carnival by Dominica-born artist Tam Joseph. The work, dated circa 1982, is a portrait of a defiant masquerader who performs despite a throng of police brandishing riot shields. Thanks to Wolverhampton Arts and Culture for their consent to include Spirit of the Carnival.
In the process of tracing roots, clear ties can be made to the Trinidad Carnival, which is often described as the mother of all West Indian carnivals. When one considers the still-existing rituals embedded in the Trinidad festival, one will find that there is more beyond a presentation of bikini and bead costumes. To underscore this fact, I selected work by Trinidadian photographer Maria Nunes, who has been creating visual documentation of traditional masquerade forms for over a decade. I wanted to offer viewers a deeper appreciation of her art practice and therefore invited her to respond to a number of my questions. The following is our conversation:
Into Carnival’s Depths: An Interview with Maria Nunes
MARSHA PEARCE: Your work over the last ten years gives pride of place to traditional masquerade forms: Blue Devils, Moko Jumbies and Fancy Sailors among others. What prompted you to focus your lens on these subjects and what sustains your interest in this aspect of your image-making practice?
MARIA NUNES: In 2006 a friend invited me to a Carnival Monday lime at his office on Carlos Street. I was inside talking when I heard loud cracking noises outside. I was intrigued to know what this was. It was my first experience of Jab Jabs fighting and I was truly struck by how real it all was. At that point, I was a photography hobbyist and I had already invested in a fairly good camera. I took some photos and one of them managed to capture the S-like movement of the whip. Beginner’s luck. That was an important photo because that was the start of my fascination with how to capture the intensity of the Jab Jabs, how to show the beauty of the whip in motion.
Earlier on that day, on my way walking to my friend’s office, I walked through a few of the conventional large bands but they didn’t really grab my attention from a visual standpoint. But the Jab Jabs immediately aroused curiosity in me. I wanted to know more. So in retrospect, I’d say encountering those Jab Jabs was very significant. I then went walking along Ariapita Avenue looking to see what else I might like to photograph and sure enough, I then bounced up some jab molassies at the corner of French Street and the Avenue. One of those photographs is actually in my recently published book “In a World of Their Own: Carnival Dreamers and Makers”. I remember when I went home later that day and uploaded the images to my computer that I was transfixed by the look of the blue in the images; all of the textures. And there was one traditional black jab molassie – he’s the one in the book. As he passed by, I realised that he sensed I was taking his photograph and I got this sequence of him as he passed, turned his head and then looked straight back at me with the most precious of looks. Experiencing that kind of playful exchange from behind the camera with a total stranger made a real impression on me. Capturing those moments introduced me to that wonderful spontaneous interplay that can happen between photographer and masquerader. I just loved that. It was a glimpse into a whole new way of looking at the world, an almost magical way of experiencing warmth and generosity in people. And as if that wasn’t enough I then walked up French Street to the corner of Tragarete Road. Coming down the road from Cipriani Boulevard was Tribal Connection, a fancy Indian band from the city of San Fernando, and right behind them was Exodus playing sailor masquerade. So in my first ever venture into Carnival with a camera I walked straight into Jab Jabs, Jab Molassies, Fancy Indian and Sailors.
I told photographer Abigail Hadeed about my experience and so the next year she suggested that I come to what was called the Nostalgia Parade which used to take place on Carnival Sunday from Piccadilly Greens to Adam Smith Square. I absolutely loved the experience of seeing all the different traditional masquerades. This was when I first met Junior Bisnath and photographed his Kaisokah Moko Jumbies in the stretch along Lapeyrouse Cemetery. I was captivated by the possibilities from an imagery standpoint. It is not an exaggeration to say it was exhilarating. And then later that morning I had my first truly immersive encounter with Paramin blue devils as they got ready inside Adam Smith Square. Some of those images remain to this day among my best photographs. Experiencing the ritual of preparation was really something. The beauty of the wetness of the blue when it is first applied to the body is visually compelling. And this is all happening to the trance-like sound of the drumming of biscuit tins and the cries of jab molassies as they prance around. I can remember that first experience ever so clearly. I was hooked.
I also remember during all of the intensity of taking those photos that Andrea Da Silva, one of our truly great photographers, came over to me very quietly and quickly gave me a piece of advice about how my flash was angled. I knew so little about technical things at the time. It was a wonderful thing for an experienced photographer to see a novice making a mistake and offer guidance on taking better photos right then and there in the thick of the action. It’s something I’ll never forget.
The third element of what prompted my focus on the traditional aspects of Carnival is that Abigail Hadeed then also invited me to come with her into Port of Spain on Carnival Tuesday morning. That was my first experience of All-Stars sailor masquerade and it was when I met Narcenio “Senor” Gomez, a leading wire bender/sculptor. That morning I fell in love with photographing the powder throwing of sailors. I loved the challenge to capture it in truly dynamic ways and I loved how it looked on the faces of the sailors. So I’d say that Carnival Tuesday experience sealed the deal. It was as if a whole new world revealed itself to me. I remember feeling sad that night downtown at South Quay – that feeling that the Carnival was over. The Spirit of Carnival took a hold of me (what my jab molassie friends call “the ting”) and there’s been no turning back since.
What sustains my practice 12 years later? The “ting.” Wendell Manwarren, who is an artiste and Carnival bandleader, says it so well in my book. He says Carnival is “forces, it’s energies…” He’s so right. For me, Carnival is something mystical, deeply spiritual. I don’t have the words. I just know that it holds something special for those who venture into its depths.
PEARCE: There is an ongoing debate in Trinidad about its Carnival being reduced to bikini, beads and feathers and an enduring claim that there is a loss of creativity. What perspective does your photography practice bring to this conversation?
NUNES: I think the combination of trends in our fete/party culture and soca music over the past 20-25 years, along with the commercialization of Carnival with the “all inclusive” mega bands has shifted the emphasis away from “playing a mas” to packaging a certain kind of on-the-road experience for masqueraders. It is what it is. This is its time. And like everything else, in time it will morph into something else that we don’t see coming yet. That’s the nature of change. My personal view is that if what we currently have in the mainstream of Carnival is what a lot of people want to play, then they shouldn’t be criticized for it. That type of mas is not about creativity, and it doesn’t pretend to be. It’s about enjoying yourself for two days in one massive, moving street party. For a lot of people, that’s the release – the freedom they want through Carnival. It is not for me to police their Carnival.
Scale is what creates a spectacle and it’s the spectacle of a few thousand people in elaborate costumes that we’re not seeing now. We are missing the height of costumes that could be seen from a distance – that sense of “look the band coming.” But I think we have to be careful not to over-generalise in our assessment of the state of creativity in Carnival because there are smaller bands and individuals who are continuing to create very interesting portrayals. This is where my work as a photographer comes in. My perspective is that people are doing all sorts of interesting things in Carnival. It is just a question of where you focus your attention. So my photography has become a conscious decision to highlight what has been pushed to the margins by the sheer size of the party bands and their massive music trucks. I see the power of the photograph to help ensure that the voices of creativity and tradition are not completely drowned out.
PEARCE: Your art practice involves more than composing a photograph. There is a deep, human investment in your work. You get to know the people in your photographs: their challenges and aspirations. Why is that an important part of your process?
NUNES: The act of making a photograph is what has helped me to see beauty in others. Every single person has something special about them. I think I’d been a very self-absorbed person before. I wasn’t a keen observer of the world. Photography has changed that, radically so. There is so much wisdom and knowledge in what people share when time is spent. And very often it’s not possible to spend as much time as you’d like, so it’s also very much about the quality of the moments you spend. A lot can pass in even a few minutes of genuine connection. That’s what I strive after.
PEARCE: What moments capture your attention and stir you to press the camera's shutter-release button? Are you looking for what photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called “a decisive moment”?
NUNES: I love capturing artistic performance, not just in Carnival, but across the performing arts. I’m therefore always looking to capture the beauty in movement, how to convey that in the stillness of an image. It’s also about emotion for me, about how to frame the intensity of a moment.
In relation to “the decisive moment” Abigail Hadeed gave me a small book of Cartier-Bresson’s writings years ago called The Mind’s Eye and in it, he reflects that “photography implies the recognition of a rhythm in the world of real things...We work in unison with movement as though it were a presentiment on the way in which life itself unfolds. But inside the movement, there is one moment at which the elements in motion are in balance. Photography must seize upon this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it.” I read that little book over and over and over. His perspectives on photography have sunk deep into me.
PEARCE: What is the significance of time: past, present and future, to your photography practice?
NUNES: It is so wonderfully strange that you’ve framed the asking of this question in this way. I first read T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets when I was 15 because my best friend had just finished studying him for Advanced level (A level) exams. I cannot emphasize enough the influence of this poem on my life to this day. I return to it regularly. Thinking about “Time present and time past” and how they “are both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past” has therefore long been a preoccupation of mine. When you combine that grounding in Eliot with my love of history, to the extent of getting my undergraduate degree in it, and then teaching history for nearly 10 years at the high school level, I think it’s not surprising at all that my photography has evolved in directions that are concerned with time past, present and future. I didn’t set out consciously with all this in mind, but looking back I can see clearly how much sense it all makes that my work is in many ways today focused on the complexities of the relationship between the past, present and future.
PEARCE: This year your first book In a World of Their Own: Carnival Dreamers and Makers was published by Robert & Christopher Publishers. What contribution does it make? What does the book add to existing knowledge about Carnival?
NUNES: It is always hard to assess your own contribution because you are so close to your work. There are a few things I feel sure of though, one is that it is valuable to have a record of at least some of the people who dream and make Carnival add to what has already been published by people like Jeffrey Chock, Pablo Delano and Stefan Falke. Just to give one example, photographs of some of our stickfighters stand as testimony to the importance of this tradition in the history of our Carnival. Our stickfighters don’t get the respect they deserve in my opinion. To the wider public they are largely nameless, so to me, it is very important that their names are recorded in the captions. I think each caption is a very concrete way in which the book adds to the existing knowledge about Carnival. I regard the captions in this book to be as important as the photographs.
I also think that one of the contributions the book makes is through Shivanee Ramlochan’s wonderfully lyrical and insightful essay. I am very happy that this project is part of the growing canon of her literary expression. And I think that Richard Rawlins’ distinctive approach to the design of the book brings a really fresh and creative eye to how to construct a book like this. His illustrations bring a magical stroke; they convey that sense of play and fun that is at the heart of carnival. So I think that a very important contribution this book makes is that it is an interdisciplinary collaboration of Trinidad and Tobago creatives woven together by a Trinidad and Tobago publishing company, Robert and Christopher, which is led by Melanie Archer and Mariel Brown.
If the book makes some people feel appreciated, if it makes others stop to reflect and take some sort of action, if it’s in any way a window through which some venture off to make their own Carnival discoveries, then I think it will have made a worthwhile contribution.