Carnival has become a personal and professional passion for contemporary art curator Claire Tancons. She spent much of Lundi Gras on a return flight after speaking at a Paris conference on the influence of Carnival on performance art. Hours later, she donned a costume and joined artist friends from New Orleans Airlift marching with the Society of St. Anne and chasing Mardi Gras Indians and baby doll and skeleton maskers in Treme.
Her show EN MAS': Carnival and Performance Art of the Caribbean opens Friday at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) and she says visitors will experience it like a parade with nine floats — with each gallery's photos, video, music and artifacts offering a view of a performance art event in a Caribbean city (or Caribbean-influenced city) during Carnival.
The show is the second phase of EN MAS', which is meant to reference the phrase "en masse," suggesting events with many people, and "mas'," the Trinidadian shorthand for masquerading at Carnival. The initial phase was an array of commissioned performance art events in Caribbean cities (Kingston, Jamaica, Nassau, Bahamas, Port of Spain, Trinidad and others), as well as New Orleans and London, mostly during Carnival season in 2014. Each gallery is set up to best evoke the performance. The New Orleans contribution is Cauleen Smith's music-based work H-E-L-L-O (Infra-Sound/Structure), which featured nine musicians playing bass-clef instruments at the sites of important and buried histories, such as Congo Square and St. Augustine Church. The gallery is sound-proofed for the video recordings.
One of the first galleries features Trinidad-born artist Marlon Griffith's Positions + Power, a nighttime event staged at the end of Trinidad's pre-Lenten Carnival. In the procession, an "Overseer" figure, in a helmet with spotlights like bug-eyes, mounted a rolling tower and marched with revelers. The piece invoked Trinidadian Carnival figures (the overseer and his dog), masking traditions and police surveillance in a way that referenced crowds taking over the streets (as in Carnival and political protest) and the legacy of colonialism.
Griffith is one of the artists whose work first spurred Tancons' critical interest in Carnival in 2004. She noticed that he applied techniques used in making Carnival work in his artwork.
"Marlon Griffith was a promising young Port of Spain artist," Tancons says. "He was doing installation work in a gallery context. He used a vacuum-forming technique to make plastic prints — a fabrication technique used in Carnival work — to make art, but it was suffused with a Carnival aesthetic. But he hadn't brought together his Carnival practice as a Carnival designer and his contemporary art practice."
She also noticed that discussion of contemporary Caribbean artists and their work rarely mentioned Carnival as a cultural or artistic component. Having grown up in Guadeloupe, she knew that was a big omission.
Another gallery features the work of Hew Locke, whose work was recently featured in Prospect.3 (including The Nameless, a four-wall installation circling viewers with a mythic and Carnivalesque procession). A native of Guyana and resident of London, Locke staged Give and Take as part of Up Hill Down Hall: An Indoor Carnival, which Tancons curated at London's Tate Modern in August 2014. Locke's piece referenced the creation of the Notting Hill Carnival in response to riots in the 1950s. The processional piece featured Carnival maskers carrying police riot shields, each painted with the facade of a Notting Hill townhouse. It captured the tensions between property owners, authorities and the changing, more diverse populations, including Caribbean immigrants, moving into the neighborhood. The gallery at the CAC will be set up like an armory, with the shields mounted like police gear.
Tancons is particularly interested in processions as performance art. During the opening of Prospect.3, she and Delaney Martin created a second-line-inspired event on Franklin Avenue that featured a wide array of New Orleans marching groups. New Orleans' many parading traditions and related art (i.e. Mardi Gras Indian suits) make the city seem like the perfect base for Tancons, but she came to New Orleans to be an associate curator for Prospect.1 (as well as an associate curator at the CAC). She contributed an essay on Carnival-inspired art to the Prospect.1 catalog.
In her critical work exploring Carnival and performance art, Tancons is undertaking to reframe debates, especially vis-a-vis Eurocentric perspectives. In the rarified critical discourse on Carnival aesthetics, literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin's dominating notion of the carnivalesque has always referenced medieval and early Renaissance European Carnival. Transplanting Carnival to the Caribbean in the wake of the trans-Atlantic slave trade changes the context, she says.
"What do we make of the celebration of the flesh in the context of the slave trade?" Tancons asks.
EN MAS' is a large-scale undertaking and Tancons has brought on many partners as she rolls out its phases. The expo is co-curated by Krista Thompson. Independent Curators International will publish the catalog and support a series of expos in Caribbean cities, including being reformatted for a film festival, before the show returns to the U.S. and Canada. The tour may be extended to venues in Europe.
Tancons is also working on a book on her Carnival-based work and perspectives.
"I am working on a timeline from the 1930s to the present showing how Carnival infused creative fields including theater, Broadway, dance and visual arts," Tancons says.
Her work is both pioneering a new understanding of Carnival and creating space for performance art outside of gallery and museum spaces.