Despite their deep historical roots and increasing appeal for contemporary artists, Creole and diasporic carnivals have been widely overlooked in art-historical and critical commentary. Carnival has been a leading art form since the beginning of the nineteenth century in Trinidad, Brazil, South Africa, and Louisiana, and since the mid-twentieth century, has appeared as the West Indian parade in Brooklyn, the Notting Hill Carnival in London, and Caribana in Toronto. In a global art world in which the notion of center versus periphery has become passé––and where in Havana, São Paolo, Johannesburg, Cape Town, and now New Orleans are creating new foci of international attention in the very locations of carnival––it is time for the form to be properly recognized.


Peter Minshall, The Adoration of Hiroshima, in anti-nuclear peace march, Washington, D.C., August 5, 1985, mas’ performance with The Callaloo Company. Photo Ernesto Batan. Courtesy The Callaloo Company, Chaguaramas, Trinidad

In light of current multidisciplinary trends and renewed interest in performance and community-based practices, it is perplexing that such a multimedia and collective artistic activity as Carnival should have remained so long excluded from the arts. However, even exhibitions of Caribbean and Latin American contemporary art have systematically bypassed Carnival,1 an omission I began to redress by organizing the exhibition Mas’: From Process to Procession held at The Rotunda Gallery in Brooklyn in 2007, which featured the work of artists who contributed to Carnival or took inspiration from it. There has been occasional acknowledgement of some of the best Carnival practitioners, such as Peter Minshall of Trinidad, Allison “Tootie” Montana of New Orleans, and, in Prospect.1 New Orleans, Victor Harris, also of New Orleans. And recent efforts have been made in relation to the field of performance art, such as Milla Riggio’s Carnival: Culture in Action; The Trinidad Experience (New York and London: Routledge, 2004). Nevertheless, the few books about so-called Carnival arts favor an anthropological perspective and tend to acknowledge tradition over creativity,2 and general Caribbean art books make little room, if any, for Carnival.3

This selected list of misreadings and missed opportunities points to the ongoing need for the invention of new paradigms for understanding artistic practices that fall outside the modernist Euro-American canon and have a timeline that parallels rather than intersects with dominant historical narratives.

What may account for the overlooking of Carnival in art-historical discourse and curatorial practice is that it is a ritual and festival as well as an art form. As ritual and festival, it is the natural object of folklore and anthropology, disciplines that have fraught relationships with art and art history. As an art form, it has yet to find its historians, critics, and curators. To encompass the totality of Carnival, the present essay will briefly delineate the three aspects from a historical perspective before reviewing key Carnival works in Cape Town, New Orleans, Brazil and Trinidad.

Contemporary Creole carnivals embody communal values and promote collective behaviors that contribute to the cohesiveness of New World societies. They also retain elements of inversion, subversion, and other strategies for challenging power and disrupting authority that inform European Carnivals, as analyzed by Mikhail Bakhtin. The current conditions of Trinidad, Brazil, South Africa, and the southern United States are separated by centuries from those of the European Middle Ages, and yet an analogy can be drawn between medieval carnivals and those formed within the context of slavery and colonization, updated equivalents of servitude and feudalism. And the strategies are still operative in recently desegregated and/or democratized societies where egalitarianism continues to be tested.4
New World carnivals in their formative period borrowed from Europe, Africa, and America, and in the post-Emancipation period in the Caribbean, from Asia via Indian and Chinese indentured laborers. Though festivities occur at different times of year in these places, due to Europe’s colonial dominance they have been fused in the New World into a single manifestation conforming to the Christina calendar. Carnival traditionally occurs during the Christmas/New Year’s Eve period in former Dutch and British colonies under Protestant influence––such as Cape Town––and during the pre-Lenten season, culminating on Fat Tuesday, in predominantly Catholic countries—mostly former Portuguese, Spanish and French colonies. Carnival is a polyvalent popular performance art form comparable to ancient theater or, more immediately, to opera. At its most elaborate, it takes the form of moving tableaux or encyclopedic displays visualized through narrative scenes symbolic or archetypal in reach. Carnival is a processional, durational art form, its main stage the street and its primary vehicle the human being. As both a performance art form and mass spectacle, Carnival channels the energy of individuals and masses through choreographed and free movement, enhanced with costumes and masks with varying degrees of structural sophistication and aesthetic achievement (mud and paint for J’ouvert in Trinidad; bikinis in Brazil; and kinetic sculptures in the case of Peter Minshall), accessories such as flags, handkerchiefs, standards, designed props, and objects for tossing into the crowd, such as beads and coconuts—a “Zulu” custom—in New Orleans. Revelers travel on foot or are carried on floats functioning as mobile sculptural units in Brazil and New Orleans. The ensemble is propelled by rhythmic live music (drums in Brazil, steel pan in Trinidad, brass bands in New Orleans and Cape Town) or, increasingly, soundtracks broadcast by gigantic sound systems mounted on trucks (the trios elétricos of Salvador de Bahia). As a popular art form responding to the taste for the representational and the sensational, Carnival borrows from historical and topical events, Hollywood movies, soap operas, and newspaper headlines. Together these features form a singular medium with a highly potent means of expression, exposition, and participation, and a unique capacity to describe the transient and disposable nature of contemporary reality.

It is important to establish the historical framework of Creole carnivals, if only briefly, as it had a direct impact on the shape of Carnival in general and on the relationships, or lack thereof, with mainstream contemporary art practices. Mardi Gras in New Orleans5 and Kaapse Klopse Karnival––the Cape Town Carnival formerly known as the Coon Carnival––emerged as institutions in the period immediately ushering in segregation in the United States and apartheid in South Africa (though they had existed as cultural manifestations for almost a century before their institutionalization). The first New Orleans “krewe”––the Mistick Krewe of Comuswas created in 1857 on the eve of the Civil War, while the first Mardi Gras Indian tribe––the Creole Wild West––is said to have been formed in 1885, at “the nadir of American race relations.” The Cape of Good Hope Sports Clubs was probably organized in 1887 as the first New Year carnival troupe, while the first “Grand New Year Coloured Carnival” took place in 1907, three years after racial categorizations appeared in the national census. The figure of the Coon in the Cape Town Carnival is directly derived from American blackface minstrel shows, particularly Christy’s Minstrels, which first performed in Cape Town in 1862.6

So-called old-line krewes symbolically reinstated the sovereign power of the South within the socially acceptable context of Carnival and enforced white preeminence that Emancipation sought to abolish.7 At the same time, Mard Gras Indian “gangs” asserted the common identity of former African American slaves and Native Americans as opponents of European colonization. The motives of the Coons, before apartheid politics made them even more ambiguous than they already were due to their American minstrel origins, were to unite as community organizations to confront racial and political subjugation.

To this day, New Orleans Mardi Gras and Cape Town Carnival reflect the racial discrimination on which they once thrived. In New Orleans, predominantly white krewe members on floats revel to music played by black marching bands, while gangs of black Mardi Gras Indians challenge each other on backstreets and remote avenues. Carnival is still marginalized in Cape Town, where it is viewed as the domain of coloureds cast as the perennial entertainers of whites. By contrast, in Trinidad and Brazil, Carnival is marketed as an emblem of national harmony within which races and classes can, and do, to some extent, cohabit. Rather than accentuating “hierarchy,” the Trinidad and Brazil carnivals promote “equality,” to use Roberto DaMatta’s terminology.8

Cape Town Carnival

Given the stigmas that the historical context of Cape Town attached to Carnival, it is not surprising that Carnival does not seem to appeal to South African artists, even of the post-apartheid generation, as a medium of choice. Tracey Rose and Robin Rhode, although often tapping into performance art, have not yet investigated the form. Originally from Durban and Cape Town, respectively, they have, however, commented on blackface minstrelsy in their work the former with characteristic boldness and the latter more indirectly. Artists Gabi Ngcobo and Khwezi Ngule, with others, confronted the uneasy legacy of the Coon as, in the words of Julian Jonker, “one of the justifying images of Apartheid” in a memorable performance in 2005.”9 They appeared during Session EKapa, the preliminary conference for the short-lived new Cape Town Biennial known as CAPE AFRICA, with their faces entirely blackened, or rather browned, save for the eyes and lips, which were highlighted with prominent white circles in the manner of traditional Coon makeup. The action protested the perceived racist overtones of the conference’s logo reproduced on T-shirts and posters: a one-eyed, gold-toothed, Afro’d black head on a bright yellow background.


2007 Cape Town Carnival, South Africa. Photo Eugene Arries. Courtesy of Eugene Arries, South Africa

Minstrels have paraded on Tweede Nuwe Jaar (January 2) from District 6 (a historically coloured neighborhood) to the Green Point Track stadium since 1907, even when officials of the apartheid regime relocated the coloured community and re-routed the parades. If the Cape Town carnival exemplifies the rituals of a Carnival of hierarchy, asserting the marginalized coloured population rather than uniting the South African people, it also epitomizes the possibilities of Carnival as an artistic medium. Its display of bright, usually two-toned, satin costumes, and its choreographed performances by marchers playing music—from Malay Choirs to brass bands—evoke New Orleans second-line parades. The District Six Museum did not miss the point when in 2003 it organized Reimagining Carnival, an alternative parade that comprised of “a Malay Choir and Minstrel troupe under the tutelage of Boeta Kaatjie Davids, sambistas trained in hip-hop and jungle rhythms, the evergreen Black Noise hip-hop activist group, fire jugglers from the Heightened State Circus circus performers, performance artists, brass ensembles, pennywhistler extraordinaire Robert Sithole, and many, many more,” to quote co-producer Julian Jonker. For Jonker, the Reimagining Carnival parade was not only a tribute to the Kaapse Klopse, but also “a narrative street theatre performance which explored the resonances of slavery in the city’s public spaces, and imagined an alternative carnival based on a diversity of contemporary performance practices.10

While the viability of Carnival in Cape Town to serve as an inspiration for contemporary art is impeded by an unwillingness or inability to address its challenging history, initiatives like Reimagining Carnival might point in the right direction by using its structure rather than its themes and traditional appearance.

New Orleans Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras can be schematically divided into mainstream, traditionally white, large-scale parades, and much smaller processions of black gangs masked as (female) Baby Dolls and (male) Skeletons and Mardi Gras Indians. Following the infamous Taylor desegregation ordinance of 1991, some old-line krewes have preferred to withdraw from public parading rather than deal with integration, though still holding exclusive private balls. Other krewes have responded by opening up their ranks, and new ones have sprung up to serve every identifiable minority and self-proclaimed community from, in no particular order, Blacks (Zulu) to Jews (Krewe du Jieux), women (Muses), and even dogs (Barkus). Among traditional krewes (who elect a King, a Queen, and Maids according to the old-line krewe model), the Krewe of Mid-City, founded in the 1930s by the Mid-City Civic Association with “joie de vivre” as its motto, has sustained a high level of artistic quality in its floats, which are covered by hand in foil rather than the traditional papier-mâché and mass-produced plastic forms. The Krewe of Mid-City, which was awarded the title Best New Orleans Mardi Gras Day Parade several times by the New Orleans newspaper Gambit Weekly, recognizes Ricardo Pustiano, its main designer since 1998, as “a New Orleans artist.” The younger Krewe du Vieux, which emanated from the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) in New Orleans in the late 1980s, also sees its float-builders, costume-designers, and other makers as artists. This year’s “Mystical Misery Tour,” which roamed on January 19 through the French Quarter into Faubourg Marigny, was led by King Ronald Lewis––Mardi Gras Indian, founder of the carnival museum House of Dance and Feathers, and leader of the Big 9 Social Aid and Pleasure Club in the Lower Ninth Ward. Subkrewes illustrating their names and themes, from “DRIPS AND DISCHARGES: Sgt. Eddie’s Only Honkies Banned” to “C.R.U.D.E.: When Life Gives You Shit . . . Grow Mushrooms,” in the funkiest array of materials in the parade circuit, include all the socially inclusive, forward-thinking, boundary-pushing, genre-breaking elements that characterize contemporary art.


Big Chief Victor Harris of the Spirit of Fi-Yi-Yi, The Spirit in the Dark, 2005 Mardi Gras Indian performance, New Orleans. Photo Jeffrey D. Ehrenreich. Courtesy of Jeffrey D. Ehrenreich, New Orleans

Mardi Gras Indians might not view what they do as contemporary art. Derived from West African, Native American, and Caribbean traditions, the Mardi Gras Indian tradition of New Orleans, possibly born in the aftermath of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show of 1884–85, is undeniably linked to the experience of oppression shared by African Americans and Native Indians. Mardi Gras Indians masking practices and accompanying dances, songs and music are “the pinnacle of artistic achievement in a country where excellent community art activity is all but defunct,” to quote Kalamu ya Salaam.11 The expression “contemporary folk art” has been used to describe the work of Harris’s mentor and predecessor, the late Allison “Tootie” Montana, whose fiftieth anniversary of suiting was celebrated by the New Orleans Museum of Art ten years ago with an exhibition and accompanying publication.12 When asked, Big Chief Victor Harris of the Spirit of Fi Yi Yi responded that he preferred the description “extraordinary temporary creative art.”13

Since leaving Montana’s Yellow Pocahontas tribe, whose Flag Boy he was until 1984, Harris has taken over the role of Mardi Gras’s “prettiest” from the late Tootie Montana, becoming, with forty-three years of suiting, the longest continuously suiting Mardi Gras Indian alive. Invested by the spirit of Fi-Yi-Yi, he does not put on a costume, he masks; he does not perform, he is the spirit; he does not engage in entertainment but attainment. As was Montana’s practice, each bead of Harris’s costume is sewn on individually, a sign of the highest craftsmanship. Again like Montana, Harris describes his artistic gift as mystical, with designs coming to him “from the head” rather than from books. His mask The Spirit in the Dark (2005), made in memoriam to Tootie, reflects a highly personal style with an African inflection. The predominant color is yellow—in the feathers, the painted cowries, and the shiny pants fabric—with touches of brown and beige provided by the imitation-leopard material and the grass skirt and cape. Harris uses relative restraint in the use of feathers and swan’s down, which flame out from the headpiece and, more discreetly, from the breastplate, armbands, and boots; beads outline major graphic motifs. In the headpiece, half-circle apertures for the eyes and a rectangular opening for the mouth decorate the body of an ibis-like bird formed of decorative elements that might make the motif hard to read at first. The imaginative use of positive and negative spaces, the daring combinations of material, and an innovative design that is neither purely geometrical nor entirely figurative, are achieved with breathtaking skill. All these features are activated within a live performance only hinted at in photographs. The contemporaneity of New Orleans’s Mardi Gras Indians is signaled by the participation of youths who in their warlike antics channel energy that might otherwise be directed toward less creative practices.

Brazil Carnival

It is surprising that few contemporary Brazilian artists have drawn on the resources of Carnival. In the late 1960s, Carnival inspired artist Hélio Oiticica in his well-known––albeit belatedly so––experiments with the Parangolés and his involvement with the Mangueira Samba School, part of a wider investigation into the multisensorial potential of art promoted by the Tropicália movement. Although worn by the people of Mangueira, Oiticica’s Parangolés––pieces of fabric loosely resembling capes, designed to enhance the wearer’s physical and spiritual movements––have remained more conceptual than popular. Indeed, despite promoting a national (counter-) culture artists of Oiticica’s generation and class used European art as a frame of reference and remained somewhat confined by Western art paradigms.


Matthew Barney, De Lama Lâmina, 2008, production still. Photo Chris Winget © Matthew Barney. Courtesy of Barbara Gladstone Gallery

Artists who have most notably utilized Carnival as an alternative creative arena within the popular sphere include Carioca Cabelo and Jarbas Lopes, both of whom have successful careers as visual artists as well as being accomplished sambistas (samba dancers) and carnavalescos (Carnival artists). In 2006, Lopes invited Cabelo and other friends to collaborate on CO2CO2, a carnival performance that exemplifies the idea of Carnival as a laboratory for artistic creation through social interaction. The eponymous film by Ana Torres that documents the performance opens with shots of Lopes preparing the traditional alcoholic brew cachaça for his friends, followed by flashbacks of the team assembling a gigantic white Styrofoam sculpture—and unlikely float—in an adhoc studio created in a parking garage, its procession through the streets of Rio, and its destruction at the Sambadrome in a samba-like dance of elation. While the futuristic sculpture, inscribed with the formula CO2 could be seen as a symbol of the danger of carbon dioxide emissions, the mud-covered participants evoke the aboriginal populations of Brazil most endangered by the atmospheric pollution that is destroying the rain forest. Having formed a community to collaborate on a public performance, Lopes—using a strategy common to contemporary performance art—brought political awareness to the social sphere of the Rio Carnival, which is ordinarily steeped in mythological and televisual fantasies.

Another notable artistic foray was made in Salvador de Bahia in the Brazil Carnival in 2004, where American-Brazilian musician Arto Lindsay collaborated with American artist Matthew Barney on De lama lâmina (From mud, a blade). Cortejo Afro, a ten-year-old bloco Afro (Afro-Brazilian carnival group) led by artist and educator Alberto Pitta, worked with Lindsay and Barney on a contemporary desfile carnavalesco. The float was a huge logging truck that supported Lindsay’s band, which functionned as a trio elétrico. The outstretched pincers of the truck held a freshly uprooted tree in which an actress playing the role of environmentalist Julia Butterfly Hill recalled her year living in a redwood tree she was attempting to rescue. Meanwhile, on the flatbed under shipping containers covered with dirt, a so-called Green Man masturbated and attempted intercourse with the drive shaft. Bringing elements of the Afro-Brazilian religion Condomblé to his own symbology, like Lopes, but with greater financial and logistical means, Barney created a syncretic artwork, to make Carnival a public forum for environmentalist concerns.

Barney’s contribution to the Carnival of Salvador de Bahia showed a contemporary artist’s understanding and realization of the potential of Carnival as an art form. Though the film De lama lâmina was not as successful as those of Barney’s in which the performances are staged, and though, by all accounts, the live performance perplexed the Brazilian public, it elicited the complexity of meaning, imagery and machinery that Carnival achieves through massive audience participation.

Brazil also has great carnavalescos of its own, from the above-mentioned Alberto Pitta and musician Carlinhos Brown in Bahia to Joãozinho Trinta in Rio. As the formerly separate tracks of Carnival and contemporary art start converging, it might not take long until these artists gain the recognition they deserve in the art world.

Trinidad Carnival
In Trinidad, Carnival and contemporary art, have been brought together—indeed becoming one and the same—through the genius of Peter Minshall, whose heyday was in the 1980s and ’90s. In Trinidad, as in most of the English-speaking Caribbean, Carnival is referred to as mas’, short for “masquerade” or “mask,” and taking part in Carnival is known as “playing mas’.” Minshall is considered the creator of the contemporary notion of mas’. If mas’ evolved within the diverse population of Trinidad over the course of the nineteenth century, and therefore has always been modern, mas’ as it refers to Minshall’s work and doctrine about carnival art has always been contemporary, its themes topical and its building techniques inventive. A costume he created for the 1974 Trinidad Carnival, called The Land of the Hummingbird (Trinidad), constituted a breakthrough in Minshall’s investigation of the potential of costume to serve as a kinetic prosthesis for the human body. His first full-scale masband (Carnival group), Paradise Lost, realized for the 1976 Trinidad Carnival, suggested the unlimited possibilities of Carnival as an art form. Its popular reception was summarized at the time as follows: “It is doubtful that the work of any single individual has had so instantaneous and so searing impact on the consciousness of an entire country and its countless thousand of visitors as was the case when Minshall’s Paradise Lost hit the streets of Port of Spain.”14


Peter Minshall, Rat Race, Carnival Tuesday, February 11, 1986, mas’ performance with The Callaloo Company. Photo Peter Norton. Courtesy of The Callaloo Company, Chaguaramas, Trinidad.

After receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship for Carnival Design and Kinetics in 1982, Minshall, who studied at London’s Central School of Design (now Central Saint Martin) before returning to Trinidad to follow his calling as a “masman” (Carnival designer and/or bandleader), went on to produce increasingly ambitious “visual symphonies” (his words) such as The River Trilogy (1983–85). The Adoration of Hiroshima is the leading character of the Princes of Darkness, the dark element in Minshall’s The Golden Calabash: Princes of Darkness and Lords of Life, the final installment of The River Trilogy. The character was first performed in Port of Spain for the 1985 Carnival as part of the annual individual competition on the Savannah stage. A grotesque embodiment of the nuclear threat as a Madonna icon, The Adoration of Hiroshima spewed her feather atomic cloud into the skies of Washington, D.C, as part of Project MAS (the name alluding to both mas’ and the acronym Mutually Assured Survival). Replete with dozens of performers, including dancers and tassa drummers, The Adoration of Hiroshima fully deployed the capacity of mas’ to operate as an art form outside the Carnival context, providing a strong, visually coded sign of political dissent.

A general view of the “mauvais langue gutter rats” section of Ratrace, Minshall’s mas’ for the 1986 Trinidad Carnival, likewise demonstrates the power of social commentary within this processional art medium. Holding placards––in the “ole mas’” fashion––bearing satirical slogans in the Trinidadian vernacular, a swarming sea of revelers disguised as rats, in some instances cast as “bureauc-rats,” “aristoc-rats,” “vag-rats,” or “rats-leaving-the-sinking-ship,” offers a critique of humankind’s petty, competitive behaviors. While the scale of the processional format lent itself to the metaphor of the rat race, it also accommodated reflection on classical artistic concerns about color theory. Gray is used grey as much to admonish color-loving judges as to refute the general public’s view of it as a non-color, by playfully enveloping them in it.


Superior Concept Monsters / Processional Art Workshop (Alex Kahn and Sophia Michahelles) Rights of Passage (A Contemporary Dragon Mas’), 2006 Trinidad Carnival, processional art performance. Photo Stefan Falke, © Stefan Falke, Courtesy of Stefan Falke, New York

It is a testament to the unique potential of mas’ as a contemporary art form that a young generation of artists from Trinidad and elsewhere would have elected it as their primary medium. New York-based Mexican artist Laura Anderson Barbata came to mas’ through community work with Keylemanjahro School of Arts and Culture, which offers classes in the art of stilt-walking in the West African Moko Jumbie tradition to economically underprivileged youths. Barbata’s costumes for the Moko Jumbies, designed to magnify the spectacular kinetic abilities of stilt-walking as practiced by daring children and adolescents, have been a staple of the Trinidad Carnival for the last couple of years and are prominently featured in German photographer Stefan Falke’s latest book Moko Jumbies: The Dancing Spirits of Trinidad (New York: Pointed Leaf Press, 2004). Recently, they were also the subjet of Jumbie Camp, an exhibition at at Galeria Ramis Barquet in New York, which Barbata transformed into a mascamp (part production site, part rehearsal studio) that culminated in a performance by Brooklyn-based Moko Jumbies on West 24th Street on September 15, 2007.

Having made a name for themselves as the official puppeteers of New York’s Village Halloween Parade, Alex Kahn and Sophia Michahelles of Processional Arts Workshop (formerly Superior Concept Monsters) in Brooklyn, New York, applied their expertise to mas’ making for the 2005 Trinidad Carnival, creating Rights of Passage, a contemporary Dragon Mas’. Taking their inspiration from the narrative structure of a traditional Dragon band––complete with the ubiquitous Dragon, the devil’s incarnation as Bookman, and Imps––Kahn and Michahelles updated and recontextualized its formal vocabulary and meaning. They made a Bookman, traditionally known for recording the names of the living destined for hell, using pages from the Trinidad and Tobago phone book to construct an Arcimboldo-like portrait. The artists not only blended signified and signifier but also made a sharp commentary on contemporary Trinidadian society by suggesting that the names recorded in the phone book might belong to sinners.

Trinidad’s Marlon Griffith is a visual artist and masman who took informal classes at Callaloo Company, Peter Minshall’s mascamp and, in my view, by far one of the best “art schools” in Trinidad (providing on-site training during the Carnival season in wire-bending, fiberglassing, wood-cutting, patterning, sewing, drawing, and engineering, as well as spectacle conception and production management). Starting out designing “kiddies mas’” (children’s carnival bands), for the last couple years Griffith has created full-scale adult bands for the Notting Hill Carnival. He has also displayed his versatile skills in formal installations in galleries in which he uses mas’, stripped of its most decorative elements to reveal its structural qualities, as a conceptual tool for the investigation of the standard artistic preoccupation of space, light, and texture.

Trinidad-born Keith Khan took mas’ in a different direction––to outdoor street stage rather than galleries or traditional prosceniums––with motiroti, the production company he created with Ali Zaidi in London in 1989. In 1991, he created Flying Costumes, Floating Bomb, a spectacle inspired by the Hosay festival of Trinidad, a religious procession that commemorates the martyrdom of Hassan and Hussain, the grandsons of Prophet Muhammed, which was performed both in Bristol and London, indoor and outdoors. Integrating the imagery of Hosay, such as the battle of the Sun and the Moon, here rendered as 70-foot-high sculptures suspended from cranes, Khan exposed both the artistry of mas’ and the potential of Carnival as a production system.


Arto Lindsay, I am a Man, April 19, 2008, public performance with the students of the Städelschule, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, Photo Anja Jahn. Courtesy of Anja Jahn, Frankfurt am Main, Germany

What is Carnival? What is contemporary art? The answers to one question should be the answers to the other as well. The debate they provoke should be about agency rather than taxonomy. The challenge is not to define what might be craft or self-taught art in opposition to contemporary art, but rather to determine the remaining spaces for agency at a time when mainstream contemporary art no longer can nor seeks to maintain them. This agency, as in New Orleans in the 1960s and Cape Town before the 1980s, concerns civil rights and equality. Fittingly, Arto Lindsay’s recent public project in Frankfurt am Main, I Am a Man, is loosely inspired by a demonstration Martin Luther King led in Memphis during a sanitation workers strike in 1968. Lindsay made the allusion within the Carnival-inspired processional form, one to which the German audience, familiar with their own carnivals, could easily relate.

Until 1973, the Greater New Orleans Tourist and Convention Commission officially branded Mardi Gras “The Greatest Free Show on Earth.”15 The appellation interests me not so much for its circus reference as for its inclusion of the word “show,” which can also be understood as “exhibition,” and in relation to Prospect.1, as mega-exhibition or biennial. Carnival is both the exhibition and the artwork, or, as Trinidadian artist and critic Chris Cozier would have it, the “roadwork.”16 It is an exhibition in motion as well as an exhibition of exhibitions. As an artwork, Carnival has achieved its greatest potential as a free show in Brazil and Trinidad, (with “free” understood in terms of social freedom rather than lack of entrance fee). As a show, Carnival engages a critical mass outside in the democratic spaces of agency of the street and the stadium rather than the elite spaces of the white-cube gallery and the black-box theatre. As the public for contemporary art has grown in size and scope, and now includes the populations of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and Asia, to name a few of the newcomers to the world of art fairs and biennials, Carnival, exploiting the marketing strategies of sports games and pop concerts is ahead of the game. So was Peter Minshall when he designed the opening ceremonies for the Barcelona, Atlanta, and Salt Lake City Olympic Games in the late 1990s to the early 2000s. By blending spectatorship and participation, Carnival realized the postmodern ideal of the viewer completing the artwork. By accommodating the growing crowds of the globalized art world, it updates that ideal to the scale and ethos of the twenty-first century. It may be that that future of contemporary art might lie not in art fairs and biennials, but rather in Carnival, the greatest free show on earth.

I would like to express my gratitude to Dr. John Cowley for his guidance on historical issues related to creole carnivals, and to Julian Jonker, Arto Lindsay, and Todd Gulick for sharing their knowledge of the Cape Town, Brazil, and Trinidad carnivals, respectively.