PRINT November 1990



IT IS A TRUISM by now, but not necessarily untrue, that the culture of the “Other” is usually appropriated to the dominant one, even when (or as) it is being appreciated. This is a particular problem in the museum, where cultural artifacts from those decreed “marginal” often take on the look of trophies, booty claimed in the cultural wars, and D.O.A. We—white, bourgeois, often as not male—look but don’t see. Don’t because we don’t want to. Don’t, some say, because we cannot: “Trying to find the other by defining otherness . . . is, as Zen says, like beating the moon with a pole or scratching an itching foot from the outside of a shoe.”1

This “cannot” came to mind the other day when I made my way to the Brooklyn Museum to see “Caribbean Festival Arts: each and every bit of difference,” the first exhibition, the press release said, of the Afro-Caribbean arts associated with Carnival, Hosay, and Jonkonnu, the most important Caribbean street celebrations. Jonkonnu, a Jamaican street festival, has been practiced since the beginning of the 18th century. Trinidadian Carnival (or Mas), a syncretic mix of European pre-Lenten festivals and traditional African masquerades, and Hosay, an Islamic festival celebrated in East Indian communities in Trinidad, are early-19th-century developments. The African diaspora has led to the establishment of such festivals throughout the Caribbean: Abakua in Cuba, Rara in Haiti, Santiago in Puerto Rico, and John Canoe in Belize among them. There are now also important Carnival-related festivals in London, Brooklyn, and Toronto, the result of substantial migrations of Caribbean people to Europe and North America in the 1960s. And, of course, New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, which dates back to the 17th century. The specific ritual differs from place to place, but all share the elements of masquerade, dance, and music, usually marked by spirited competitions of esthetic virtuosity.

The show was, it had been averred, a welter of improprieties: organized (originally for the Saint Louis Art Museum) by a white curator, John W. Nunley, and a white academic, Judith Bettelheim; suffering from an unreconstructed “Magiciens de la Terre”-like point of view—the spectacle of the exotic, the colorful, the titillatingly strange. In short, one more entry in the festival of cultural eclecticism, “what Fredric Jameson [has called] a ‘play of surfaces’ to dazzle the (dominant) eye.”2 And in its rather modest way, the show was spectacular, certainly, at least, in the dictionary sense of the word. Coming into the exhibition space, one ran smack into Helios, God of the Sun, 1990, an extravagant ten-foot-high costume designed and produced by Clyde Bascombe and Paula Davis for Brooklyn’s West Indian–American Day Carnival, and worn by the Junior King. The god’s steeds were of black and white lace stretched on a wire armature; their harnesses were of plastic tumblers edged with gold braid. The entire contraption erupted with orange, red, and yellow feathers, gold sequins and braid, and the back of the costume was a Roman sun, whose long-lashed eyes would, I was told, seem to blink as the Junior King moved. Then two walls of masks—hand-molded wire-screen ones worn by West Indian performers, and painted papier-mâché ones worn during Mas in, for example, Haiti and the Dominican Republic—formed a sort of preamble to the main event: room after room of costume-clad mannequins cast from live models, dancing down the rood in their Reeboks and Volleys, flashing their eyes and their tomahawks or daggers, making moves, getting down.

There was enough material, in short, to make both the guardians of high art and the PCPs (politically correct persons) blench. On the one hand, dancing mannequins and tapes of soca or Caribbean steel drums. On the other, static masks on the wall, empty of their wearers,looking suspiciously like the objects in the Musée de l’homme or in MoMA’s—“‘Primitivism’” show of 1984. And to further complicate matters came the loudly voiced reservations of a young African-American girl. While I was watching a video of the Toronto Mas bands competing with each other—a mediated opportunity to see the costumes as they are meant to be seen—she turned to her mother and said, “Why is this here?,” meaning, “Why put this stuff in a museum, when you, Mom, just do it?”

Why indeed. And if you do choose to put these quite fabulous things in the museum, what do you mean by it? Looking at the spotted black ears of a wonderful cartoonlike mask, noting the sophistication of its simplified mouse form, are we to think simultaneously of Mickey, Brancusi, and Pop art, performing, once again, one of those metaphoric appropriations from the unfamiliar to the known? Or, more problematically, does attention paid to the actual provenance of the mask—it’s a creolization of originals exported in the late 1800s from the Austrian Tyrol to the Caribbean and to South America—nix any white, Western woolgathering? And, if you put examples of a living culture—as this is—in the museum, do they perforce keel over and die?

Perhaps the way out of the quandary is to concentrate on these objects as clothing or costume, not as “art,” either high or low (a distinction, it must be added, that the curators themselves, to their credit, do not make). Or rather, more precisely, to wonder about the nature of masquerade itself, considered as both a particular sociocultural phenomenon with a particular history and a more general activity, as Webster’s defines it: “to go about disguised,” or to “assume the appearance of something that one is not.”

In the minds of the powerful, there would seem to be something presumptuous, shifty even, in wearing masquerade, in becoming, even for the space of a day, a king, queen, or courtier, as the male members of the present-day Fancy Dress Jonkonnu bands do. And in fact the assumption of such “high-class” European-inspired garb is intended to be satirical, a residual mockery of massa, “the formerly colonized now aesthetically colon[izing] their former masters.”3 Wear a mask and you see but are not seen (and we all know the power of the panoptic gaze). Mary Ann Doane has spoken of masquerade “as a type of representation which carries a threat,”4 and if most of this festival wear would not exactly be considered threatening, it most certainly incarnates a lively aggressivity, if not a downright ferocity, which is often literally expressed in hotly competitive dancing between Mas or Jonkonnu bands. Many of these costumes are larger than life—the purpose is to dazzle and to stun. Others, like the neo-African characters of Cowhead or Horsehead, which are part of rural Jamaican Roots Jonkonnu, are intended to be both fearful and amusing. In Haiti, people make vodoun-inspired Rara, which, as Dolores Yonker points out, may seem gay and abandoned, but is actually combative underneath, with the ever present threat of violence and vengeance.5

There has been much scholarly debate as to whether Carnival is genuinely liberating for those involved, or simply a safety valve for subversive energies tolerated once a year by the powers that be. When, in the 1870s, West Indian Carnival changed from an upper-class pastime of the French white Creoles to a raucous event in which freed black slaves and poor Chinese and East Indian immigrants engaged in stick-fighting, transvestism, and various forms of antisocial behavior, the government often sought to suppress it. Nowadays, Carnival is big business, and often, as is the case with Jonkonnu, depends for its life on state support.

Yet there is still always this subversive possibility of being what one is not, and thereby imagining perhaps what one would like to be. Helios, the sun god, is powerful; so is Shango, the Yoruba god of thunder, with his double-headed ax, or the Amerindian chieftain wearing a mix of Hopi kachina designs and a Sioux war bonnet. And the river gods from Port of Spain, Trinidad, could subtly comment on the mess the powerful have mode of our world by wearing white skirts on one day, symbol of the clean waters, and paint-splattered ones on the next, to signify the increasing pollution of our lakes, seas, and rivers. Dolores Weekes, an elderly emigrée to Brooklyn from Port of Spain, said in one of the video displays that one had to believe in fête to play at Mas. You can get away with a lot when you are “just” dressing up. Play, after all, is serious business.

Deborah Drier is a senior editor of Artforum.



1. Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman Native Other, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989, p. 76.
2. Rasheed Araeen, “Our Bauhaus Others’ Mudhouse,” Third Text no. 6, London, Spring 1989, p. 5.
3. Robert Farris Thompson, “Recapturing Heaven’s Glamour: Afro-Caribbean Festivalizing Arts,” in John W. Nunley and Judith Bettelheim, Caribbean Festival Arts: each and every bit of difference, exhibition catalogue, Saint Louis: Saint Louis Art Museum, and Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988, p. 19.
4. Mary Ann Doone, “Film and the Masquerade: Theorising the Female Spectator,” Screen 23 nos. 3/4, 1982, p. 82.
5. Dolores Yonker, “Rora in Haiti,” Caribbean Festival Arts, p. 154.