A space for expression, creativity, marooning, cultural resistance, and gathering, Carnival is an unavoidable annual tradition of Caribbean culture. From the Bahamas to Cuba, the islands do not celebrate it on the same days but share some similar codes, vestiges of a common past, and proof of an unbreakable link between them.
With this Culture Minute, Caribeart invites you to rediscover this event anchored in the Caribbean identities, by opening you to the customs of other islands through the prism of today’s artists.
Maintaining the ancestral heritage
Originating during the colonial period, Carnival was the time of year when enslaved people had the opportunity to reclaim their African customs. However, subject to many censures, it had its moment of glory after the abolition of slavery, becoming an optimal space of expression for the people, where in addition to remembering the customs, it was possible to make mocking songs about the people who ruled them.
Today these traditions live on. The ancestral heritage is celebrated through body, music, and spirit. One of the illustrations of this heritage is the diversity of emblematic figures embodied by its heirs and heiresses.
Colored strips, coconut straw, soot, sugar cane molasses, extravagant prostheses, ox horns… The ways of dressing the body are multiple but all respect specific codes of representation. Caribbean artists, photographers, and filmmakers try to share as accurately as possible the energy that emanates from this hurried crowd, inhabited by the spirit of the entities they embody.
This immersive documentary short film is a window into the figure of the Jab Jab in Granada, told by a carnavalier. As a reminder, the word jab has its roots in the word “devil”. Thus, Jab Jab means “devil, devil” or “double devil”.
A short detour to a port city off the coast of Panama, where we discover the Congo dance, often performed during Carnival, which tells of the age-old battle between good and evil – a dance that breaks the yoke of oppression and overcomes the horror of servitude. (…)
Residents dress up as ‘diablos’—or devils—carrying whips and wearing elaborate costumes to represent white colonial oppressors. Others wear the tattered clothing of the ‘Congos,’ the enslaved Africans who escaped Spanish plantations to establish independent communities in the mountains.
Celebrating the beauty of community
Throughout the year, Caribbean societies are punctuated by all kinds of buzz, social inequalities, political debates … Which in the end lead to a form of division. Carnival is useful in this context because it also has a unifying role: it calls for a gathering. It is an intergenerational space, conducive to sharing good humor. Chromatically rich, the colors are generally the first tracks of explorations in the artists who seek to represent it.
On Wednesday, February 23, Earl Darius Etienne, Dominican artist, left us, leaving behind his works inspired by Afro-Caribbean souls, traditional dance and carnival. A work impregnated with the ancestral, spiritual, social, cultural, and physical elements of his Caribbean environment.
The carnival time-space is also a place where beauty is important to certain groups. The feathered costume, for example, highlights the bodies, regardless of morphology and gender. Moreover it happens that gender norms fall in some islands – as in Martinique, with the burlesque wedding where men dress as women and vice versa. These practices have a very assumed erotic dimension, which is reflected in the costume, but also in the attitude, the dance and the sung words. A diversity of profiles perhaps involuntary which can please or displease.
Inspiring future generations
The transmission also occupies an important place. From a very young age, Caribbean children are immersed in traditional customs, sometimes without even knowing it. For example, it is common for children to wear traditional dress to school during the carnival period.
These traditions, once transmitted, serve as the creative root of Caribbean artists. We can see their mutation in their creations, sometimes merged with external influences. This is the case, for example, with the photo taken by the photographer Sharimar Cruz, where the carnival codes are recovered to serve the fashion. The pants and stilts are inspired by the moko jumbies, a carnival figure on stilts found in the English-speaking islands.