Performing Trinidad in Butetown: Carnival, Community and Belonging – Dr Adeola Dewis – MLANG Guest Lecture 30.03.17
Dr Adeola Dewis is a Visual Artist and Researcher. Originally from Trinidad, Adeola completed PhD research at Cardiff University. Her current research is focussed on Trinidad Carnival performance and the translation of its self-empowering effects for art making and art presentation within the UK.
This presentation engages her research into the Trinidad Carnival performance and its various crossings – including the crossing and translation of this performance in a Cardiff space.
Having worked extensively with Trinidadian artists myself ( Tricia Lee Kelshall and Jointpop ) I am aware of the critical importance of carnival to Trinidad. I always attend St Pauls Carnival in Bristol which is one of the biggest Afro-Caribbean events in the UK. I was keen to learn more about the Butetown Carnival and also felt that Adeola’s presentation would compliment my current focus on Haitian Kanaval in the ‘Imaging The Islands‘ Francophone Caribbean course that is part of my undergraduate Translation (BA) degree at Cardiff University. [Wez G]
Adeola began her talk by focussing on her native land. Trinidad has a world-renowned Carnival which is regarded highly as one of the best in the world. Her upbringing in this Carnival culture therefore places her as an ‘expert’.
Trinidad was first colonised by the Spanish in 1498 yet it was the French planters that really brought Carnival to the island in 1783. The French never officially ruled Trinidad, although they were de-facto rulers, culturally and socially due to the large Francophone population there that governed the plantations and brought many of the enslaved Africans to work the cane-fields. There were Spanish laws and Trinidad was a Spanish colony for 300 years until handed over to Britain in 1797…
Adeola brought forward the idea of a ‘collective individual body memory’, part of the essence of Carnival, and this dates back to the plantation culture.
Performance undeniably has its roots in West Africa, and manifests in Carnival through Masquerade and Ritual. In Trinidad there was much difference between the different African languages, cultures and customs. This was added to the European values and cultural differences, later followed by the cultural input of Chinese and Indian indentured workers who migrated to the island, adding to the creolisation of Trinidadian culture.
Mentioning some theoreticians of Theatre performance in the West Indies, Adeola spoke of how the Plantation, Maroons and Carnival were all inextricably linked.
There is RECALL, RESISTANCE, REMAKING and RESTITUTION.
The ‘Rights of Reversal’ were inherited from the French Carnival. Costumes were introduced such as the ‘Garden Negro’ (Nègre Jadin) and the ‘Mulattress’. There was also the masquerade of the ‘Cannes Brulées’ or Canboulay (see Canboulay Riots). This refers to the cane-burning where a dance was reproduced from the ritual of enslaved Africans putting out fires in the Cane Fields.
There is a continued oppression and Carnival challenges:
- The Right To Perform
- The Right to Act Out
- The Right of Voice
- The Right to Celebrate
This is all done even in the face of oppression. Carnival performers are in charge of REPRESENTATION.
There are rituals of REPOSSESSION.
Certain performances are allowing for repossession of bodies. The ‘Trickster God’ is often invoked.
Adeola asked the audience to picture themselves at a Carnival. She wanted us to understand that at a Carnival we would be performing a personal story in a public space.
For her, carnival performance is a RITUAL, a reminder of her island. it induces an acute NOSTALGIA.
It is said that the living dead and unborn are all undistinguished at Carnival, all dancing together.
Carnival in Trinidad began on the anniversary of emancipation in Trinidad. On the 1st August 1838, Free Africans came out to re-enact the Cane Fire ritual. Later the Carnival was moved to the 2 days preceding Ash Wednesday, presumably bringing it into line with Catholic belief systems, so common among the Lentern Carnivals of the Caribbean.
Adeola confesses that at Carnival, while she is not constantly thinking about slavery, that there is an awareness present. It is a collective ritual. One creates a resonant code of performances in oneself. The body is free to dance and can remember subconsciously the Plantation.
In Trinidad the Carnival is very much a money-making exercise. It invokes financial, political and nation-building in its roots.
Adeola mentions the importance of Dr. Eric Williams as a Trinidadian political leader.
There is a ritual, darker, less visible side of Carnival.
As part of the DIASPORA, Adeola feels outside her own country, living in a different space. It doesn’t matter whether you are a mother, married or are fighting for survival. Carnival allows for other aspects to manifest that are part of the persona, that could be desired. There is visibility. Adeola, away from Trinidad, missed Carnival – It became a necessary project.
This feeling manifests in her personal art and performance.
The lecture now moves onto Butetown, where Cardiff expresses its Carnival spirit.
It was one of the first multicultural city suburbs. The slow-burning Welsh coal was vital for shipping and with Cardiff being the centre of the nation’s trade in this raw material, ships from Europe, Asia and the Americas sought out the product.
The desire for coal rose as a rail network was created. The ships brought in immigrants who settled in the area.
World War 1 was an important threshold as inhabitants of the Colonies came to fight. British women ended uo dating and then marrying foreigners. After the war, when jobs were scarce and the soldiers returned home, we see racial interactions that sometimes turned ugly with an increase in violence.
A generation of black, mixed-race Welsh people were formed, with an affiliation to dual territories.
Butetown’s rich cultural bodies forge an identity within that space.
The first Butetown Carnival was a Black Music festival with a parade. Trinidadian costume designers were involved in Cardiff Carnival from the start. That was in Tiger Bay. After a 16 year break, the Butetown Carnival returned to the streets in 2014. August 25th 2014 was the date that was set.
Adeola turned up to the community centre for an initial meeting where young people were setting up, mopping the floor, wiring up sound systems….
Keith Murrell, a musician, and Simon Campbell, a photographer, were both important figures involved in the Carnival’s organisation.
The Carnival showcased the talent of local people. It had evolved into this.
As an outsider, Adeola was invited into and made to feel welcome in this space.
She made her first character very white. She wanted to create a blank canvas, and inject it with colour and vibrancy. She had a white-painted face and wore a nun-like all white costume. She had a desire to be seen. She existed in a ‘limbo’ space. She also needed invisibility. She didn’t want to impose her ideals upon a Carnival that she had just been welcomed into.
She had entered the community space as an individual outsider. People who saw her performance claimed to recognise her character.
The forging of a community is essential to Carnival. There is a collective context. Meaning and resonance give vitality. EVen after a 16 year break, the Carnival always felt familiar.
Carnival is about projecting from the ‘inside-out’, rather than from the ‘outside-in’. It is not about being imposed upon.
In Adeola’s first experience there was a short parade – around the block – and it was raining. There was no music. It was more a village fête, not a Carnival.
The word ‘Carnival’ comes from the Latin and means ‘a farewell to the flesh’. It was about:
- to the ancient Egyptians, the worship of Osiris
- to the Greeks, the worship of Dionysus
- to the Romans, the worship of Bacchus
All of these were gods of revelry and festivities.
During her work with Butetown, Adeola began to unravel memory. It was key to culture. She ws listening, showing interest. Simultaneously she was exposing herself.
Carnival’s roots are in culture and rituals. It manifests in a new space. There is a complicated mixture of new cultures. There is a creative process, a creolisation.
Butetown Carnival has been growing every year since 2014.
Adeola feels that you get out of something what you put in. In the first year she felt like an outsider but in subsequent years she became more involved in working in the community at various levels – eg. taking part in the domino club. Carnival is about building community. She started getting to know people, to know families.
The challenges to carnival is that it appears to people in different ways. To say that Carnival is ‘this’ or ‘that’ requires caution. Carnival belongs to the people. There is a socio-historical context to Carnival in its own terms.
Adeola sees herself as an artist who works with Carnival. She equates Carnival to being ‘like aspirin’. It is essential to the body. You need the release of Carnival to get through the year.
As an artist her aim is to tear everything apart to strip everything down. Carnival is about how to make it relevant to the people.
Butetown has been stigmatised, racialised, sexualised (and gentrified). It is an opening up space.
To finish off Adeola talks of how Carnival is a bit of a strange concept to the Welsh people as to them, they already have a carnival in Cardiff in the festivities associated with rugby where the whole nation gets behind the party spirit and takes to the streets, especially in Cardiff.
It is clear from Adeola’s lecture that she is a lady who is very passionate about Carnival. I am sure that she is a great asset to Butetown and it is nice to see a native Trinidadian getting involved in our local culture and breaking down the international borders.