Marlon Griffith: Mas by other means

Marlon Griffith’s multimedia performance works take elements of traditional Trinidad Carnival into the world of contemporary art

“Images of nubile young maidens, Victorian maidens, and, more surreally, dinosaurs, would spring to life,” wrote art historian. Photograph courtesy Marlon Griffith / Mark WesselsBess Ting, Soldier, Queen, and Baby Girl, from the Ballad of Francisco Bobadilla (2012), installed at Granderson Lab in Belmont. Photograph courtesy Marlon Griffith / Akiko OtaFor A Walk into the Night, created at the 2009 Cape Town biennial, participants carried filigree silhouettes through the streets. Photograph courtesy Mark Wessels/ Marlon GriffithGriffith’s procession unfolded alongside public performance works by artists from Haiti, Brazil, France, and elsewhere.  Photograph courtesy Marlon Griffith / Akiko OtaMarlon Griffith, photographed by Gerard H. Gaskin for his Trinidad Artists series. Photograph courtesy Marlon GriffithPowder Box Schoolgirls series (2009). Photograph courtesy Marlon GriffithRunaway Reaction was commissioned for the SPRING project curated by Claire Tancons at the 2008 Gwangju Biennale is South Korea. Photograph courtesy Akiko Ota/ Marlon GriffithVolunteer masqueraders wore costumes featuring stylised bolts of energy. Photograph by Akiko Ota/ Marlon Griffith

Nagoya, on the Pacific coast of Honshu island, is the third largest city in Japan. It’s a thriving port and industrial city, home to car manufacturers, aerospace firms, companies that make trains and office equipment. It’s also home to the Trinidadian artist Marlon Griffith.

In the three and a half years since he moved to Nagoya in 2009, Griffith has been learning conversational Japanese, adjusting to Japanese cuisine, and appreciating the quiet efficiency of Japanese society. Careerwise, it’s been a productive period. In his home studio — in the apartment he shares with his wife Akiko and their baby boy Sora — he’s produced work for galleries and exhibitions on three continents, including one of the “parallel events” at the European contemporary art biennial Manifesta in 2012. A rising stream of invitations and commissions suggests the impact he’s already had on curators and art institutions.

Griffith uses a range of media and forms: sculpture, installation, performance. He works with materials as diverse as paper, plastic, talcum powder, and galvanised steel. But the common element in his work — his conceptual model and practical modus operandi — is mas, the masquerade tradition of Trinidad Carnival. What seems to define Griffith’s career is a profound curiosity about how mas as a creative process can engage with contemporary art practice, challenging people to reconsider who they are and where they come from.

 

“Growing up, very few people know what they want to do,” Griffith says. “I’ve always wanted to be an artist.” There was a tradition in his family of working with one’s hands. He remembers his brothers drawing, and his mother crocheting chair covers and doilies. “I’m sure it influences my work, when it comes to patterns and repetition.”

Born in December 1976, he grew up in Belmont, a labyrinthine neighbourhood of narrow streets and lanes on the eastern side of Port of Spain. For much of the twentieth century it was one of Trinidad’s cultural hotbeds, home to black middle-class literary and debating societies, to steelbands large and small, calypsonians, and dozens of mas camps, where Carnival bands and costumes were made.

So Griffith grew up surrounded by the annual cycle of Carnival creation. “I played mas as a child,” he says. Then one Carnival Tuesday when he was ten years old, walking alone to the nearby Savannah to watch the bands cross the stage, he experienced a small revelation. He saw a woman in a rat costume, wearing a long tail, wrapped around a lamppost. He had run into Rat Race, Peter Minshall’s 1987 mas band. “I saw more and more rats. There was a man dressed in rags pulling a cart of rats, with a sign saying ‘Plague’. It freaked me out.” This was nothing like the colourful plumed and sequinned “pretty mas” that dominates Carnival today. “I thought, how can someone wear this kind of costume?”

Later, at Tranquility Government Secondary School, his art teacher was Irénee Shaw, recently returned from art school in the United States, and intent on exposing her students to new ideas about what art could be and could do. Shaw was one of the younger artists who returned to Trinidad at the start of the 1990s, and were shaking up Port of Spain’s small and conservative art world — a convulsion whose aftershocks can still be felt two decades later. Blue Soap, a 1994 video installation by Shaw’s husband Christopher Cozier, was another decisive moment for Griffith — “just like when I saw the rat.”

In Trinidad in the 1990s, there was no formal art school, though the graphic design programme at the John S. Donaldson Technical Institute provided solid training. At the same time, Patrick Roberts, another secondary school art teacher, was producing a children’s mas band, and invited Griffith to lend a hand with costume construction. Once he showed up at the mas camp, “one night turned into two nights . . . it became almost an addiction.”

A mas camp is a design studio and a factory, a laboratory and a school, all at once. It is where skilled craftsmen pass on the detailed aesthetic and technical knowledge on which Trinidad Carnival depends: practical crafts like wire-bending, papier-mâché modelling, and metalsmithing, as well as conceptual skills and a mastery of formal principles like colour, scale, and balance. Mas uses spectacle not merely to amaze an audience, but to tell stories, ask questions, make claims: about the community, its history, its fears and dreams.

Griffith worked with Roberts’s Trinity Carnival Foundation for five or six years, moving up from the costume assembly line to become part of the design process, and collaborating on international projects as well — including workshops and mas bands for the annual West Indian Day Parade in Hartford, Connecticut (home to a large Caribbean diaspora community). He also did stints in Peter Minshall’s Callaloo Company mas camp, joining a large collaborative team creating some of the definitive Carnival bands of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

And he struggled — like many young artists — to earn a living from his work. The Trinidad Guardian newspaper regularly commissioned illustrations from him for its Sunday arts section. Christopher Cozier was a creative consultant at the newspaper. “Chris was the person who put me on the path,” Griffith says, “in terms of an art education,” lending him books and welcoming him to his home for long, wide-ranging conversations. Cozier introduced him to the graphic designer Russell Halfhide, at that time the design director for Caribbean Beat. Halfhide too offered illustration commissions and professional dialogue.

Meanwhile, Griffith grappled with the relationship between mas design and conventional notions of “fine art.” He asked himself: “How do I put these two things together?”

 

Then Griffith started experimenting with molded plastic, a common medium in today’s mas bands: he was finding “new ways to use this material I’d been working with for years.” Molding old linoprints in clear, colourless plastic, he watched what happened when he applied direct or diffused light: static images became ethereal shadow-plays. It was like a performance where inanimate objects were set in motion by the artist, as the viewer moved around them.

This experiment caught the eye of Claire Tancons, a Guadeloupean curator then based at Caribbean Contemporary Arts in Port of Spain. Tancons was impressed by Griffith’s attempts to push his experience in mas into the contemporary art sphere. “But you are doing contemporary work,” he recalls her saying. She included Griffith’s installation in Lighting the Shadow, a small but influential show she curated in 2004, at the end of her term at CCA.

At the same time, Christopher Cozier pushed Griffith to apply for a residency at Bag Factory Artists’ Studios in Johannesburg, where artists from around the world are given working space while they explore the South African art scene. Dropped into this unfamiliar location, Griffith was impressed by the energy of the other Bag Factory artists. “It really changed not only how I look at art, but also a certain discipline in how I make work,” he says. And it was an opportunity to see how mas could adapt to life outside a Caribbean context.

Griffith ran workshops in mask-making and other mas traditions. Bag Factory hosted a one-day carnival. Other artists contributed their own masks and mobile sculptures, and musicians and dancers joined in. Neighbourhood residents wore costumes, or enjoyed the spectacle as onlookers.

Griffith had been training volunteers and producing bands in Trinidad and Connecticut for years. But Port of Spain was home ground, and Hartford’s immigrant population gives mas a “native” audience there. What would Johannesburg actually see? Street entertainment? A quaint folk festival? Cutting-edge contemporary art? Griffith realised the challenge was not just to make costumes and props, but to understand and incorporate the traditions and concerns of each new place. He needed to reimagine mas as an artistic genre as universally relevant as painting, sculpture, or photography.

 

Peter Minshall had been there already, claiming mas — with its history of cheeky social commentary and surreal design — as a serious artform. Over thirty years from the late 1970s, Minshall created a series of mas bands that were street-based performance epics, drawing on folk ritual, pop culture, and avant-garde theatre. He declared that “the mas” was the very core of Trinidadian contemporary art practice. His influence on younger artists has been incalculable, but almost none have worked on Minshall’s scale — at their peak, his bands involved production teams of dozens, and thousands of masqueraders.

Griffith’s Johannesburg residency began a new phase of interest in his work, and new opportunities to travel. He began designing bands for London’s Notting Hill Carnival, and was artist in residence at the Edna Manley College in Jamaica. Then he got another call from Claire Tancons, who was following his work. She was curating a public performance event for the 2008 Gwangju Biennale in South Korea, and she invited Griffith to take part, alongside artists from Haiti, Brazil, and elsewhere.

Tancons’s SPRING project drew on the history of the 1980 Gwangju Democratisation Movement, a civil uprising that ended with the killing of hundreds of demonstrators. SPRING, she wrote, was “part carnival, part demonstration, and part funeral procession.” It traced the route of the actual demonstrations twenty-eight years earlier.

Learning about the 1980 Gwangju uprising, Griffith remembered a seminal event in Trinidad’s history, the 1881 Canboulay Riots, in which Carnival revellers clashed with colonial police. His Runaway Reaction imagined protesters as separate particles of charged consciousness which, assembled together with a common purpose, achieved critical mass, unleashing a human energy that could be creative or destructive (or both at once).

Griffith worked with Tancons again a few months later at CAPE09, a contemporary art biennial in Cape Town. Again they were commissioned to create a street procession, this time reflecting the apartheid system’s forced removal of sixty thousand black and coloured residents of the city’s District Six. A Walk into the Night was a nocturnal masquerade of shadows. Participants processed through the city hidden behind long white fabric panels. They carried sculptures and torches, casting silhouettes on their moving screens. According to the art historian Alexandra Dodd, “images of nubile young maidens, Victorian madams, and, more surreally, dinosaurs, would spring to life . . . and then disappear into nothingness or a blur of raw fire held aloft in the darkness.”

Many of the participants were local schoolchildren who, predictably, didn’t all follow their instructions. Griffith’s vision was only approximately fulfilled. But the uncontrollable is an essential part of mas, which is always an interaction, involving the people who design and make the costume, the person who performs it, and everyone looking on. The artwork is not the costume: it is the sensation or emotion created in the moment, which can never be exactly recorded or reproduced, and embraces the reaction of the audience — excitement or anger, amusement or sorrow, bewilderment or nostalgia. The act of creation is collaborative and communal, but also improvisatory, unpredictable, ephemeral — all qualities which the contemporary art world has come not merely to accept, but to prize. Griffith’s education in the organic “school” of mas had brought him to the critical cutting edge.

 

 

Griffith first visited Japan in 2005, invited to a three-month residency in the small city of Mino, renowned for its production of washi, a traditional paper made from mulberry bark. He took to this new medium with gusto, creating a series of sculptural works that were also wearable masks, with motifs drawn from flora and fauna.

The following year, these pieces were included in an exhibition at the residency centre, and Griffith returned to Mino for the occasion. There he renewed his acquaintance with Akiko Ota, a photojournalist who had interviewed him on his previous trip. This time, they both felt a spark of interest that went beyond the professional. “It was a back and forth thing for years,” Griffith says, speaking about both Akiko and Japan. In 2008 Akiko visited Trinidad — at Carnival time, appropriately — and soon the question was in the air: how to shorten the gap in this long-distance relationship?

Meanwhile, despite the residency invitations and international project commissions, circumstances in Trinidad grew more difficult. Griffith’s art was not saleable in any conventional sense, and his mas-making skills were in demand at home for only a short period each year. “I got into this strange situation where the only time I could be really productive was on these residencies,” he says. The way ahead was unclear.

In the middle of 2009, he made a decision. “I asked myself, where do I want to be?” The answer turned out to be Japan. He arrived in late autumn. “Almost immediately,” he says, “everything fell into place.” He won a Guggenheim Fellowship, one of only a handful ever awarded to Caribbean artists; then a Commonwealth Foundation arts residency in the Bahamas at the end of 2010; then a residency in upstate New York. In the midst of all this, there was a wedding. And, soon enough, a baby.

 

In September 2012, Griffith visited Trinidad with Akiko and Sora. It was a family trip primarily, so Sora could meet his grandmother, but also a chance for Griffith to work in Port of Spain for the first time since his relocation. His plan was to make a site-specific work at Granderson Lab, a new project space run by the contemporary art collaborative Alice Yard in Griffith’s old neighbourhood, Belmont.

For this homecoming project, he constructed a long, narrow v-shaped space from sheets of galvanised steel. From one angle, it looked like the prow of a ship. From another, it recalled a confining Belmont alley that could easily turn into a trap. (In recent years Belmont had become notorious for crime.) At its furthest point, a white cloud, produced by a fog machine, swirled in the warm air, thickening and thinning, creating an unstable projection surface for the ghostly image of a young woman applying white talcum powder to her neck.

Nearby, four large-format photographs showed faceless models — one older and two younger women, and a boy on the brink of adolescence — with delicate patterns of talcum powder applied (using a stencil) to the damp skin of neck and throat. These were the successors to Griffith’s Powder Box Schoolgirls series, photographed in Trinidad just before his departure for Japan in 2009.

To Caribbean eyes, the reference was clear: Griffith was playing on the fashion among young working-class women of “decorating” their necks with powder, the white talcum on dark skin suggesting the freshness of their toilette. Sometimes ridiculed by middle-class observers, the custom says as much about class defiance as about style. Wittily converting the “powder neck” look into a more decorative form — mimicking international fashion logos, or the “native” designs popular with tattooed youth — Griffith asked his viewers to reflect on the performances and costumes we all adopt as badges of identity and aspiration. There was also a sly nod to the talcum powder wielded by Carnival’s traditional Fancy Sailor character. As one viewer put it: “Mas by other means.”

Mas, in other words, isn’t just a cultural event that plays out every year at Carnival, or a spectacle for sophisticated audiences at international art events. It is the way we imagine and present ourselves to each other — the masks-under-masks of our public and private personas. The artform’s true medium is not the material of its costumes, but human desires and foibles, evasions and expectations. This is the understanding Griffith’s career as masman-artist has led him to: if visual arts are fundamentally about how we see, if music is about how we listen, and dance about how we move, then mas — combining elements of all these — is about how we see, listen to, and move around each other.

Griffith puts it in plainer terms. “Mas is just a word,” he says. “My work is about relationships. My work deals with people.” The goal is to provoke a moment of real human recognition: never as simple as it sounds, always more powerful than you expect, whether it happens in an art gallery or on the road in the heat of Carnival Tuesday.