Trinidad Carnival’s artists of the streets

Trinidad Carnival combines bacchanalian celebration with spontaneous street theatre, in an atmosphere of fantasy and “freeness”. Above all, it is the spectacle of the masquerade- thousands of costumed revellers transforming Port of Spain into a visual fantasia. The decades after the Second World War were a golden age of Carnival costume design. Dylan Kerrigan and Nicholas Laughlin profile the major designers of this era, the individuals whose imagination, craft, and passion created legends

“Diamond Jim” Harding in the early 1980s. Photo courtesy Jason GriffithA La Carte (1975) parading through downtown Port of Spain. Photo by Noel NortonCarlisle Chang in the 1980s. Photo by Bruce PaddingtonChang portraying a goldfish in China, the Forbidden City (1967). Photo by Noel NortonChina the Forbidden City on Frederick Street. Photo by Noel NortonCita Velasquez in 2003. Photo by Media and Editorial Projects LtdEdmond Hart in costume about to enter the Savannah stageElsie Lee Heung, wife of bandleader Stephen Lee Heung, in China, the Forbidden CityFancy sailors on stage at the SavannahFun and Laughter (1969)George Bailey in the 1960sHarold SaldenahIrvin Mc Williams in 1972, in costume at the Savannah. Photo by Noel NortonKen Morris 1955, in one of his copper breastplatesKen Morris in 1982, at the Savannah with Peter Minshall’s band Papillon. Photo by Mark LyndersayLil and Edmond Hart in the 1980s by Mark LyndersayMancrab, from River (1983), portrayed by Peter Samuel, Minshall’s longtime kingPeter Minshall in the 1980s. Photo by Mark LyndersayPeter Samuel portraying the Midnight Robber from Dance Macabre (1980). Photo by Noel NortonPhoto by Noel NortonPhoto by Noel NortonPhoto by Noel NortonPhoto by Noel NortonPhoto by Noel NortonPhoto by Noel NortonPhoto by Noel NortonPhoto by Noel NortonPhoto by Noel NortonPhoto by Noel NortonPhoto by Noel NortonPhoto by Noel NortonPhoto by Noel NortonPhoto by Noel NortonPhoto by Noel NortonPhoto by Noel NortonPhoto by Noel NortonPhoto by Sean Drakes.comPhoto courtesy Jason GriffithPhoto from the Collection of Adrian Camps-CampinsPhoto from the Collection of Adrian Camps-CampinsPhoto from the Collection of Adrian Camps-CampinsPhoto from the Collection of Adrian Camps-CampinsPhoto from the Collection of Adrian Camps-CampinsPhoto from the Collection of Adrian Camps-CampinsQueen of carnival 1975: Joan Massiah portraying Hawaiian Seafood Cocktail from A La CarteStephen Derek at work in his mas camp. Photo by Mark LyndersayStephen Derek in the 1990s. Photo by Mark LyndersayTwo individuals from Mexico 1519 to 1521. Photo by Noel NortonVelasquez at the Savannah. Photo by Noel NortonWayne Berkeley in the 1980s. Photo by Mark Lyndersay

The story of Trinidad Carnival is really many stories, and there’s no end of ways to tell them.

There is the story of the 18th-century French planters who introduced masked
pre-Lenten balls to the island, and of the African slaves who parodied their
masters’ revels in song and dance. There is the story of the celebrations
that broke out at the end of slavery in 1838, spontaneous assertions of
freedom that worried the upper classes in their grand houses. Every year,
these celebrations were recreated with noisy disorder, more than a hint
of the subversive, and, occasionally, violence; later in the 19th century,
confrontations with the police (culminating in the infamous Canboulay Riots
of 1881) and furious press campaigns almost led to a complete cancellation
of the annual Carnival festivities.

But most revellers channelled their energy into creativity: characters
like the bat, the pierrot grenade, the midnight robber, and the devil —
many of them deliberately mocking or threatening — evolved from the early
parodies, informed by ancestral memories of rituals and rhythms that survived
forced removal from Africa. Alongside these characters, “pretty mas” — the
masquerade of attractive, colourful costumes — also thrived. Around the
turn of the century, the first prizes for costumed bands were sponsored by
the merchants of Port of Spain, and the festival slowly grew more respectable.

The Victory Carnival of 1919, celebrating the end of the
First World War, was the first to include a competition at the Queen’s Park
Savannah, which was to become Carnival’s centre stage. In the 1920s and
30s the first bands designed on historical and biblical themes appeared,
with names like Good Samaritans, Philistine Warriors, and Sultans of
Jerusalem.
With their lavish costumes and attempts to present a truly
theatrical event, they were precursors of the work of legends like George
Bailey and Harold Saldenah.

Yet during these years Carnival remained a divided phenomenon. While thousands
of masqueraders took over the streets of Port of Spain, the upper classes
continued to enjoy elaborate costume balls at private homes and at the Trinidad
Country Club. When they ventured out on Carnival Monday and Tuesday it was
in decorated lorries, from which Trinidad’s elite, dressed as Arthurian
or Elizabethan courtiers, waved down at the crowds.

Between 1941 and 1945, at the height of the Second World War, Carnival
was suspended. When the festival finally returned, things had changed. Masks,
banned during the war, had mostly disappeared; the numbers of spectators
and revellers had increased; and costumes inspired by tales from history
and literature were more ambitious than ever. One man in particular, Wilfred
Strasser, created some of the most vivid masquerades in the history of Carnival,
astonishing in their artistry. His Statue of Lord Harris (1947) and
One Penny (1948) are still talked about by people fortunate enough
to have seen them.

But the most significant change in these years was the integration
of the lighter-skinned mas of the Country Club with the darker-skinned mas
of the streets, as the island’s always-fluid colour lines shifted and faded.
In Trinidad, as in the rest of the world, the war had wrought major social
changes. A spirit of nationalism was in the air — these were the years leading
to self-government and independence. Boundaries of class and race grew subtler
and more complex.

The “freeness” of Carnival had always included the transgression of these
boundaries — French aristocrats dressed as negres jardins (“black
gardeners”), Afro-Creoles satirising society ladies in the guise of the voluptuous,
petticoated Dame Lorraine. Now, in the 1950s and early 60s, as the masquerade
of the streets grew more artistically ambitious — and as Carnival came to
be seen as an essential component of national heritage — the Country Club
revellers strayed from the confines of their private pageants, swelling the
size of the pretty mas.

The introduction of an official band of the year competition

in 1955 stimulated the creativity of the new breed of Carnival designers.
Traditional crafts like copper work and wire-bending were supplemented by
experiments in fibreglass and plastic moulding; fabric, feathers, and sequins
were imported in vast quantities to supply the mas camps where thousands
of costumes were assembled.

This was a new Carnival for a new era. A golden age of pretty mas, unprecedented
for colour and creativity and sheer spectacle, had begun in the early 1950s,
lasting till the late 1980s. Like every new age, this one had its heroes,
and in the first rank were the designers whose imagination brought Roman
centurions, Zulu warriors, and Chinese dragons to the streets of Port of
Spain, brought the constellations of the zodiac down to earth, and sent fancy
sailors into space.

The story that unfolds in the following pages is the composite story of
13 of these golden age designers. Many other talents, deserving of credit
and celebration, are not included; the full story of Carnival design could
never fit in the pages of a single magazine. But these 13 are all indisputable
masters of the mas, responsible for the look and feel and scale and movement
of modern Carnival. Their collective story of artistic evolution is also
a story about Trinidad and its changing identity, about where we were, where
we are, and how we moved between the two. A story that does not yet have
an ending.

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