Peter Minshall: the dramatist

Peter Minshall: Life, death, rebirth: Minshall uses the medium of mas to make statements more profound than anyone previously thought possible

Mancrab, from River (1983), portrayed by Peter Samuel, Minshall’s longtime king. Photograph by Noel NortonParadise Lost (1976)- the start of the Minshall era. Photograph by Noel NortonParadise Lost (1976)- the start of the Minshall era. Photograph by Noel NortonPeter Minshall in the 1980s. Photograph by Mark LyndersayPeter Samuel portraying the Midnight Robber from Danse Macabre (1980). Photograph by Noel Norton

Peter Minshall, born 1941

“It is doubtful that the work of any single individual has had so instantaneous and so searing an impact on the consciousness of an entire country.”
— Roy Boyke, writing in 1976 about Paradise Lost

Occasionally you’ll hear a Trini describing someone in a great hurry as
“running like they just hear Minshall reach the Savannah”. The expression
hinges on an indisputable fact: Peter Minshall is the only Carnival designer
working today whose masquerade is capable of making ordinary spectators drop
everything and race to the Savannah stage to see his band make its epic crossing
— as spectators of older generations would have done to see the latest creations
by Wilfred Strasser or George Bailey or Carlisle Chang.

Chronologically and creatively, Minshall comes at the end of the parade
of golden age Carnival designers.  As far back as 1982, artist and musician
Pat Bishop declared that he “has drawn . . . truths which have something
of the potency of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, or the late Beethoven
string quartets,” and “lifted what was no more than folk festival in which
glitter had replaced content, to the level of the highest art”. No designer
emerging in the 1980s or 90s has been able to push the creative barriers
further.

Born in British Guiana in 1941, Minshall moved to Trinidad with his family
when he was a small child. His first taste of mas came when he was 13; with
a cardboard box, green paint, and animal bones, he made himself an African
witch doctor costume for the children’s Carnival competition. “The die was
cast there and then,” he says. As a teenager, padded out with old pillows,
decked out in his sister’s frilly dress, he transformed himself into a Dame
Lorraine for J’Ouvert, “liberated from race, from age, from gender.” That
total liberation has been the goal of his 30-year career.

When he was 21, Minshall left Trinidad to study at the Central
School of Art and Design in London. After graduation, in 1969, Minshall
found himself designing the set and costumes for a ballet production at
Sadler’s Wells. He was launched on a promising career as a London designer;
then his mother asked him to create a costume for his adopted sister for
Carnival 1974. “It took five weeks, 12 people,” he recalls. “104 feathers,
each one made of 150 different pieces of fabric.” When 13-year-old Sherry-Ann
Guy finally took to the stage, portraying the Hummingbird,  dancing
“like a joyful sapphire”, it was a defining moment in the history of Carnival.
“Ten thousand people exploded with her.”

Two years later, bandleader Stephen Lee Heung asked Minshall to design
a band for 1,500 masqueraders. He chose Milton’s Paradise Lost as
his theme, imagining the presentation as a symphony in four parts. Hummingbird’s
winged form evolved into a host of fallen angels; Minshall’s imps were based
on the traditional jab jab character. His aim was to allow his masqueraders
complete mobility: kinetic mas. He wanted his costumes not just to be looked
at, but to be felt. And so they were. Few who witnessed Paradise Lost
on the streets of Port of Spain would ever forget the experience. The Minshall
era had begun.

Peter Minshall’s art is the product of two main elements. The first is
his love of theatre, the collaborative process combining visual design,
words, music, dance, and attitude to create an experience that can move
its audience to the core. Minshall sees Trinidad Carnival as “theatre of
the streets”, one of the purest theatrical phenomena in the world. He conceives
his bands with acts and scenes, sometimes even with scripts; sound and ritual
are as crucial as the costumes.

The second key element is his fascination with traditional
characters like the bat, the robber, the devil, the sailor. “Study the bat,”
he once said, “and you’ll realise that its entire body informs its movement.”
And movement, the masquerader’s primary tool of expression, is all-important.
“I don’t design costumes. I provide the means for the human body to express
its energy,” he claimed. This called for new materials and methods. Fibreglass
rods, acrylic tubes, garden netting, opalescent polyester film, corrugated
cardboard, parachute silk, all made to come alive.

Minshall’s bands often address social or metaphysical questions. 1980’s
Danse Macabre was a sardonic death masque. 1982’s Papillon was
a meditation on the fragility of life. In 1983 he began the trilogy that may
be his magnum opus with River. His masqueraders danced on the Savannah
stage in innocent white cloth; then jets of coloured dye suddenly appeared,
staining the River People. His Washerwoman queen, the embodiment of
purity and harmony, was symbolically raped and murdered by his king, Mancrab,
a devil-like creature representing greed and evil technology. This manifestation
of modern anxiety was followed in 1984 by Callaloo, then in 1985
by the final act, The Golden Calabash, two bands in one. The Lords
of Light
and The Princes of Darkness clashed before the Savannah
audience in a supreme battle between good and evil.

Before Minshall, no one had imagined the medium of Carnival could be used
to make statements like these. Other bandleaders were taken aback; they
felt threatened, not just by Minshall’s art, but by his outspokenness. He
was accused of perverting the mas for his own intellectual satisfaction.
But ordinary people responded. The River trilogy failed to win a band
of the year title, but in 1983 and 1985 Minshall was the people’s choice.

Controversy and adulation have followed Peter Minshall throughout
his career. He has been lauded for his work on the opening ceremony of the
1992 Olympics, and attacked by religious groups for his 1995 presentation,
Hallelujah. He has been called aloof and elitist, yet he has won
more people’s choice awards than any other designer (until the authorities
ended the popular vote, embarrassed that it differed so often from the judges’
decision). He has created spectacles of astonishing beauty, yet has not been
afraid to kick the prettiness out of pretty mas when his art demands it.
For a quarter century, like George Bailey in his time, Minshall has been
the Carnival designer with whom all others are compared. If his work provokes
hyperbole, it is only because of the singularity of his vision in the Carnival
of the 21st century.

Peter Minshall: Band of the Year Titles

1976    Paradise Lost (bandleader, Stephen Lee Heung)
1979    Carnival of the Sea
1981    Jungle Fever
1987    Carnival Is Colour
1995    Hallelujah
1996    Song of the Earth
1997    Tapestry