Thursday, April 16, 2009

the extraordinary city

‘The urban festival provides  a bridge between the ordinary city of everyday experience and the extraordinary city- projected in part by the festival – of idealistic and technological urbanism; of utopian hopes, projects and illusions.’

Alan J. Plattus (1987)

Port-of-Spain, as I have come to know it, is an urban composition of many silent stories. These stories are hidden behind the bravado of a decaying colonial façade and monolithic concrete walls. Few would argue that Port-of-Spain is a city, almost devoid of its own architectural articulation. It’s urban articulation has not been revisited since colonial times; its current form is almost exclusively a product of accretion without any urban vision. Of course the flip side to this apparent absence of intentional architectural and urban form, may be that there is no absence at all! That this collage of a life that we have built for ourselves as Caribbean people, is not the absence of civilised urban forms; it may very well be, as Walcott says, the restoration of shattered pieces that comprise out streets and city. My sense is that the physical manifestation of Port-of-Spain does not matter as much as the manifestation of the ‘extraordinary city’, as Alan Plattus puts it, that stands invisible but not unfathomable, year round; erupting physically from the shadows of monuments and past barrack yards; for 2 days in February.

Trinidad gained it’s independence from British rule on August 1st 1962. There is a tendency to assume therefore that a mere 47 years ago, the independent country of Trinidad & Tobago was born; fully formed and articulate – ready to govern itself and create it’s own way of living. Even within contemporary thought, there is a dizzying fracture between the celebration of independence and the reconciliation of the separate stories that previously existed between the 3 major racial groups of the island before independence. The way forward, as politics of the time embraced, was to never look back.

‘Post Emancipation society can be seen as a struggle on the part of the mass of ex-slaves and their descendents to make emancipation meaningful…’

The Colonial Caribbean in Transition

I will now say flatly that neither the Africans nor the Indians, the 2 races that now comprise roughly half and half of the population of Trinidad, in either of their cultural histories at the time of independence would have had any notion of city building. That I feel is an important thing to say, since it underlies the dilemma of creating place or space, as the Western world would understand it. This is also central to understanding the power of Carnival in creating a space, and place and a kind of knowing that transcends the Western vision of space; to occupy the kind of ritualistic universe that is second nature to both Africans and Indians. In a sense, creating the façade, the setback from the street, the side walk, the width of the street and it’s mirror image on the other side; is physically the colonial story of Trinidad. The occupation of the streets, the ritualised movement through them, the masks, the paint, the feathers and the drums – are different stories that originate in Ancient Greece and Rome, in West Africa and in India.

Carnival in Trinidad is therefore different from the European vision of the carnivalesque. Where Bakhtin speaks of role reversal and liberation from conformity, Carnival in Trinidad embodies the ‘means to render our lives believable…’ as Marquez puts it. It is the physical culmination of centuries of collective imagination and is the vehicle through which the people of the New World screamed the relevance of their existence. The Caribbean or Latin American carnival is a revision of the European Carnival. By this I mean that it erupted on the same plantations of the French masquerade, but is not itself just masquerade. The African religion of the then slaves shaped the carnival of the Caribbean and Latin America into a hybrid of masquerade, possession and the struggle for liberation. 


Tuesday, April 14, 2009


I've been trying to finish a painting that I started 2 weeks ago. I'm a day or 2 away from finishing it. Due to some strange level of angst about this one, I've moved it out of my bedroom and into the living room to put some emotional and physical distance between us for a couple of days.

 I want these paintings to be a part of the articulation of my research. So far, from looking at them, I've noticed things that preoccupy me about carnival that I didn't realise before. The point of using my paintings is to communicate some of the more intangible and abstract things that underlie this study. Where words and photographs fail, in a way, these paintings capture something that happens between the lines. In terms of my stance on the transformation of space during Carnival; it’s more truthful to say, they capture something between street and myth.

Lapeyrose, conte on paper, 18" x 24"
Savannah, acrylic on canvas
Spirit, acrylic on canvas, 24"x36"

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Today is Easter Sunday. It seems strangely appropriate to me that today is when I sit down to begin mapping the dates of rituals and events that occur in the calender year for the different strings of thought that are running through this thesis. The Christian story of Carnival is of course ultimately bound to the Pagan story of Carnevale. Carnival is in a sense the great let-go before the season that has preceeded Easter. On Carnival day across the globe, echoes of the Saturnalia and Bacchanalia, scenes of the Dionysian rights and masks of the French Pierrot walk freely across the street. 

Possession. Alot comes down to possession. 

In Yoruba, i've been reading that possession is an integral part of celebrating their vast pantheon of Gods. Channeling the God's energy through participants in the ritual takes the centre in worship. Orisha they say is the first to appear usually; the trickster God, who they must dispel before he creates havoc. 

Shango in Trinidad is a derivative of the Yoruban religion, similarly as Vodou in Haiti, and Santeria in New Orleans are derivatives. Shango worships the God of thunder and drumming. I'm trying to find out more about Shango practices. It's crucial because they manifest the beginings of the Caribbean Carnival. 

I'm hoping that when I make these calenders for the different stories, that I will be able to see their correlations more clearly. I've learnt a fair bit about each individual story, but I don't know, except in feeling, how they stand together, simultaneously. 

Also, you will notice that at some points I speak about magical realism in Latin America, the Caribbean and West Africa. It should become clear later on (I hope) that there is a link between the carnivalesque style of writing that has evolved in these places, with the celebration of Carnival in each place. All 3 places have had waves of a similar story. Carnival may be, what Marquez refers to as 'the means to render our lives believable', or what Walcott calls the 'the retoration of our shattered histories', if merely for a few days a year. 

Saturday, April 11, 2009


'Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symetry for granted when it was whole... This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles, and if the pieces are disparate, ill-fitting, they contain more pain than their original sculpture, those icons and sacred vessels taken for granted in their ancestral places. Antillean art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent... This is the basis of the Antillean experience, this shipwreck of fragments, these echoes, these shards of a huge tribal vocabulary, these partially remembered customs, and they are not decayed but strong.  They survived the Middle Passage.'

The Antilles, Fragments of Epic Memory
Derek Walcott 

'...this outsized reality... a reality not of paper, but one that lives within us and determines each instant of our countless daily deaths, and that nourishes a source of insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty... Poets and beggars, musicians and prophts, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridles reality, we have had to ask but little of our imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable.'

Garbiel Garcia Marquez, on Magical Realism (1983)

‘In truth, it was in the spirit of priesthood that Aldrick addressed his work; for the making of his dragon costume was to him always a new miracle. A new test not only of his skill but his faith: for though he knew exactly what he had to do, it was only by faith that he could bring alive from these scraps of cloth and tin that dragon, its mouth breathing fire, its tail thrashing the ground, its nine chains rattling, that would contain the beauty and threat and terror that was the message he took each year to Port-of-Spain. It was in this message that he asserted before the world his self. It was through it that he demanded that others see him, recognize his personhood, be warned of his dangerousness.’ 

The Dragon Can't Dance 
Earl Lovelace

Friday, April 10, 2009


Carnival as it exists in the world is an ancient practice that embodies a cathartic overturning of established conventions, that embraces social inversion and creates an urban transformation. This thesis analyses the transformation of space and spatial perception that occurs during the Carnival season in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad.

Carnival in Trinidad is a unique locus of cultural convergence; a situation of conjoined narratives that has been created through colonialization, slavery, indentureship and emancipation. The transformation that occurs during Carnival is of a civic, personal and perhaps even spiritual nature. Through experiential narratives, paintings, photographs and diagrams, this thesis will analyse the ritualistic transformation of Port-of-Spain while looking at the portraits of different Carnival characters, in order to create a simultaneous understanding of the city, the festival and the invisible theatre created year-round. This theatre centers on the power of the city’s streets which extends to the significance of inhabiting them.

 I will draw reference to 3 other festivals in the world to compare the urban relationships created in other cities, and come to a broader idea of how street celebrations affect our understanding of place. Central to this thesis therefore is the problem of ‘place’, spatial ownership and belonging that is inherent to the post colonial mind in Latin America and the Caribbean. Tied to the emancipation of African slaves in Trinidad, Carnival will be discussed as a physical celebration that transcends those cultural insecurities, to create a liberated experience of place that stands between history, myth and reality.