Thursday, February 23, 2006

Rights of Passage - Alex Kahn and Sophia Michahelles

Play de Devil, play it bad....

Alex Kahn in the harness operating the large Bookman puppet

As part of their artist residency in Trinidad and Tobago at Caribbean Contemporary Arts, CCA7, the American puppeteers, Alex Kahn and Sophia Michahelles have devised a contemporary adaptation of a traditional carnival Dragon band. The project consists of puppets and masks made from waste materials like newspapers and discarded telephone books. On Carnival Tuesday, their small carnival band hit the streets of Port of Spain, and they both experienced the full magnitude of the festival that requires the stamina and endurance to carry these large costumes on their backs all day.

Sophia Michahelles in her Dragon costume playing mas in Port of Spain, Trinidad in 2006, using razor wire as the frame of the mystical beast, and covered loosely with strips of green cloth. She also toyed with puns over how she sees the Trinidad mystic, and how people barricade themselves from the outsiders with high walls surrounded by barbwire trimming. See the Canadian artist Paul Fortin version of being barricaded. ***


A view from outside: Working drawings of the Bookman costume

First conceived in 1906 by Mas-man “Chinee Patrick”, to integrate Chinese mythic iconography into the Mas, the Dragon Band consists of three basic components. The Bookman leads the troupe, taking note of the misdeeds of mankind, followed by the Dragon, who struggles against the chains of torments of his keepers, the Imps. The Dragon Dance is triggered at the band approaches a body of water – any gutter, puddle, or river-crossing will do. The Dragon is associated with the Devil; and thus with fire, while water symbolizes the Holy Water of the Church, and by association all the prohibitions and hierarchies implied by any authority structure. The suddenly fearful Dragon writhes, shrinks, recoils, lashes out, and does anything in its power the avoid crossing the water, but eventually, dragged by the Imps, he leaps across, and continues down the road. Whether this crossing implies a supplication or a transgression, or both, is deliberately ambiguous. In either case, one can see The Dragon Dance is a cyclic enactment of constraint, conflict, and release, and as such, a microcosm of Carnival itself.

As outsiders to the Mas’ we have decided to work within the structure of the Dragon Band, to express our personal experience of class divisions and conflicts that currently pervade both Carnival and Port-of-Spain in general. Murders, kidnappings, and assaults have spawned a pervasive apprehension in Port-of-Spain, fueled by daily newspapers’ ghoulish and sensationalistic tally of Trinidad’s crimes for the year. Traveling by foot and by taxi, a precarious feeling of prohibition of movement is palpable amidst admonitions from locals about the various neighborhoods one must absolutely avoid. But mobility is constrained in the opposite direction as well. Crime (and fear of crime) arise from economic disparity, and our daily Maxi ride from the residency house to CCA7 confirms the vast gulf that divides Laventille from Maraval. As the corporate bikini-and-beads Mas Bands become the dominant expression of Carnival, an increasing number of Trinidadians are being priced out of participation in a festival whose very roots are defined usurping class hierarchies and creating a fleeting moment of equality (“All ah we is one” as Trinis say). As Carnival becomes the province of middle-class pretensions “All-inclusive” bands have become the very definition of exclusivity.

Text and images courtesy of Alex Kahn and Sophia Michahelles

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