Reflections on… Butetown Carnival 2014: Re-presentation, Community and Belonging

butetown_carnival_2014_jess_ventura_ - 09

I have not felt anything quite like this before. I have been looking forward to experiencing the Butetown Carnival for some months now. When I came to this country 11 years ago, some talked about the Butetown Carnival as the precursor to the SWICA Cardiff Carnival, while others described it as a black music festival with a parade. Indeed the SWICA Carnival is different in terms of their remit and one Carnival did not flow seamlessly from or into the other. They are distinct activities. Butetown residents remembered the Butetown (Tiger Bay) Carnival with nostalgic fondness and as a Trinidadian, artist and researcher, I anticipated that a Carnival coming out of the community would necessarily be driven by separate concerns from any activity concerned with a political or economic agenda. As I entered the Community Centre on the bank holiday morning of August 25th, people were busy, young and not-so-young, male and female, people were just getting-on with the business at hand. This was their event and they were setting it up, getting the right amount of tables, mopping the floor to remove muddy boot prints, setting up the sound systems and food and allowing the rain to be a blessing on the green outside.

The Butetown Carnival had a 16-year break and today, this community was ready to do their Carnival again. Keith Murrell and Simon Campbell spearheaded the event. Some of their views and visions for the event were in line with my research interests, which look at Carnival performances and art-making. One of the issues raised in my work is concerned with my interpretation of mas’. In a general context mas’ is synonymous with Carnival and can be seen as the shortened form of the word masquerade or mask. I also consider mas’ to be a performance activity that 1) involves forms of re-presentation through play and/or costume and 2) involves forms of reaction. The reaction means that the performances are in some way a reaction to the everyday and can often reveal something relevant about a current situation. Murrell and Campbell were keen to allow for the re-emergence of this Butetown Carnival that allows for the public visibility of the people in this community. The community was in charge of their own re-presentation and in that regard, I consider that the Butetown event, along with many other layers, can be seen to actively engage with interpretations of mas’.

According to Betty Campbell MBE, the precursor to Butetown Carnival was a small fundraiser event initiated by Mr. and Mrs. Capener who ran the Save the Children club. They were raising money for the Dan y Bryn Cheshire Homes and started having events in August. According to Campbell, the fundraising events were handed over to the Butetown Community Centre to organize. In the hands of the community, the event got bigger and bigger and what started out as a ‘fun day’ became known as Tiger Bay Carnival. What the Carnival has evolved into carries with it a strong sense of pride in community identity and in creativity, showcasing some of the talent of the people here. Moreover, the Butetown Carnival encourages people from all areas to come together in celebrating the diversity and beauty of this space. It is a good vibe, but what has this event allowed me to experience? And how do I fit into a sense of community?

Although I did not grow up in Butetown, or any other area of Cardiff or Wales, I felt a strong sense of community in this space. What I mean is that even as an outsider I was able to (and very much encouraged to) be a part of the space. The event was in that sense, inclusive. In Cardiff, my sense of community belonging is limited to my immediate family – my 3 boys and my husband. I keep strong connections with my Trinidad family and in a very significant way they act as my cultural stronghold. Approaching the idea of forging community has often in my view, been problematic due to the fact that perhaps unlike some immigrants, I had not felt a deep need to re-create a Trinidad community within the Cardiff space. I guess an aspect of Caribbean reality is about mixing and adapting with different cultures. Yet as my art work and research develop I am becoming more aware of how significant the idea of community is to me. In little ways, within performance spaces I seek to connect and re-connect and find/forge and link experiences. Perhaps I would not have to do that had I been part of a Trinidad society in Cardiff. Nevertheless, as my work evolves, more of my present circumstance is revealed to me. The Butetown Carnival permitted a performance that highlighted a significant question in my art journey, that of belonging.

butetown_carnival_2014_jess_ventura_ - 17

As mentioned previously, my interpretation of mas’ involves re-presentation via costume or performance and a form of reaction – that connects the re-presentation to the everyday. The character I chose as my re-presentation was conceived on the spot, although forethought went into the materials that I brought with me and eventually incorporated into her making. I did not know what she was going to look like or what she was going to represent. The re-presentation was spontaneous but not frivolous, I depended on instinct and allowed the other materials within the space to influence the visual choices I made. I did know that I wanted to be covered in white. I wanted to be a blank canvas that colour could be placed onto, I wanted to contribute a simple symbolic image to the vibrancy of what I expected was to come. My costumed re-presentation turned out to be one that drew attention onto itself, a loud, very visible spectacle. I had intended to have a character that would be interactive but she did not evolve in that way. My character highlighted my desire to be seen, to have the attention of most. I existed in the awkward liminal space of indulging in spectacle and being very aware of my foreign-ness. My dilemma centered around needing visibility and not wanting to impose my mas’ on a Carnival that I had only just been introduced to. The fragility of my situation meant that I became very conscious of myself, and my ‘everyday’ circumstances that contributed to my desiring this lack of subtlety. The situation also meant that I changed out of my character re-presentation immediately after the walking parade was completed. What has become clearer to me is the fact that my character revealed something to me about myself. As much as I needed her, I regret that I entered that community space as an individual outsider. As an outsider it was difficult to sustain that connection that, within this Carnival, moves beyond the admiration of the guises of transformation and into the sharing of community laughter, food, dance and music. In my isolation, even when surrounded by my supportive family, I had nothing left to do.

Butetown-Festival-2014

While in character I was told on several occasions comments such as: “I know this character, she comes from the Caribbean, she is similar to this or that, I have seen her before, tell me more.” The familiarity with which people referenced her was curious. How could they know her when I have only just met her? Beyond that though, comments such as the ones mentioned above begin to suggest the desire by the community to connect and draw these connections from Africa, to the Caribbean and the rest of the diaspora. The forging of a community is relevant in the making of a Carnival. As Murrell has stated, the Carnival is something that we all take part in, and this point is crucial. The mas’ re-presentation is both individual and collective and it is within a collective context that meaning and resonance for the group emerges. It is the resonance that sustains the event that makes it matter and gives it a vitality that means that it will survive in hearts of individuals when taking a 16-year rest and most importantly, that it will always feel familiar. This familiarity is related not only to ownership, that it belongs to the people, but also to the fact that it genuinely is coming from the inside out. In this Carnival, the guts and hearts of the people are exposed. In this Carnival, I see you, I feel you, I hear you and from this moment, I know you too from my inside butetown_carnival_2014_jess_ventura_ - 27

Twitter