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Fancy Indian

In celebration of the Native American Indians who first inhabited T&T!

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Old Mas Series

In early 2016 I was preparing to take part in my first Carnival Expo at The Oval in London. I had recently started playing with line drawing techniques in paint so I was keen to continue in that vein. I know when most people think about Carnival they think skimpy costumes, loud music, wild dancing… well Carnival in tropical countries anyway… but there is so much more to Trinidad & Tobago Carnival to explore. The history of my homeland’s Carnival is deep and varied and inspiring. Born out of necessity, mockery, pride, revolution, creative expression when otherwise you might be silenced, social commentary when news wasn’t as readily available as it is today. So when I started casting around for ideas for Carnival paintings, it was the Old Mas’ that called to me most. They became more than paintings, they became a way to honour my Mother, my family, my birth country, my Trinbago culture, and they’ve taken me on a beautiful nostalgic journey.

To understand my fascination with these Old Mas’ characters, the more traditional characters of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival, I need to explain a few things about my childhood.

I grew up with a secondary school music teacher for a mum, a master carpenter and an ace musician for uncles, a fashion designer for an aunt, a light operatic singer for a grandfather, and a money-savvy fashionista for a granny.

I remember hearing stories of Grandad playing different roles in the local Light Operatic Society with my mum and uncles hanging out back stage as kids.

I remember my uncles planning stage costumes and sets for new soca bands, and stage entrances and exits for concerts that would test an engineer’s grasp of physics!

I remember Aunty Gail’s boutique and trailing behind Granny from one fabric store to the next and waiting amidst bolts upon bolts of fabric as she deliberated with my mum on just the right fabric, and just the right pattern/plan, for just the right outfit/curtain/upholstery/bedspread/etc. Alas, I knew Yufe’s, Queensway, Jimmy Aboud‘s and the rest of Fredrick St’s fabric stores like the back of my hand at a very early age!

I remember Carnival time when the adults went to play mas’, at least one of the mums or dads would have to stay back and help Granny look after all seven grandchildren. If it was my Mummy’s turn, we made our own kiddie’s carnival band that danced up and down my grandparents’ very long driveway. We’d spend hours with Mummy making costumes out of old stockings (for long hair), ends of fabric wrapped every which way (for capes, skirts, wings, wraps, etc), old wired bras (excellent shoulder pads for kids), paper, feathers, beads, ribbon, braid, old lace, you name it! Sometimes, we’d all be in the dog-house (even mum!) because we ‘accidentally’ glued Granny’s ‘good’ lace to our costume and coloured it with paint or markers!

Then as I got older, Mum got me into music. I had to know the classics (like proper classical, play “Fur Elise” and “Moonlight Sonata” on the piano classics, for kids anyway!) but I also had to know the local classics. Dad made sure I was up on my old school calypsonians – SparrowKitchenerNello (Nelson)MelodyPreddy (Pretender), et al very often woke me up at maximum volume on a Saturday morning and accompanied me as I did my Saturday morning chores. Meanwhile, Mum was teaching me to play piano, recorder and steelpan in a full on steel orchestra and teaching me all about how the pan was invented, the culture of that era, how the music links to Carnival and Trinidad & Tobago history. Whatever her secondary school kids had to learn, my brother and I had to learn too… even if we were still in primary school!

With this steady diet of creativity and culture, it’s no surprise that every art-form excites and interests me.

Old Mas’ is a special type of performance art. Some Old Mas’ costumes are people just using whatever they can find, buy and make into a statement about some current issue that means a lot to them. See Ole Mas’ for some of this imagery – the man wearing cardboard boxes he’s labelled “Pirate Taxi” (i.e. private cars running taxi routes), or the man dressed as a very pregnant version of the Prime Minister of the day with a sign that cites all the ways she has failed to deliver on political promises! In this way, the people’s ingenuity is uncensored and priceless! Anyone can speak out creatively on any topic.

However, most Old Mas’ costumes nowadays are the traditional ones based on history. For example, Dame Lorraine is a mockery of the French and British aristocratic women with their fans, parasols and bustle skirts; Fancy Sailor is a take on the US Sailors that swamped the islands during the World Wars; and Jab Molassie is another slavery-influenced portrayal that purposely plays on white/black interactions, stereotypes and fears by covering themselves in mud and oil and threatening to wipe their dirt/blackness on to spectators. Each costume has such a deep and varied story behind it. This the Fancy Indian’s (abridged) story  –

First and foremost you need to know that when Columbus ‘discovered’ T&T, the native AmerIndians (American Indians) were already doing a thriving trade up and down the Amazon and into the Caribbean islands. The mas’ based on these Indians, mainly of the Warao tribe is called Red Indian Mas’ or Guarahoons/Warahoun’s (the spelling is unclear). It is also useful to know that there are many types of traditional Indian mas in T&T Carnival. The Fancy Indian is the most popular variety of Indian mas, perhaps because it is one of the inauthentic portrayals, inauthentic because the rule with this costume is the more ostentatious, the better! We’re not going for historical accuracy here so there are no limits on the imagination. Grand feathered headpieces, ornate robes, staffs and spears are all essential to being a successful Fancy Indian. The portrayal features a language or languages spoken in a call and response pattern, and is sometimes performed in groups of Fancy Indian ‘warriors’. This back and forth chant which sounds mostly nonsensical is thought to be an adaption from the Black Indians of the New Orleans Mardi Gras.

There are even more characters that I haven’t yet added to this collection but I do hope you enjoy the first six.

Other paintings in the Old Mas’ series are: Dame Lorraine, Midnight Robber, Jab MolassiePierrot Grenade and Moko Jumbie.

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