Late August bank holiday Monday in London is synonymous with two things: the end of the summer and Carnival. Carnival is the vernacular and official shorthand for the Notting Hill Carnival.
As the recent BBC documentaries on Carnival note, the date of the first event is anything from 1962 to ’64 to ’65. Similarly there are a number of theories on precisely how it started and by whom. So, according to some calculations, 2014 marked its fiftieth anniversary. To coincide with this Tate Modern staged the event Up Hill Down Hall: an indoor carnival.
Up Hill Down Hall showcased Give and Take a new performance piece by Hew Locke with Batala Samba-Reggae band and Marlon Griffiths’ piece No Black in the Union Jack – the title of which was not only a reminder of Paul Gilroy’s great early work but of course the Rock Against Racism era of protest marches populated by youth. These works were presented against a backdrop of cut ‘n’ mix improvised sounds created Dubmorphology, (Gary Stewart and Trevor Mathison), and an architectural design by Gia Wolff. An intervention orchestrated by Sonia Boyce in conjunction with students and recent graduates from Central Saint Martins completed the afternoon’s events.
Sadly I arrived at the tail end of the day. But there were still streamers on the ground and a thumping beat in the air, still crowds moving through the Turbine Hall and congregating in chattering groups up on the mezzanine; a reminder of the temporary nature of the freedom that carnival affords in London, in the Caribbean, now and back then, way back then, prior to the 1960’s moment that sparked the Notting Hill original.
Carnival in the Caribbean - as physical space, theoretical trope, as metaphor - has always represented a site in which cultures, ideas and concepts collide. It represents the destabalisation of everyday boundaries, be they rooted in class, gender, wealth, sexuality, race and, to use Kobena Mercer’s term, the ‘pigmentocracy’ that grew from the hierarchies based on skin tone prevalent in Caribbean plantation slave society. Carnival is in a sense a ‘borderlands space’. It is a place of possibility and newness. And it is also the place where the spiritual and the secular meet. In my paper Reconstruction Work, presented at the July Clothes, Cloth & Culture Group meeting, I discussed the creolised aesthetics of the enslaved on the Jamaican plantations, arguing that individualised clothing became a means of articulating something of the self that broke free of the then societal constraints. I suggested that that which could not be articulated verbally was articulated through the dressing and styling the body, through the performance of identity. Carnivals such as the Jamaican Jonkannu festival, provided a space in which these refashioned creolised identities could be experienced and displayed; in a sense, the boundary between the inner and outer self could be transgressed. Both performers’ and spectators’ presentation of self could, in my view, be regarded as forms of vernacular street theatre. I touched on the rude bwai fastidious self-styling – the clothing, the accessory, the walk, the pose – suggesting that this too might be seen as a form of strategic resistance. Each example reflects the transformation that is characteristic of Carnival. But these transformations, these creolised cultural expressions, come out of contention not blending. Creativity here emerges from the friction that occurs as differing and hierarchical cultures, ideas and concepts clash and rub against one another, generating something new that is unfamiliar yet familiar. Within this Carnival space there is freedom, albeit a temporary one.
This week my creative practice as a design consultant took me to Munich to search for cloth for the new collection. Serpentining my way through the exhibition hall, I found myself in a tin structure at the centre of the denim forum, having been drawn there by a hypnotic drumming that had more than an echo of a steel pan, but with a more muffled ‘dirty’ sound, a spare sporadic beat bouncing up against the rhythmic strumming of an acoustic Latin guitar; familiar yet unfamiliar… certainly unexpected in a fashion environment. I was in the midst of an accidental ‘up hill/down hall’ carnival in miniature! This wonderfully creolised soundscape was the result of a creative collaboration between Emoriô Faô, Brazilian guitarist and leader Shango and the German percussion artist ZeZe Harpp. (Shango, of course, is the god of thunder, lightning and fire in the Caribbean… and a character often present in carnival masquerades and certain religious ceremonies) The artists themselves describe their unique sound as a coming together of African and Indian influences – perhaps because of my own cultural background, I heard traces of the Caribbean: vintage Afro-Creole mento, cumbia, jazz. After all, remembering Edouard Glissant, the Caribbean could be regarded as the home of syncretism.
|Ju Mu at work. Photo: Christine Checinska|
Whilst Shango and ZeZe Harpp played, the contemporary artist Ju Mu scribbled intricate drawings of mythical creatures directly onto the walls of the structure; white chalk onto black surfaces. Again, to see this is remarkable in a rag trade setting. Further, a small team of designers printed and stitched together oversized t-shirts right there in the space. Unusual. The invisible boundaries between visual art, music, fashion and textile design were momentarily blurred within this tin room within a room. The invisible boundaries between my own compartmentalised creative practices collapsed.
Coming back to the title of this article, there is an affinity between the essence of carnival highlighted above and our approach to the Clothes Cloth & Culture Group. Our aim is to bring together voices from across the spectrum of artists, designers, writers and ‘thinkers’ working with cloth. We actively seek out cross-cultural perspectives and the viewpoints of those who are seldom heard. We are continually inspired by the new debates that emerge from globalisation’s multi-layered yet still at times hierarchical entanglements. So as the summer closes and we gear up to launch our programme of autumn events …
Pan on the road! Pan on the road!
© Christine Checinska September 2014
 ‘Pan on the road!’ traditionally shouted at the start of a carnival procession.