burnaway.org, 2015

“EN MAS’” Explores Carnival as Performance Art, at the New Orleans CAC

by Rebecca Lee Reynolds

If you thought that an exhibition about Carnival and contemporary art would be fun, well, you might be wrong. “En Mas’” is definitely about Carnival, yet it fails to razzle and dazzle. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The recent Prospect.3 exhibition in New Orleans gave us Carnival as spectacle in such works as Monir Farmanfarmaian’s mirrored panels that reflected the bright colors of Andrea Fraser’s pyramid of costumes collected on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. One critic described the Newcomb Gallery venue of P.3 as “overwhelming bling.” Two P.3 artists are featured in “En Mas’”: Hew Locke, whose P.3 installation The Nameless (2010-14) was filled with black plastic beads that suggested Mardi Gras beads (unintended by the artist), and Ebony Patterson, whose glitter-encrusted collages shimmered in the low light of an adjacent room. Their contributions to “En Mas’” are darker in tone, using the attraction of Carnival to draw viewers into deeper inquiry. After all, the reality of Mardi Gras is not the bling. It’s the boredom while waiting for the parade to arrive, precarious ladders full of children, the injuries from beads thrown with too much force, the hangovers, the blackouts, the costume failures, the missed encounters.

( . . . ) What’s so appealing about Lorraine O’Grady’s approach is that she gives us the very medium by which most people encounter Carnival: online video. The installation of Looking for a Headdress offers an institutional white desk, three black swivel office chairs,

 

and a MacBook Pro with speakers. The visitor is permitted to sit down at the desk and control the playback of the 30-minute video (it is also projected onto the gallery wall, in case the chairs fill up). In the video, O’Grady is hanging out with Andil Gosine, a professor of sociology and gender studies at York University, Toronto, and it looks like they are sitting at the same desk used in the installation. O’Grady’s family is from Jamaica and Gosine’s moved to Canada from Trinidad, so both experienced Carnival through the diaspora.

As they move from clip to clip on YouTube, we get to listen to their commentary, sometimes factual and educational, at other times emotional or funny. In response to blackface and whiteface characters at a Brazilian parade: “I didn’t understand what was going on; it was very odd…” It becomes clear that they are practicing something like art criticism. They admire a more politically inflected 1989 parade in Brazil (on the theme, “Rats and Vultures, release my family”) by remarking that “you can’t tell from the joyfulness how serious it is.” But a Brazilian parade that pays homage to a deceased Formula One racer receives the damning remark that it looks like a Disney parade. There’s feminist deconstruction of standards of beauty in response to the skimpy outfits at the 2014 West Indian American Day parade in New York, as well as admission (or perhaps blame?) that academics tend to romanticize Carnival. When O’Grady exclaims, “Isn’t this fabulous?,” she’s finally found a good model for the hunt that started this Internet wormhole: a headdress in Isaac Belisario’s 1836 prints of Carnival characters. ( . . . )

Download full PDF