Mediating Mas: A Trindidad Sketchbook

Images by Alex Kahn and Sophia Michahelles

In 2006, we traveled to Trinidad, with the support of a Fulbright Scholarship and an artist residency at Caribbean Contemporary Arts, to observe and participate in the annual Carnival Masquerade, known as the Mas. During our six-month stay we tried to find a balance between observation and participation, learning as much as we could about Caribbean Carnival, while also seeking to process our observations into new processional works and studies. In addition to designing a small Mas band for Carnival Monday (see our Rights of Passage page), we also created a series of hypothetical renderings for Mas works, as a way further exploring our own interpretations of the Mas and seeding the possibilities for future works, either in Trinidad and elsewhere.

The Trinidad Mas is reknowned among worldwide Carnival celebrations for both the scale and innovation of its costumed performances. However, many Trinidadians feel that the Mas is in crisis, polarized between homogenous commercialization on the one hand (the "Bikini & Beads" phenomenon), and, on the other, a static preservationism (in the form of institutionalized segregation of the "Old Mas"). As contemporary processional artists experiencing Carnival for the first time, we sought the fertile middle ground between these antipodes, attempting to incorporate Carnival's fundamental narrative of dissent, burlesque, and inversion into new forms derived from, but not bound to, the Traditional characters of the Mas. The drawings included here seek a balance between tradition and innovation and suggest contemporary interpretations and translations of Trindadian Mas characters. Indeed our basic assumption was that these characters have always been contemporary, i.e. responsive to current sociopolitical conditions, and that they should continue to evolve in response to a changing world. Heeding Peter Minshall’s lament, "At what point did the Old Mas become Old?", these studies explore alternative forms/materials, deconstructed homages, and hypothetical structures that might carry forward the essence of the Carnivalesque in a contemporary voice.

(NB In the following notes we refer to a number of Traditional characters in the Mas. Where relevant, we have linked the names of these characters to an excellent introduction to Trinidadian Carnival lore by Dylan Kerrigan, published in Caribbean Beat #71)


See images from Rights of Passage,

our Mas performance for Carnival 2006



__Carnival as Nemesis: Burlesquing Mas in the Bikini and Beads Era

__Kentucky Fried Carnival: The Mas as Political Discourse

__New Mas: Rethinking traditional costumes

__Trini to D Bone: Structure, Form, and Surface

__The Junk Anew Band: Material as message

__Processional Architecture: Altered Space and Instant Community




Carnival as Nemesis: Burlesquing Mas in the Era of Bikini and Beads

This series explores the rise of commercial Mas in Trinidad. Carnival has historically been seen as a “time out of time” when hierarchical divisions of class, race, and gender dissolve; social dissent finds its voice; and ephemeral transformations are possible. Yet today, many Trinidadians feel disaffected with the increasing commercialization of Carnival. As large and profitable "bikini-and-beads" Mas bands become the dominant visual expression of Carnival, costumes have become more mass-produced and homogenous. Many imported from China, leading to the loss of local jobs and the decline of the Mas Camps, close-knit local community workshops. At the same time, the cost to play in a Band (as much as $500.00 US) has effectively excluded working-class Trinidadians from their own rite of empowerment. Recent years have seen a steady rise in the number of “All-inclusive” bands – self-contained luxury caravans of drinks, food, and security guards – in short, the very definition of exclusivity. Thus Carnival, which once served to usurp established class hierarchies, now reinforces them, as paying the fee for a premium band becomes a publicly affirmation of one's income and social status. Mas characters have always developed in response to a nemesis, defying some current power structure based on political, racial, sexual roles. This series places Carnival itself in the position of institutional nemesis, seeking to burlesque the conflict inherent in a bourgeois Mas.


Conspicuous Consumption (Blue Devils)


Exclusive All-inclusive (Pretty Mas)

NCC Judge as Comedia Plague Doctor (Moko Jumbie)

Jab Molassie Plays Last Year's Queen


Links about:

•Jab Molassies and Devils MasMoko Jumbies

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Kentucky Fried Carnival: The Mas as Political Discourse

2006 witnessed the retirement of the great Tico Skinner, who for 40 years led his annual Devil Band (“. . . is Hell”) in searing comic portrayals of the ills of the day. The irony of the so-called Old Mas is that its characters have always evolved in response to current conditions. Whether through directly ribald characters like the Jab Molassie, Pis-en-Lit ("piss in bed"), or subtler interventions layered in the Fancy Sailors and even the Pretty Mas, Carnival has always provided a site where the expression of critical subversion, satire, and dissent could take place with the impunity offered by the act of masking. In the spirit of Tico Skinner, these studies attempt to transpose Carnival figures into current commentaries affecting life in Trinidad and the world beyond: petroleum industry, globalization, modern imperialism, and the impotent absurdity of Trinidad's answer to rampant crime...the infamous, ubiquitous police blimp.

Oilcan-boulay (Jab Molassie) Pharma-Soucoyant (Jab Molassie) Uncle Sam Pis-en-Lit Identity Thief (Midnight Robber) and Surveillance Jumbie (Moko Jumbie) Kentucky Fried Carnival (white devil)

Links about: 

Burroquids/BurrokeetsJab Molassies and Devils MasMidnight RobberMoko Jumbie
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New Mas: Rethinking traditional costumes

As first-timers to Carnival, we benefited in some ways from our own inexperience, which allowed us to approach Carnival figures as pure mythological narratives, rather than from preconceived notions of what finshed costumes were supposed to look like.In addition our residency at Caribbean Contemporary Arts offered us the luxury of designing works hypothetically, without the attendant usual worries about time and money that accompany a typical production. These studies were based on responses to our daily lives in Port of Spain, our personal identification with Mas narratives, or our creative misapprehensions of basic characters. In privileging character over costume, we hoped to emphasize the fact that Mas has never been a static entity.




See this puppet in actual performance from our Mas Band Rights of Passage

Cowband on George Street


Fancy Sailor and Black Indian: A Middle Passage Mas

Maxi-quid (modern take on the traditional Burroquid)




See this puppet in actual performance from our Mas Band Rights of Passage



Links about:

Bat Mas

Sailor Mas


Jab Molassies and Devils Mas

Cowbands and Animal Mas



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Trini to D Bone: Structure, Form, and Surface

The most common complaint voiced by critics of commercial Mas is that the excess of decorative surface elements – beads, braids, feathers, sequins – has supplanted deeper formal innovation. Previous generations of Mas artists, such as Cito Velasquez and Senor Gomez, created diverse and spectacular costume armatures by essentially drawing with wire in space.  Inspired by the tradition of wire-bending these drawings privilege structure over surface and attempt to deconstruct the formal language of the Mas. At the same time they suggest a metaphor, encouraging the viewer to look beneath the superficial aspects of commercial costumes toward the more potent and enduring bones of the Mas.


Dragon (from "Rights of Passage" Mas)

See this puppet in performance from our Mas Band Rights of Passage

Cobo (from "Trini 2 D Bone")

Dame Lorraine Deshabillé

More about Dames Lorraines

Cassava Jumbie

Mama D'lo and Other Forms

Links about: 

Sailor Mas

Dame Lorraine

Dragon and Devils Mas

Cowbands and Animal Mas


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Material as Message: The Junk Anew Band

Just as the commercial Mas has employed an increasingly limited the range of forms, so too has its material vocabulary become narrower. Expensive but generic textiles have driven up the cost of costumes while promoting a Las Vegas style homogeneity. The commercial emphasis on glamour and comfort discourages costumes drawn from Trinidad’s rich terrain of local materials.  Junk Anew Band (or JAB) is a play on Jonkonnu, the Bahamian grass-roots Carnival tradition, and the Trinidadian patois word, Jab, meaning Devil. In its most literal sense, the band’s name implies the recycling of debased and discarded materials (junk) into new carnival elements. More broadly, it implies renewal and empowerment on a social and community level, particularly in communities that have been marginalized by Trinidad’s economic disparities. Carnival was born in the neighborhoods of East Port of Spain, yet today’s high-priced commercial Mas all but precludes many of its residents from taking part.  JAB proposes a means to return Carnival to its community-based roots, recycling and converting whatever resources are at hand – as early steelpan and tambu-bamboo did  – to forge a distinctly local and potent aesthetic. Designing, material-gathering, building, and performing for a JAB Mas would be an open collective process, mediated by a small team of artists from within and beyond a given community.  These figures draw inspiration from African nkende nkosi figures, ritual objects that serve as collective repositories of ordinary materials. Robert Farris Thompson points out that the “aesthetic of accumulation” in these objects is also evident many traditional Mas costumes that use layered multiples of simple vernacular forms, such as the Pierrot Grenade, Fancy Sailor and Indians Bands.

Bottlecap Bat


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Processional Architecture: Altered Space and Instant Community

In his 1983 Mas, River, Peter Minshall designed a single 100-foot length of white fabric to be carried aloft by participants, forming an undulating hyper-costume when seen from afar, while creating a distinctive space up close for those who found themselves suddenly beneath its fluid canopy. In processions worldwide, simple elements (either as singular forms like Minshall’s or as individual multiples like fabric gates or banners) are used to create temporary architecture en route. Processional architecture, rather than relying on solitary visual elements to convey a narrative, changes the entire environment of perception and defines a space within a space. Moreover, in our own work we have found that when three, or thirty, or three hundred strangers find themselves carrying bamboo poles together to operate a large element, they form an instant cellular community, born of the necessity to move as a single entity, whose movements follow a kind of gestalt consciousness. This series explores a few possibilities for processional architecture in the Mas, using both elements both indigenous and alien to the Carnival tradition.

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