There’s a quiet storm bubbling up in St James, at the Mucurapo Road art gallery called Horizons. It’s a masquerade storm, a treatment of old ideas in new, graphic ways, as artist Tracey Johnson-Casafranca presents her exhibition, Real Mas.
The artist presents 19 compositions with titles including Bookman, Pierrot Grenade with Frog, Jab Molassie Blue and Fancy Sailor. While some have a quiet stillness to them – White Sailor wonderfully captures the peaceful bliss of an old man’s face covered in white powder as he plays a sailor mas – others jump out at you with an eeriness or weirdly, wildly energetic exuberance, such as the almost acrobatic splash of red and white in the painting Jab Molassie Red, dramatic in its three-horned head, asymmetrical composition and contrast of hot red against snowy white. This painting, like others, sees paint applied almost flatly but with hints of volume suggested by the extreme contrast of dark shadows against mid-tone body and dashes of white/golden highlights. It’s as if a blast of strobe-like surreality has suddenly illuminated something that is normally hidden by the night.
When jumbies come out to play, it can be a lot of fun. But there’s a terror beneath the fun, perhaps more felt by TT viewers than by tourists – just look at the scary visages of the painting Jab Jab, which immediately reminds me of mas-man Ronald Alfred the Original Whipmaster ready to take and pelt hard lashes in a crackling storm of violence. Jab Jab captures a quiet moment before the lashing, with Death standing behind the man with the rope whip, staring squarely out of the canvas at the viewer. The riot of patterned colours and textures in their costumes effectively suggests the mirrors, swansdown, and panels of alternating colours typical of this medieval court jester transposed to the New World to subvert, mock and lash all enemies and evil powers.
There is an interesting mix of clear photorealistic influences merged with painted poster-type art and, in some works, a deliberate restriction of colour to stark, elemental blacks, whites and red, as in the painting La Diablesse (based on mas-woman Tracey Sankar-Charleau’s haunting 2015 portrayal Erzulie the La Diablesse. Folklore says this female devil was born human but her deals with the devil made her become a demon. Like a beautiful but hideous horned hag, the painting suggests both her grandeur (you can almost feel the texture of rustling silk in her skirt, and see the past glories of her tattered embroidery and glinting pearls), and her pain (her frozen death-mask, her painted ribs), though there’s also resilience (is she falling, or getting back up?) Like a ghost created by past brutalities, she flies out at you from a background of fiery red, like a frozen moment from a parallel universe just one breath away from our own. Using the colours of nationalistic Trinidad, or perhaps elemental colours variously associated with symbolic blood/power/vitality, death and purity/transcendence, the red, black and white can possibly be felt as allegories of selfhood, depending on your cultural or philosophical point of view.
For fans of bat mas, the painting Bat is a delightful reincarnation of all the wackiness, fluid motion, attention to detailed mask-making, and underworld celebration of nature in the bat. Here there’s a careful rendering of contrasting textures – the charcoal furriness of the head, the smoothness of black thighs, the implied motion of flapping cloth wings – which all escape the limits of documentary photography though the splattered paint textures and the deliberate activeness of the composition where positive and negative space are well balanced to convey the feeling of a liminal bat dance.
Not all the works seem equally successful, though; one or two seem a bit too staged, derivative or familiar/cliched, but that’s just one opinion, and there are definitely gems in the mix. It’s refreshing to see such an outpouring of creativity in an artistic world that is cross-pollinating itself – the high art of folk mas, the eye of the photographer, and an almost Neo-Expressionistic painterly impulse all bouncing up against each other.
Tracey Johnson-Casafranca says she admires the work of Jean Michel Basquiat, an American post-modernist painter who emerged in the late 1970s in Manhattan when hip hop, punk and street art were influences, and whose work contained social commentary and attacks on racism and power structures. Basquiat often painted single heroic figures, with graffiti elements, and was more concerned with inner meaning than outward appearances in his art. The art historian Olivier Berggruen says Basquiat’s anatomical screen-prints created an aesthetic of the body as damaged, scarred, fragmented and vulnerable. You can see some qualities of vulnerability and heroism in Tracey’s painted mas characters too.
Tracey wryly comments that despite the occasional frustrations of capturing an image well, the whole painting process is “delightful and quite therapeutic.” She says the mysterious forms and fascinating history of our traditional mas characters inspired this show, and she wanted to pay proud tribute to them and to the people who play them.
The show continues until February 17.