“A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom”Claudia Jones – Founder of The Notting Hill Carnival, Journalist and Activist
and for the ones at the back me me say it two time!
Picture this, its 2019, Pre-Lockdown Era, Pre- The Murder of George Floyd and the 2nd Wave of Black Lives Matter and I have been asked by Donna Fox who was the Chief Executive of EMCCAN which acronym for East Midlands Caribbean Carnival Arts Network to respond to what’s called the Paul Hamlyn Funded Explore And Test Programme.
‘We would very much like to engage you in preparing a piece of art which summarises the Paul Hamlyn carnival arts in education project, involving some of the children’s comments, feelings, results and findings of the project as some kind of wall art or digital art piece for display at a national conference.’- Donna Fox, Chief Executive – EMCCAN, East Midlands Caribbean Carnival Arts Network.
So basically, I was being asked to create a piece of art that would act as an infographic/visual graph depicting the findings from the research gathered from all of the carnival workshops (funded by Paul Hamlyn) that took place across the UK. I had created infographics in terms of graphic design before, but this was a unique opportunity to create a piece of art that reflects the findings of others as well as my own thoughts on the findings and the concept of the Caribbean Carnival itself. My piece would be blown up to A0 billboard size and presented at a Carnival Conference headed by Paul Hamlyn Foundation.
Research: So, I began researching the Caribbean Carnival, what it means and why it existed in the first place?
The word carnival was first used in English in the mid-16th century. It came from the Italian ‘Carnevale’, which was seemingly derived from a medieval Latin word, ‘carnelevamen‘. The Latin literally refers to ‘goodbye to the flesh’, a reference to the practice of abstaining from meat during Lent. But Carnivals have African origins because they were first celebrated in Ancient Egypt which was called Kemet.
‘Carnival was born out of resistance’Rhoma Spencer, storyteller and champion of Caribbean theatre, pays homage to the activist origins of Trinidadian Carnival in ‘How Carnival Was Born Out Of Resistance’ by CBC Arts
The Caribbean Carnival as we know it about finally being free from being enslaved by Europeans Carnival’s celebration of rebellion against enslavement has roots in both African and Indigenous cultures. Carnival first took shape in the late 18th century on the island of Trinidad and Tobago, emerging in a ritual called Cannes Brulees (French for “sugarcane burning”). Enslaved Africans purposefully set fire to sugar cane intended for sale, resisting plantation slavery through the destruction of its valuable export commodity–sugar (Liverpool 1998). Instruments resembling drums and sticks were used during Cannes Brulees to perform percussive music linked to the African roots of enslaved people; this music reconnected the performers with their ancestors and the past spirits that guided and sustained them (Liverpool 1998). This musical performance was an act of reclaiming the cultural vitality, taking ownership of their culture and enacting empowerment through these acts of rebellion.
Creating The Piece: I wanted to use portraiture to convey that the origins of Caribbean Carnival have been birthed from Black people who were birthed from Black women who descend from the kidnapped and enslaved West Africans. I painted an image of a Black woman whose skin is jet black, to represent to mimic the look of Wicked Jab or Jab Molassie or Jab Jab which is a kind of carnival where the word Jab was derived from the French word “Diable” meaning “devil”, so a masquerader playing Jab Jab is playing the devil. Jab is a satirical representation of the evil inflicted by the white colonialist on the slaves, literally covered in molasses (sugar) the product that made white enslavers catastrophically wealthy. There are different genres or characters of Caribbean Carnival and I chose to also base my piece on ‘Pretty Mas’ or ‘Fancy Mas’ as it is also known. The reason why I chose this style to base my piece on is that it is instantly identifiable as being African originated ‘carnival’.
I wanted to root the piece in Nottingham, Nottingham had a high Caribbean population (now largely hidden in its Mixed Race descendants) I wanted to highlight the special brand of colourism that many Caribbeans brought over to the UK with them. Black Caribbean people also brought ‘vibes’ with them and a willingness to survive by any means necessary too, I cladded the skin of the woman in the image with photography of famous Caribbean Carnivals, notably Notting Hill Carnival. I wanted the piece to be bejewelled and encrusted with colour, powerful bold statements to reflect the protest element plus the gratitude and joy of freedom (from the abolition of slavery until now). I wanted to show these things in this piece.
Fun fact: The origins of Caribbean Carnival in the UK actually all started in Nottingham in 1958 (Claudia Jones’ Notting Hill Carnival would come 8yrs later in 1966)For more info on the origins of Caribbean Carnival in the UK in Nottingham and Notting Hill London Carribean Carnival see here for more info, Nottingham Carnival Heritage Project and Notting Hill Carnival Our History
The piece is peppered with names of different types of carnival, significant dates from Caribbean history and the names of Caribbean countries.
The piece also features reviews collected by various creative workshop facilitators from kids across the UK.
The day had come for me to reveal the piece to Donna Fox at EMCCAN who had commissioned the piece. I had worked very hard on coming to a solution that had to fully encapsulate so much that it resulted in a piece I titled ‘Bittersweet Carnival’
The reaction from Donna Fox was initially positive, she said that loved the image that I had created but she had an issue and did not agree with one of the comments that I had included in the piece ‘WHITE RUN, BLACK CULTURE?’, Donna said…
‘Caribbean carnival is not white run, Caribbean Carnival has lots of Black people taking part in it and plus Caribbean Carnival is not just for Black people, its for everyone’–Donna Fox, Former Chief Executive of EMCCAN
I explained that you as a white woman are the Chief Executive of EMCCAN? when Carnivals are put on, carnival organisers have to adhere to an onslaught of regulations, created by white lawmakers, in a majority-white country? it’s literally over-policed by a very large white police presence? Donna still did not see my point but reiterated that she thought that the piece was beautiful, eye-catching and original.
Donna had to answer a call and another Black woman happened to be in the room when we were discussing the piece and I asked her,
‘Don’t you agree with me?’
(in an attempt to save myself from internalising the gaslighting about the reality of Caribbean Carnival culture in the UK) and she said,
‘Honey, I have a child and I need to get paid but I hear you’.
It’s like my mum would sometimes say ‘Sometimes your right but you’re still wrong’. I understood and we knowingly nodded to each other as Black women do, I respected what she said. I was on my own with my piece and left EMCCAN feeling disappointed, annoyed and saddened, so annoyed in fact that I did not end up sharing this piece on social media at the time of the project. Then some huge happened in the world…
2 things, the first was Corona, a new deadly virus that was spreading the entire planet called Corona or Covid 19, it forced us all to quarantine in our houses. Many lives were being lost due to the virus and illness caused by it and we were all forced to wear masks outside and think about our lives a lot. Then a couple of months after that, the news hit that an innocent Black man called George Floyd had been murdered by Police Brutality in Minneapolis in America and you could view his murder online. People across the globe took to the streets to protest his murder and were supporting hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter. It was an awakening for many but for me it was an affirmation of stuff I that I had already known. Millions of mini race wars were ensuing on social media, the prospect of Brexit was still swilling around and I was being offered work on the topic of racism left right and centre. All of a sudden, white-owned organisations everywhere realised that racism white supremacy was an issue or it was suddenly on trend to appear to realise that it was an issue and posted Black squares on instagram? It was like a ridiculous and over-ambitious movie plot gone wild.
Then I was sent an email and a link to an EMCCAN publication that depicted my piece ‘Bittersweet Carnival’, it read…
‘Bittersweet Carnival, by artist Honey Williams was commissioned to produce an artistic evaluation of the Paul Hamlin project working with schools from September to December 2019. This piece has become quite relevant to the black lives matter movement and Emccan will be proud to exhibit the large print when it is safe to host exhibitions.’ ‘Emccan wishes to express its condolences to the family of George Floyd and reaffirmed its commitment to promote educate and celebrate diversity racial justice and artistic excellence in all its programs’EMCCAN, (see link and below) Virtual EMCCAN
I was like… see!
All in all, I am happy that I created the piece, the piece ended up being quite prophetic to people who apparently had no idea that anything was wrong with regards to racial discrimination and some actually did have a change of heart. I am glad that some people received the piece as it was intended but art is supposed to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable, so I suppose I fulfilled that. The piece also depicts the joy, the music, the dance, the beat, the bass, the spice, the infectious love, visual protest and freedom that Black Caribbean people can now feel at least once a year at Carnival whilst the people who love and appreciate this culture can respectfully support them by respecting and centring the origins of the Caribbean Carnival whilst taking part and having fun too!
“We are such a blessed tribe/Sweeter than a million bees/People live a thousand lives/And never feel this free”-Freetown Collective and DJ Private Ryan, from their song “Feel the Love”
- History of Caribbean Carnival by The Caribbean Views
- Trinidad Carnival: Afri-Caribbean Resistance by Corey Gilkes
- Carnival’s Indigneous Origins
- How Traditional Carnival Was Born Out Of Resistance
- History of Nottingham Carnival: Britains First Caribbean Carnival
- The Ascendance Of Jab, Written by: David Lawrence