Making Mas with teens: a five-year journey to realization
Mas is the name given to the annual tradition of costumed masquerade in the carnival of Trinidad and Tobago. Short for the word masquerade, it is a form of art that is not merely visual. As Peter Minshall (highly prolific artist, designer, and masman) put it:
“Mas is a powerful, communicative, expression of the spiritual and physical energy of human beings and that is as good a definition of art as you can get anywhere. Mas is a combination of music, dance, sculpture and painting, it communicates with gesture and movement, it is danced, it is played.”
Mas is a type of performance art, which allows thousands of people to experience the art not as observers, but as participants wearing costumes and embodying characters based on specific themes. This form of expression is accessible to thousands of people and can’t be contained in spaces like museums and theatres.
When I was growing up in Trinidad, Carnival was the space people used to comment on social issues. Calypsonians sang about politics and social justice. During the carnival season and on the road individuals and groups found creative ways to define their artistic voices and be heard. Traditionally, the core elements of mas included social commentary, hand-made costumes, and celebratory protest. Carnival today is a booming industry. In addition to its occurrence in many of the Caribbean islands, versions of it can be found in cities like Toronto, London, Miami, and New York. Besides the Caribbean carnivals, processional arts can be found all over the world in New Orleans, Brazil, Portugal, France, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Italy, Spain, Germany, Bolivia and many more.
For the last few years, The Atlantic has published some beautiful images of carnivals around the world.
I began to think about the place of teens in Carnival of today. In my last few experiences of Carnival in Trinidad, DC, Miami, and Brooklyn, I thought about how expensive it now is to participate. While the emphasis is placed on mass-produced pretty mas costumes (feathers, bikinis, and sequins), the press focuses on the negative forms of participation by young people, violence and pickpocketing. I wondered, given what I do professionally:
How can I help to create an inclusive and engaging experience for young people to participate positively in their own culture, learn about the history of carnival, develop practical problem-solving skills through working with their hands, and develop their own artistic voices?
And so knowing what teens are capable of, I embarked this summer on a project based out of a community arts organization in East New York Brooklyn, called Arts East NY. I called it the TECA Project: Teen Empowerment Through Carnival Arts (TECA). Doing this project stemmed from my restlessness, wanting to work directly with teens again, wanting to connect artistically and professionally with my culture, wanting to challenge the trend of commercial mas making and wanting to provide a place for teens to participate in their culture rather than watch it go by.
Through social media, word of mouth and pounding the pavement I was able to find 16 teens and their parents willing to take this journey with me.
The idea was to introduce teens to the mas I knew growing up, to the mas that still exists but is drowned out by the sea of sequins, bikinis and feathers, to the origins of mas where social commentary and subversive celebratory protest were our social media, to the mas that is performed, danced, played.
After visiting artist studios, the Brooklyn Museum’s Disguise exhibition, taking a couple dance classes and meeting with Caribbean entrepreneurs, they brainstormed the theme of their mas and came up with:
It was a band in 4 sections. Each section depicting some element of race and connecting to a narrative they live, see, feel every day. On Labor Day, September 5th, they presented it as part of the West Indian American Carnival parade on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn.
“Acknowledging the targeting of black people as threats while at the same time as sources of cultural appropriation”
“Honoring the strength and beauty of our ancestors.”
“Striving for harmony among all races”
It was a marvelous journey. I learned so much from the teens and hope to be able to do this again in Brooklyn or wherever it becomes possible to highlight how clearly and strongly young people express themselves. I am excited to imagine what messages, designs, and performances teens would come up with in processional arts events all over the globe.
Special Thanks to:
- 101 donors who helped make this possible
- The parents and family members who supported the program to the end
- Arts East New York: for trusting us with your space
- Najja Codrington and Laura Anderson Barbata: for the studio visit and workshop
- Kearra Gopee, photographer: for your beautiful pictures
- Jessica Prohias-Gardiner, High School teacher: for the workshop on entrepreneurship
- Candace Thompson, ContempoCaribe: for the dance workshops
- Shelley Worrell, CaribBeing: for the facilitated time in your beautiful space and at the Flatbush Caton Market
The TECA Project is a youth development program, where young people work collaboratively, using their hands to design, manipulate materials, and create something new for an audience that based on a theme that is important to them. The program recognizes that knowing how to use tools, imagine something, design it two-dimensionally, and make a three-dimensional product by hand helps participants learn how to collaborate, communicate, take risks, fail, problem solve and improvise. These are all valuable life lessons, especially at a time when access to technological devices and buying everything one needs means that making something from scratch is less and less present in our lives.
 Masman: Peter Minshall, Trinidad Carnival Artist, a Dalton Narine Film, 2010