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Review: EN MAS’: Carnival and Performance Art of the Caribbean 

A group show at the Contemporary Arts Center has echoes of New Orleans celebrations

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Have you ever had a dream in which you came home and everything was in its usual place, but all the furnishings, even the clothes in the closet and the food in the refrigerator, were totally unfamiliar? This EN MAS': Carnival and Performance Art of the Caribbean show at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) may induce a similar sense of disorientation. Featuring performance art staged in six Caribbean and Caribbean-influenced countries during the 2014 Carnival celebrations, EN MAS' explores new Caribbean art incorporating social or political content mingled with the familiar Carnival masked revelry. Even the title is a play on the familiar phrase "en masse," substituting "Mas," the Caribbean slang term for Carnival.

Conceived by New Orleans-based, Guadeloupe-born curator Claire Tancons, EN MAS' initially was inspired by an unusual synthesis of Carnival and modern art that arose in Trinidad, where artists such as Marlon Griffith became famous for issue-based performance art like his Positions + Power installation (pictured) at the CAC. Based on the domestic spying apparatus of the modern surveillance state, and augmented by sinister props, the installation's eerie video projections suggest Afro-futurist science fiction. A local, Krewe du Vieux take on a similar topic would probably seem more nihilisitic if not obscene, but here Griffith conveys a sleekly creepy vision of a techno-futurist dystopia.

A related vibe defines Guyana-born, London-based artist Hew Locke's Give and Take performance inspired by the Notting Hill Carnival. Notting Hill has long been the epicenter of London's large Afro-Caribbean community, and its Carnival initially defied local racism, but now its residents are being displaced by gentrification. At the invitation of Britain's Tate Modern museum, Tancons worked with Locke and architect Gia Wolff to orchestrate a performance featuring maskers as anti-gentrification crusaders carrying shields depicting Notting Hill row houses as maskers march to the beat of traditional Caribbean drumming in the Tate museum's imposing Turbine Hall. Wolff also designed this CAC exhibit, its most elaborate installation in decades, and Krista Thompson co-cruated the exhibit.

The Jamaica-based works have a funkier quality while retaining an eerie edge. Ebony Patterson is known for her floridly patterned paintings, but here her procession of 80 marchers carrying colorful fabric coffins makes a statement not only about Jamaica's bouts of police brutality, but also the gaudy "bling funerals" that follow. Charles Campbell's Fractal Engagement involves luring upper-class Jamaicans to "dangerous" neighborhoods where they confront unexpected performances that blur the boundaries of class, fantasy, reality and fractal physics. Theatrically sociological in tone, Fractal Engagement unexpectedly parallels Dominican Republic artist Nicolas Dumit Estevez's C Room installation in which everyday objects become charged with the transformational power of the Voodoo spirits during a protracted ritual and are released into the streets during Carnival.

A more somber spookiness permeates Afro-futurist Cauleen Smith's video, H-E-L-L-O, featuring New Orleans musicians playing solos of the five-note greeting tones associated with space aliens in the 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Performed at abandoned local buildings, they invoke the spirit of the Hurricane Katrina evacuees who still are absent, while extending an otherworldly invitation to return. Martinique-born composer Christophe Chassol's expansive video tone poem, Big Sun, is more buoyant, reflecting the quiet carnivalesque magic that permeates his French West Indies homeland.

These and other works in the show are pieces of a larger mosaic, an evolving art movement that parallels this city's synergies of art and Carnival, but with issue-oriented works that sometimes echo the radical gravitas of this year's politically charged Venice Bienniale. EN MAS' is a groundbreaking survey that explores the possibilities of celebration and protest, Afro-futurism, fractal physics and voodoo in a new amalgam of Carnival and performance art now percolating across the Caribbean.


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