Beautiful, Dangerous Things: A Review of High Mas


High Mas — Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Culture
Dr Kevin Adonis Browne
University Press of Mississippi
October 2018 256 pp. Hardcover.

High Mas does not rest easy. Certainly, the cover image – the body of a blue devil in motion – will draw you in. You may even expect a simple coffee table book. Something your guests can peruse over post-dinner coffee and feel good about the beauty of the Caribbean and the splendor of Mas. Place it there, in the center of your comfortable living room by all means, but do not expect to be merely comforted or entertained. “Beautiful, dangerous things” live there. By the time you have lived with the text and the images a while, you might be one of them.

High Mas follows Browne’s Tropic Tendencies: Rhetoric, Popular Culture, and the Anglophone Caribbean published in 2013 by University of Pittsburgh Press. It continues a line of enquiry into a distinctive Caribbean rhetoric tradition in vernacular texts and performances and posits a theory of the Caribbean carnivalesque. High Mas goes a step further and investigates performers and makers of Mas while also implicating the eye of the photographer on these subjects to present a poetics of Caribbeanist Photography. I use the word ‘subjects’ warily, as does Dr Browne, I suspect. It’s a complicated term. ‘Subjects’ can feel like a far too distanced, far too imperialistic word to describe the relationship between the Mas makers and players photographed, and the eye and body of the ‘Caribbeanist Photographer’ who tries to capture them. Again, a troubled word –  ‘capture’. The more you live with the ideas in these essays the more the words that you have grown comfortable begin to chafe. For how can gods be subjects? How can daemons be captured?  How can the ever-present dead be fixed and framed?

For Browne, “The objective of Caribbeanist Photography is not merely to adopt or mimic conventional ways of seeing that simulate power, and then to creolize them. Rather, the objective is to incorporate, complicate, and ultimately relegate those powers to the periphery” (107). Composed of a series of essays, photographs and poems, this weighty volume is by turns confessional lament and damning indictment. It is an impressive work of scholarship but resists being read with academic distance. The stakes are too high for pretenses. Each essay is a personal narrative of the authors own struggles and his experiences partnering with communities of mas makers. They also reflect on the challenges Caribbean peoples’  face in making work of radical declarative citizenship. Often the work—it must be said —frankly despairs at the state of Caribbean life where independence seems an uninterrogated and unachieved pipe dream, where fragmentation looks like irreparable brokenness. It is as much “an elegy for lost things…” as it is an abeng calling to “those of us who gather to invoke the unresolved.” (6)

The first series, ‘Seeing Blue’ features the Blue Devils of Paramin, a Mas in the Jab Molassie tradition. Black, painted bodies in motion, centered, dominating the frame, undeniably alive and deliberate in motive and action. No, not a begging Mas, as it has been traditionally termed, but so much more. Here, a devil points at you from the page, accusing the photographer? The intended viewer? the reader? ‘You,’ he says, ‘I see you, I know what you have done. I do not forget.’ There, a devil refuses access, blocks the lens of another photographer, refusing the imperialistic gaze  of the camera. The accompanying essay accuses too, implicating the author/photographer/viewer, complicating the gaze, pointing to the ways the Mas forces you to confront the parts of yourself you would rather not see, rather pretend were not there at all, forcing you to interrogate what you see as grotesque as profane. In Caribbeanist Photography, none shall escape.

The second series, “La Femme des Revenants,” chronicles the performance of Tracey Sankar as La Diablesse transformed. This is a Mas that embodies Erzulie Freda, a Haitian Loa of the Rada tradition and Beata Maria Virgo Perdolens (Our Lady of Sorrows). It is a Mas I remember well having seen it in the flesh, but the specific framing of the photographs, the insider eye, the closeness of the photographer’s access, transformed the living mas I witnessed into something else on the page. The lens of the camera and the intimacy of the photographer revealed parts of the mas that I could not see as a spectator such as the ritual of donning the Mas. One of these photos is curiously captioned, ‘Tracy Sankar takes on the hoof’. Not puts on as if the hoof is something inert and inanimate but takes on as one would something invested with spirit.  The hoof mounts Sankar just as surely as she will wear it. The hoof of the la Diablesse is exquisitely captured and the quiet moments where Sankar half-costumed, half-human/half-goddess smokes a cigarette  or talks with her husband are particularly moving. Browne reads this Mas, the black woman whitened by paint, petticoat and corset as more than an extension of the tragic mulatta figure common in Caribbean texts, but as a wider indictment of toxic male abuse, of societal disregard of women, of the male gaze (even his own complicated gaze): “I observed her metamorphosis in a kind of agony I felt I hadn’t earned, turning into the voyeur I hoped never to become.” (140)

The third series, “Moko Jumbies of the South,” features Stephanie Kanhai and Jonadiah Gonzales, Moko Jumbies from the performance group Touch de Sky from San Fernando in southern Trinidad.  Kanhai and Gonzales tower over the ruined spectre of the Usine Ste Madeline sugar factory, a remnant of an industry long gone, replaced by oil and natural gas, but whose legacy of power and blood remains in the earth. In these images Mokos become ancestors roving the space. In some of the black and white images they are rendered almost invisible against the background of the factory, almost indistinguishable from the steel scaffolding. In others, they stand out in stark relief, alive and certain, set against the ruins. In other photos in this series their movements are tender – Gonzales helps Kanhai adjust the straps on her stilts; Kanhai embraces Gonzales tenderly. These images are redemptive against the bleak landscape. While the factory is still and decayed, they are gods in motion, loving out loud, reminding us that, “We sometimes come apart, but how else could we be here if we hadn’t held on and held ourselves together through it all? In the very small hours of the morning, our man-made gods are indistinguishable from the spirits they emulate.” (188)

“Jouvay Reprised,” follows the political activist group Jouvay Ayiti (Ayiti is the Taino name for Haiti) performing a Mas in the streets of Port of Spain on Emancipation Day in 2015. This section of photographs really culminates the argument building throughout the text – Mas as political act, Mas as radical citizenship. By taking the act of Mas outside the sanctioned space of modern-day Carnival, and placing it as part of the Emancipation celebrations, the original Canboulay, the Mas and its players deliberately use spiritual space to locate their performance in political activism and appeal. Here is Mas out of the realm of metaphor and into conscious political action, in solidarity with Haiti, a site of great political and spiritual importance to the region.

But Browne also argues that these moments seem to be too few and far between and have failed to produce concrete social change. While he admits that, “We are not free…” he counters that “we are not bound as we may seem.” So what then is the source of this absence of vision? This seeing/unseeing? What of it that we create and are these “beautiful, dangerous things” if we continue to “mistake our violence for splendor”? (14) How do we look at the past, the fleeting present and a future not yet glimpsed and avoid feeling disappointment, rage? With all this roiling at its core, how then does High Mas avoid pessimism? That is not the right question. Pessimism is a cop out that we can ill-afford. A better question, perhaps, would be to ask what does it point toward?  It tells us to look to the makers, look to the Mas. The way forward is in the present, the spaces between the fragments of ourselves, in between our troubled, painful histories. “Look without condescension,” Browne says, “at what they — at great personal and spiritual cost — make of themselves and of the traditions, troubles, and  the joys that bind them and free them” (222). It is this that I find so present in each frame, in each essay and poem – the past, the present, the presences in the process, all the gods and all the living and all the dead. All that is here and not yet here, all that can be if we just LOOK. SEE.

Ayanna Gillian Lloyd is a writer from Trinidad and Tobago. Her work has been shortlisted for Wasafiri’s New Writing Prize and the Small Axe Literary Competition and has appeared in The Caribbean WriterPree, Poui and elsewhere. She is a PhD Creative-Critical Writing candidate at the University of East Anglia.