It isn’t clear who was the first to call New Orleans “the northernmost city of the Caribbean.” But the sentiment has been repeated so often it’s become a cliché.
Like most clichés, it contains a certain truth. And few things provide more evidence of New Orleans’ close cross-cultural relationship to places on the other side of the Gulf of Mexico than its common Carnival traditions.
Several of those traditions are the focus of an exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center. “EN MAS’: Carnival and Performance Art of the Caribbean.” Curated by Claire Tancons and Krista Thompson, “EN MAS’ ” incorporates objects, video and sound to explore the complex layers of contemporary performance-based Carnival culture.
And through its curatorial framework, “EN MAS’ ” (the title refers to “Carnival” in several Caribbean dialects) is as much about the specifics of Carnival culture in different Caribbean societies as it is about exploring ways to document performance in a visual arts context.
For Tancons, “EN MAS’ ” is the culmination of years of travel research and curatorial experiments and grew out of her and her colleague Krista Thompson’s relationships to the places explored and the artists featured in the exhibition.
“I originated the idea of an exhibition looking at the relationship between Carnival and contemporary art in 2009 when I was associate curator at the CAC,” she said. “My life and experiences in New Orleans and the Caribbean have greatly contributed to shaping my outlook about how Carnival and other popular festivals have given way to contemporary performance and art practices at large.”
We New Orleanians tend to claim Carnival as our own: Aside from an excuse for a major weekslong party, it provides a foundation for our shared sense of civic identity.
But if you go to the CAC expecting to see a distinctly New Orleanian Carnival tradition mirrored in places as diverse as Trinidad, Martinique and the Bahamas, you may be in for a jolt. “EN MAS’ ” doesn’t so much link New Orleans explicitly to its Caribbean counterparts as it shows how the performative aspects of different Carnival practices are distinct to individual cultures and to individual artists in the show.
So while many of the general motifs on display in “EN MAS’ ” may be familiar — masking, parading, and music making — the ways they’re manifested are continually surprising.
The performances documented in the exhibition were commissioned by its organizers and took place over the 2014 Carnival season, and their documentation forms the basis of each of the nine sections of the show. (Exhibition designers usually go unnoticed, but Gia Wolff’s stunning design for “EN MAS’ ” deserves a special commendation: This is the best-looking and most intelligently presented show to appear at the CAC in recent memory.)
Like Carnival itself, “EN MAS’ ” is visually and sonically dense, and there are a lot of highlights here — starting with the startling masked assemblages by Trinidad’s Marlon Griffith that confront you at the entrance to the exhibition.
With their penetrating searchlights and video projections of gnashing teeth, Griffith’s pieces deal powerfully with issues of surveillance and control, and underscore how the exhibition uses Carnival practices to further wider debates about things like access to public space.
Those issues are also explored in a performance by Jamaica’s Charles Campbell, in which upper- and middle-class participants were led through a traditionally “volatile” area of Kingston in a procession that culminated in the spectators donning geometric-styled masks and becoming part of the spectacle themselves.
An accompanying video incorporating documentary footage with hand-drawn animation further underscores the ways in which Campbell’s performance additionally disrupted traditional boundaries between past and present and between “real life” and fantasy.
Other highlights include Cauleen Smith’s melodic deconstruction of New Orleans’ own “sonic landscape” and a display of elaborately decorated coffin-shaped objects by Ebony G. Patterson that commemorate the victims of a series of police and government security raids on Kingston’s urban Tivoli Gardens community in 2010.
They represent a more explicitly politicized Carnival vernacular than New Orleans audiences are used to seeing (Krewe du Vieux notwithstanding), and in the context of “EN MAS’ ” become a succinct visual distillation of the often contradictory elements that make Carnival culture so provocative — no matter where in the world it takes place.