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The mas – good and bad

“An artist is a priest, and by the same token, a priest is also an artist” – Peter Minshall, January 2022

Dr Sharon Syriac concludes her review of Fr Robert Christo’s thesis, ‘Interpreting the Mas Portrayals of Peter Minshall as Food for the Christian Religious Imagination’.

Moonlight dripped on the Carnival scene that night in 1976, when young Peter Samuel, the King of Minshall’s ‘Paradise Lost’, crossed the stage at the Queen’s Park Savannah. The Dimanche Gras stage lights beamed on his almost naked body, glittered in gold.

He tugged no wheels behind him to carry the large costume, the body of a serpent that formed a semi-circle that snaked around him. Instead, the sequined net upon which the snake crawled, quivered. Light danced on the costume. Samuel danced fluidly, barefoot. Adam had been conceived, in mas.

He held a gleaming red apple in one hand and in the other, Adam clung to the head of a massive serpent, its fangs poised to strike. Driven by the pulsating music, he stomped on the ground and extended both hands towards his audience, inviting them to make a choice.

Then, he bowed. The top of his costume swooped downwards and touched the stage before him, enveloping Adam in its womb. The sequins quivered. The apple glistened. The serpent seemed to hiss. Awed, the audience in the North Stand roared and rose to crown their King.

Minshall’s persistent struggle with good and evil has been dictated by Carnival itself, since historically, Carnival characters have been rigidly separated, portrayed as either moral or immoral, fancy or fierce, good or bad. Most masmen designed for one or the other.

However, Fr Robert Christo argues in ‘Interpreting the Mas Portrayals of Peter Minshall as Food for the Christian Religious Imagination’, that while early Minshall upheld this separation in ‘Paradise Lost’ (1976), his later works radically deviated from this duality in Christian theology. Yet Minshall continued to play good against bad – not by separating them, but by integrating them.

The Sacred and the Profane

Minshall’s work embodies humanity’s eternal conflict of good and evil, yet Fr Christo insists that after ‘Paradise Lost’, Minshall’s mas portrayals reflect an ambivalence towards good and evil, capturing in the ‘Sacred and the Profane’ (1982), two faces of the same coin.

Like Janus, the god of transitions and duality in Roman mythology whose two faces look simultaneously into the past and the future, Minshall’s designs also reflect two sides at once.

Thus, Minshall celebrated human goodness when his king in ‘Papillon’ (1982), paraded in a brightly coloured 30-foot butterfly costume with Michelangelo’s statue to the front of the masquerader’s body while at the same time, he peppered the back of the costume with dark colours and Satanic symbols to highlight humanity’s propensity for evil.

The persistent desire to separate the secular and the sacred has been inherited by Minshall’s detractors as well, who sought to keep spirituality and festivity separate.

Fr Christo defends Minshall, asserting that feasting and rejoicing have always been part of worship and biblical history. Didn’t Jesus, the Son of Man come eating and drinking … a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Lk 7: 33–34)?

Colour corrupts

Minshall’s contradictory combinations are also seen in his use of colours and deliberate reversal of perceptions. For him, white is a pregnant colour. In Minshall’s first trilogy, ‘River’ (1983), white is the colour of ‘Washerwoman’, Queen of the band. Her pristine whiteness symbolised life, trust, and purity. Minshall declares, “Carnival Monday. A river of people. A river of cloth. A single piece of white cloth as wide as the road, one mile long, held aloft on poles. One cloth. One river. One people.”

That year, through Minshall’s bold colourless band of white cotton, he reversed our common presumptions that Carnival is colour.

Colour for Minshall is symbolic of pollution. On Tuesday morning, the cloth in River becomes stained, corrupted by colour. That morning, every single person in the band had been supplied with a white squeezy bottle loaded with coloured dye. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple! As masqueraders crossed the stage, people doused each other in coloured paint.

Fr Christo concludes that in integrating white and coloured, purity and pollution, Minshall unites two opposing forces. Virtue and vice commingle. In their dialectical dance, the two become one.

Sin and death

Fr Christo contends that Minshall’s preoccupation with sin, death and its consequences, changes as the masman matures. When Minshall explored the conflict of sin in ‘Paradise Lost’ (1976), he concluded that it resulted in the rupture of relationships with self, others and even Mother Earth.

Later, his dark “prophetic” vision emerged with hauntingly gruesome figures in his band ‘Danse Macabre’ (1980) which he populated with characters of devil mas– jumbies who wore severely grotesque masks, devil’s heads, serpent banners and flags of fire.

Two years later, towards the end in ‘Papillon’ (1982), Minshall strayed from his morbid display of sin and death to portray humanity locked in a “nuptial love dance” when his monstrous King and Queen butterflies, distinctly male and female, fluttered around, before joining in a mating form, as gifts to each other. By then, death did not end in sin but with love, pointing towards a theology of death, more consistent with Roman Catholic thought.

Conclusion

All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts (William Shakespeare).

Through the medium of mas and mastery of theatre in the street, Minshall has played his many parts. He has sculpted his art into history through his visually dramatic props, drama in movement, theology in music and the poetry of the costumed human body.

Creative. Compact. Contradictory. Controversial.

Minshall’s mas titillates the religious imagination. It preaches freedom, creation, love, joy, hope, mystery, unity, and sensuality. It nourishes the Christian soul with its staged storytelling.

It celebrates our callaloo culture and has presented liturgically what politicians and priests have attempted for decades to do — forge a collage of religious unifying forms on one platform.

Minshall has done this by upholding human dignity, raising consciousness, and attacking evil in society — all expressions of our deepest Christian values and theologies.





 

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