Trinity of Trinidad

I’ve spent the past four months living and studying in Trinidad and Tobago, pressed with the challenge of photographing and documenting aspects of the culture. On a straightforward level, I assigned myself the topic of exploring the performance of religion in Trinidad, as well as the performance of mas during Carnival season. Along the way, I’ve experienced culture shock while trying to negotiate the temporal and special cultural differences embedded in the flow of everyday life. The issues that face any photographer were a regular struggle: developing an eye, communicating with the subject, arranging composition and form. Yet because I was an American student transplanted into a different country, I had to be aware of the history of colonialism and ‘orientalism’ that shaped the foundation of Trinidad, and how European/American photographic history in the Caribbean has reflected a colonizer/colonized narrative, as the European eye visually controlled its subjects, recasting the landscape to fit a mold of economic exploitation and tourism which highlighted the ‘native’ and the exotic. Keeping this in mind, Trinidad has confronted me with my own identity within a new space. I am a young, white American female with privilege and access to institutionalized education. I am leaving mainstream ‘normative’ American culture to foray into a Caribbean locale of religious and performative tradition, all of which have been shaped in relation with the colonizer discourse. I have to be mindful of the idea of a camera as a weapon for controlling, recasting, and stating truths that may exist only in my mind. But at the same time the camera can be merely an open, absorbing receptacle to an existing landscape – allowing the camera to function as an unconscious extension of my cultural encounters, of my personal background and my emotions, and my individual eye and visual perceptions. My photographs have concentrated primarily on the theme of performance. Carnival is all about playing mas, becoming a character, and through that character or alternate persona, really being you in a liberated, transcendental state. I find that sort of emancipation through performance is similar within religious tradition as well. Trinidad and Tobago is saturated with religious imagery and rituals, from Hindu pujas to Catholic burials to Shouter Baptist celebrations. The rituals are performative in nature – religion is a communal event, connecting people to each other and to the idea of another spiritual dimension. And as a photographer, I find the matrix of colors and forms to be revealing, a creation of a visual language to explain the unconscious. I don’t pretend to be an expert at any of this. My entire experience here has been very amateur: only skimming the surface of what it means to be Trinidadian. But this encounter has provided me with a re-evaluation of myself and how I can connect to this liberation narrative, finding out how much of me is about being American, and how much of me truly belongs to a wider community.


Catholics gather in the early hours of Good Friday to watch the re-enactment of Jesus Christ’s trial and crucifixion through the Stations of the Cross at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery in Tunapuna, Trinidad.

Probably the first striking thing about Trinidad and Tobago is the way space is conceptualized and utilized differently than in America. Architecture comes in a variety of forms: modern, Western cityscapes exist side-by-side with empty lots, homes put together from spare materials, marketplaces erected in the shadow of a KFC. The space seems entirely human made, rather than sterile and mass-produced. Even the writings of a menu on the wall, or the business hours of a store, are hand painted. People move seamlessly through these industrial and rural spaces, as they always seem joined together. Trinidadian time moves differently as well, not necessarily in the linear, frantic pace I’m accustomed to in New York. Things happen when they happen, and moving somewhere can be as much as part of the experience as actually arriving or accomplishing the goal. The way people occupy space has caught my attention. It has taught me to see Trinidad in terms of spatial movement: how the landscape reflects layers of experiences. Empty space is as significant as ‘meaningful’ space.

Cultural Encounter

A gravedigger dances while assisting in the burial of Parang singer Tito Lara at the Santa Cruz R.C. Church, as family members look on.
One of my first true “cultural shocks” in Trinidad was when I attended the Catholic funeral of Tito Lara, a Parang singer in Santa Cruz. His funeral was highly publicized, as he was a well-known and beloved member of the community, and in attendance were family, friends, and Trinidadians from all over the country that came to pay respects. I was caught off guard upon entering the Church grounds: the space was occupied by numerous people, sitting, standing, liming among the graves, which were organized rather haphazardly; they were dug in a seemingly random manner, often blending into the environment as they were covered with dirt, grass and leaves. This contrasted significantly with my American funeral and graveyard experiences, which are always very pristine, sterile, and tightly organized. The Catholic funerals I’ve attended at home made a point, it seemed, to distance the event from what it really means to be dead and buried. Family members left the graveyard before the burial of the coffin, whereas at this funeral, the coffin was lowered into the ground as the crowd looked on, crying, singing, and tossing dirt from the earth onto the coffin. It was practically a transcendental experience for me, as I was thrust into the crowd, and ordered to take pictures by people standing around the grave. I was nervous with adrenaline and unfamiliarity: I was standing practically barefoot in the very dirt that was picked up to toss onto the coffin and sealed into the ground. It was difficult to locate myself in this chaos of noise and movement, and I sort of let the camera take over and connect with my instincts, using it as a barrier between the experience and myself. I would absorb and process the event much later, but in the moment, the camera functioned as a cultural translator for me, recording a time for my consideration later, when I was at a safe distance. This reflects a tension that I had while photographing almost all events in Trinidad. I had only academic, second hand knowledge of what would be occurring at the event, and while I was inside the moment, I had to balance between becoming overwhelmed by the new experience and taking a detached, documentary viewpoint. I tried to let the camera speak for me, to pick up what was happening and perhaps the photographs would bear testament to my own confusion and misunderstandings.

Personal Encounter

A girl works a marketplace both in the streets of Siparia during La Divina Pastora, a religious festival held on Holy Thursday. The statue of La Divina Pastora, kept by the local Catholic Church, is shrouded in myth and is said to have miraculous powers. Every year, Hindus migrate to the site to pray and give offerings to the statue and the poor, as an Indian bazaar is held in the streets around the Church to accommodate visitors.

Perhaps one of the most obvious experiences I encountered while photographing in Trinidad is the danger of reducing subjects, who are, to me, “foreign”, as “others”, especially in the historical and social context of colonialism and racial exploitation. As a white American, I had to be aware of the role I might play and assumptions I might make: that Trinidadian culture is foreign, not “modern”. That I might frame what I see only in terms of differences from my American experience. The cultural encounters had me as an outsider trying to find meaning in a visual experience, and I was afraid to disrespect the event by focusing on the wrong aspect, framing the event as something it was not, or something I mistakenly assumed it to be. I was often uncomfortable to approach strangers with my camera, using it to capture them for my own edification. During La Divina Pastora, many people swarmed in the streets of the bazaar, selling and buying, interacting with intensity. I took this opportunity of movement and confusion to prepare myself mentally with determination that I would take portraits, no matter what, and without really showing ‘mercy’ to people. I wouldn’t be shy, I wouldn’t ask permission, I would just use the camera to surreptitiously get a sense of how people looked during a transaction. One of my favorite portraits is when I aimed my camera at a young girl looking rather bored as her mother completed such a transaction. She was staring away when I raised the camera, but as I clicked, she turned towards me. She has a rather intense look on her face. I felt that my determination to get shots of people was matched in her gaze: we were both staring each other down. This was a moment when I was able to get more comfortable using a camera in Trinidad.

Form and Shape

Children in mas pass by an old building during Children’s Carnival in downtown Port-of-Spain.

Something I liked to experiment with was the idea of seeing beyond what was objectively the surface of an image. For instance, catching the backs of children’s mas during their carnival, the way the free-flow of their white costume was a stark contrast to the old, weathered building in the streets of Port-of-Spain. Art against an institution of function. One of my failings is that I am not very skilled at interpreting meaning in the moments of photographing. I tend to find interesting quirks and forms afterward. Sometimes I can sense when there is an interesting contrast happening, but I am not able to fully process it until later. Finding shapes, colors and lines within a mundane setting is one of the aesthetic things that I enjoy about photography. I am interested in using different perspectives, forcing myself physically to move my body to lower or higher levels, to see something in a new way.


Players in Carnival Tuesday pass by a homeless man in downtown Port-of-Spain

The image of the Caribbean as exported to the rest of the world is one of sun, sea, and sand. A vacation, a paradise. Yet this imaging is constructed by those who wield power and influence, who are exerting their control over place to market it to other Americans/Europeans. Trinidad is outside the predominant tourist industry, but it is still presented as a place to lime, a “get away” from the “real” world, a place of music and fun. The realities and context of the Caribbean need to be considered when photographing. It should not be objectified as either a tourist paradise, nor should the poverty and distress be a central focus either, which renders the Caribbean as destitute, in need of help that only “first world” countries can offer. Trinidad is much deeper than that.

Historical Context

Shouter Baptists celebrate the annual holiday of Shouter Baptist Liberation Day, which commemorates the repeal of the 1951 Shouter Prohibition Ordinance, which forbid Shouter Baptists from gathering to practice their religion.

Trinidad is a land of struggle and emancipation. The country’s history is riddled with suppression of freedoms and creative self-expression, and tension among different ethnic and religious groups. The Shouter Baptists were prevented from practicing their religion by the government, for example. When photographing, it’s helpful to be aware of the nation’s history, to pick up on the significance of certain events, such as the marginalization of certain peoples, and what the social norms are in terms of religious identity. Shouter Baptists tend to be on the margins of society, as they fuse Christianity with African traditional religious practices, which can be seen as threatening.

Deconstructing Cultural Synthesis

A vendor sells framed images of Jesus along with various Hindu devas and devis during La Divina Pastora in Siparia. The event brings together Hindus and Catholics, as Catholics worship during Holy Thursday mass, and Hindus pray and give offerings to the statue.

Trinidad is a multi-cultural society featuring the encounter between Africans, Indians, Chinese, Europeans, all sharing different languages, religions, and traditions. There are many divisive lines between these cultures, yet what is more interesting is the ways that they interconnect and affect each other. The European colonial influence is obvious, but the ways that tradition remains provoke attention. The celebration of La Divina Pastora on Holy Thursday brings together Catholics and Hindus, and the bazaar outside the church reflects this, as vendors cater to both Hindu and Catholic iconography. There might be a distinct cultural separation between Christians and Hindus in the country, but everyone is Trinidadian, and the ways that they come together are examples of fusion and exchange.

Secular Meets Religious

A mausoleum in Lapeyrouse Cemetery in Port-of-Spain is juxtaposed against the PowerGen energy plant, which provides electrical power to Trinidad and Tobago.

Religion plays an omnipresent role in Trinidadian society. Religious imagery is everywhere. Bumper stickers and the name of God are invoked on cars and public transportation, churches and temples are found on nearly every block. The distinction between the secular and the spiritual is blurred when walking through the streets of the country, everywhere are symbols indicating the existence of religious life: jahndis, Christian t-shirts, pictures of devas and devis, rosaries. The role that religion plays in Trinidadian life appears to be so normalized that there is little transition between religious practice and symbolism, and secular, daily routine.

Religion as Performance

Actors dress as biblical figures in the crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday, during a re-enactment of the Catholic Stations of the Cross at Mount Saint Benedict in Tunapuna, Trinidad.

Almost immediately upon arrival in Trinidad, we were told that Trinidadian culture itself could be viewed as a kind of mas. Performance is central to all human beings – we all perform outward personalities, we role-play when interacting with other people. But in Trinidad, the act of expression through symbolic meaning seems to carry more resonance. The religious undercurrent in Trinidad seems to be an extension of this: involving yourself in a larger, transcendental community, playing a role within this community, outwardly projecting something intrinsically spiritual and indefinable, making the spirit visible. Performing religious rituals connects people to their environment and makes a space for the self in the world. It’s using creativity to make visual meaning out of physical objects. The Stations of the Cross, re-enacted on Good Friday by Catholics, is a literal example of performing religion. It’s a mas, ritualizing the death of Jesus. The photographs I took of the Stations of the Cross are some of my favorite, because the experience felt surreal: people dressed as biblical figures, playing ‘God’ and his followers. The images I took were blurred not just because of the dim lighting and movement, but because the moments, or ‘stations’, of action, felt static like a painting, or something dreamlike. The Stations of the Cross helped validate the meaning of performance-in-religion in a real way for me, because it involved a moving truck with loudspeakers announcing the narrative of each station, and the men who were ‘whipping’ Jesus carried and cracked their whips identical to the Carnival Jab-Jabs. All along the journey to the final station, Catholics trailed behind, stopping at each station to take a moment of pause. It was eerily reminiscent of J’Ouvert dawn, or Carnival Tuesday – a group of people walking a set path, a moving truck with bellowing music and announcements, and periods of rest, functioning like the ‘judging points’ of Carnival. Except instead of jumping and wining, people were solemn, carrying candles instead of cups filled with alcohol. The connections between performing mas and performing religion were quite apparent to me during this religious re-enactment.

Liberation Narrative
A young girl dances in the rain during Children’s Carnival in Port-of-Spain
Photographing Trinidad has been a challenge for me, in confronting my own identity and how I am received and perceived in a new culture. It’s been about encountering different conceptions of time and space, using the camera as both a mechanism of capturing others and shielding me from a direct encounter with culture shock. Recognizing Trinidad’s history, context and routine imagery has been part of the experience in rendering moments. Overall I’ve identified a theme of performance – performing mas, performing religion. These both serve as tools of emancipation to transcend the self. Within a defined social space, moments of liberation and transcendence can occur even within a ritualized and pre-conceived performance. Perhaps it is these well-known guidelines and repetitive structures of ritualized performance that help bring us together and beyond the mundane. Photographing Trinidad has been about constant negotiation: between my culture and this culture, feeling out the tensions within this culture, finding connections, balancing a comfort level between subject and photographer, and understanding the relationship between ritual performance and spontaneous performance. The theme of liberation through performance is central to what I’ve understood about Trinidad: that transcending the ordinary is part of the human condition. It manifests itself in both secular and religious outlets, and sometimes the two are indistinguishable.

This friday

click here to see Alice Yard site for event details
Read below for project notes

Haben: Mother Mas Is Alive (Thematics and Outline)

Manifested Hope: Mother Mas and Her Global Community

“Mas is me and I is mas”- Tony Hall

I approached this paper as an artist write up of the experiences, processes, motivations and sources that led to the Mother Mas creation. As a result of cultural performance, immersion and social activism influences, Mother Mas is able to critique, encourage and teach her global community through vocal and play performance. The premise of this paper is “Mas is me and I is mas” in which questions of community, performance and emancipation are undoubtedly formed. As part of the creation of Mother Mas these questions needed to be researched, experienced and learned. Through analysis of some art texts and concepts of installation, memory work and modes of art circulation Mother Mas was built along fundamental lines in order to aid her in strengthening her global community and its consciousness. Alongside text references a major resource component of my search is my personal experience and relations I have built within my own cultural space, allowing the Caribbean context to inspire my work fully.

The themes of the Mother Mas project are a culmination of my mas, artistic experiences, artistic and social discourse and found art of Trinidad. My Carnival experience in February 2009 and Temple of Hip Hop involvement primarily motivated my Mother Mas character formation. In conjunction with the Carnival experience, I have studied festival arts as cultural performance, circulating the birth of Carnival and its notions of emancipation as critiqued by my professor, Tony Hall, the author of “Jean and Dinah”.

Mother Mas was created from my experiential learning in playing Jouvay mas, Carnival Tuesday as well as participating in a plethora of other Carnival activities. Furthermore, the understanding of my participatory position in a tradition that grants me emancipation of identity, creativity and behavior has contributed to forming Mother Mas’ role and purpose. The concepts and readings I have been greatly inspired by in terms of structuring this project have been Derek Walcott’s ‘broken vase’, V.S. Naipaul’s “Middle Passage”, Tony Hall’s “Jean and Dinah”, Annie Paul’s “The Repeating AlterNATIVE”, Boris Groys’ “Politics of Installation”, David Scott’s “Introduction: On the Archaeologies of Black Memory”, Krista Thompson, Cornel West and Gerardo Mosquera. My musical inspirations for the project include conscious hip hop group Blue Scholars, Immortal Technique, Sam Cooke, Deitrick Haddon, Billie Holiday, Anthony Hamilton and various other gospel and conscious artists.

Secondly my theme of a mas celebration is indeed social commentary and discourse through the vocal art form. Violence has been growing across a global scale; particularly in my neighborhood of Curepe some community aspects are shifting as people try to take more safety precautions. This trend is not significant only to Trinidad or the islands, and in turn Mother Mas sings about her pains and the social woes that plague her global community; her vocal song cry is an outcry for hope. Mother Mas has a place amongst the turmoil and violence of any nation; she is the hope potential for change. In mas, she represents emancipation from these social issues, allowing a space for discourse as well as critique. Ideally, Carnival mas characters are always performing and engaging hence why I felt it was appropriate to incorporate vocal performance rather than solely implementing still life paintings or scenery sketches as final exhibition of my experience and research.

In the initial planning stages of this Mother Mas project I planned on painting a series of canvas pieces, each depicting a different social issue in Trinidad. One canvas piece would depict the issue of teen pregnancy; another would represent violence and so forth. It was not until I read Tony Hall’s play, “Jean and Dinah” that I began to strongly reconsider my performance planning. Through Hall’s text, my understanding of mas playing as performance, rebirth and emancipation began to shape Mother Mas and her message. The plot includes two female best friends Jean and Dinah and on the morning of Carnival Monday, Jean tries to unsuccessfully convince a sick, bedridden Dinah to play mas. Here is the excerpt that encouraged me to break out of the common art exhibition approach I originally planned and bring Mother Mas to life through movement and performance. The text reads as follows; it is an argument between Jean and Dinah:

JEAN: “Today is our day. If we don’t play [mas] today, we might as well be dead.”
DINAH: “I played some of the best mas in this place. So you, nor nobody like you, can’t tell me about mas. Mas is me and I is mas. And I am telling you that I am staying in my pissing bed, here today.”

Dinah states that “Mas is me and I is mas” which is a culmination of Mother Mas for me. No one can define mas for Dinah because she has made it her own; she has always connected with mas tradition for a lifelong while. Mas is an invocation, an awakening of new spirits and tapping into an inner self yet to be found. For some, mas is a tool to reconnect with an inner self that has always existed. This is the definition I apply to Mother Mas. Following my Temple of Hip Hop experience I have witnessed how mas has pushed me to an even further conscious understanding of myself as an activist, singer, artist and poet. Mother Mas allows me to try new art forms such as spoken word, an art form I have always been interested in but have never attempted to perform. For this Mother Mas allows me to tap into a deeper part of my creativity and will to take on such a challenge.

Mas, in the context of Jean and Dinah is used as an eliminator of problems, a temporary medicine to ease their life’s pains and heartaches. On the contrary my Mother Mas is the truth teller of violence, poverty, and inequality; Mother Mas is the reminder of issues though her mission is to give hope to a global community. Mother Mas signifies ‘memory-work’ and ‘freeing up’ from societal issues through consciousness. Mother Mas, unlike Jean and Dinah uses mas as a platform to display and express her societal sermon, not to mask herself behind it.

The third element to the creation of Mother Mas is found art. This aspect was headed by Thea Button, my project partner. Thea’s interest in understanding space and our positions as island visiting artists encouraged her to find and merge remnants, artifacts, trash and any movable objects that reflect geographical community and Trinidadian identity. The found pieces represent a momentary piece; an art piece built depending on what could be found in specific moments. With the objects Thea found, combining the ugly, unsanitary and uncensored parts of Trinidad with a Mother mas character representing hope, change and protection of Trinidad initially appear to be extremes. Thea was determined to make a found art piece created from people’s trash, thus formulating beauty from rubble but interestingly this signifies Mother Mas’ beautiful hope for the world regarding the stains of violence, corruption and poverty. Furthermore I as the Mother Mas character will wear Thea’s found art creation as a costume during the final performance.

thea: thematic outline

            This place is it. Where we are now we must embrace. Time, space, circumstance, whatever, understand it, and if you don’t, try. Do not transplant your past, your “home”, your preconceptions on this place. Own it. Open yourself to what it has to offer. What we have is a snapshot, it is one view of a huge world. Extrapolate, expand, but do not diminish. Humanity has a common bond and universal themes but it is the individuality that makes each instant important. We all have pasts and we must learn from them but not allow those pasts to rule our present or we run the risk of sacrificing what is for what could be. It is in honor of that fact that I began my project. I took a method I had learned in another place and time, found art, and applied it to my current project and situation. And at first that worked. But I slowly realized that I was bringing too much of my past into it and I needed to learn and absorb more from my present. The universe thought so too when the cleaning lady did her job, and in cleaning up my collected trash, also provided me with the clean slate upon which to build my project as it should be.  This event coincided with an opportune conversation with Sean Leonard that meshed my project with Haben’s and forced me to pull a little more Trinidad into what I was doing.  And that is how I got to the idea of Mas, after all, what is more Trini than carnival, embracing the creativity it takes to take something out of nothing, and performing with confidence and presence.

            I was of course blessed with a space that by itself meant something. Trinidad as a whole has infinite faces and opportunities, interesting personalities, and great energy. But Alice Yard as an individual space is a gem.  If culture is shaped by art, then Alice Yard is doing a great deal of shaping. Every type of art and artist can be found there and anything can be facilitated. A can do attitude, an open mind, and a safe space can take you far when it comes to fostering creativity and I have found Alice Yard to be an invaluable muse.  Combine that with in depth readings about art in an international context and I was better able to see Alice Yard as a lens with which to view the rest of the world but still able to understand it as a oasis, a special, individual sanctuary that can only exist as a product of the environment it exists in, in the moment.

            I am who I am right now. I am not the me of next year, last week, or even tomorrow. I am partially a product of fate, partially of industry, and I am only so good or bad as my actions and what comes of them. I am a person and I could be anyone but my circumstances have led me to be the me of the moment. I have to accept serendipity as a huge component of my being. That is something that I did choose to bring to the table while planning my mas. I could not control the mas in the way I would have liked if I were building it from scratch: I did not have the budget, the materials, the skill, or the man-hours to build a formal mas. However, by implementing the mas with my original plan of found art I was able to circumvent those problems simply as a result of the medium I was using.

            The mas I created was a product of this place, this now. It is a result of the greatness, the energy of Alice Yard. It is the outcome of my semester in and understanding of Trinidad, and the consequence of my eye, which is in itself the product of my experiences internationally, both artistically and experientially.

            By using elements such as phone cards, I was able to capture a physical component of Trinidad, which I believe has a greater meaning. The whole process of phone cards in Trinidad is symbolic of something far greater than the simple ability to call down the road. In the states I have a phone plan, I pay it monthly, I have an agreement with the phone company to be a customer and they agree to keep my service running 24/7. This involves complicated legal contracts that bind me to them for two or more years and can be slightly problematic when they don’t provide the quality of service I am expecting, But at the end of the day, my phone calls out when I need it to and I don’t really have to pay that much attention to it. Here however, I need to continuously buy phone cards, running from one to the next, discovering, as I have, late at night, that I have run through all of my minutes and still need to make calls but unable to obtain more minutes. It is such a tenuous agreement, no long term security, no cushy convenience of a once a month bill. It is momentary, living in this minute rather than the next, no future plan, simply a call, right here, right now.

It is the same concept that "liming" follows: what I am doing right here, right now, supersedes everything else in importance. It is a moment-to-moment experience, more raw and in touch but also more haphazard, pieced together. It is real, human and a key part of the Trinidad experience.

But my experience in Trinidad is more than just the “Trinidad experience”, who I am makes it what it is for me. This mas, phone cards and all, is a piece of my soul because I am in it because the me that I am no longer exists without the mas and the mas, as it is, would never exist without me.