• Expressive Arts Research Project

    Theme 1: Reimagining carnival

    Carnival is multiple: it allows for extreme social creativity. In it we celebrate the disparate, all-encompassing, abstract, and inclusive…
    … the focal point of this rite is the human universe and its perennial suggestion of inclusiveness and communality. For all these reasons, Carnival does not have an owner and a subject matter. It belongs to the people.

    The carnival is a powerful part of the symbolism and culture of District Six. It has a long history tied to the development of a creolised urban culture in Cape Town which includes a history of contestation about its meaning, and its cultural and political identity. It includes festive laughter at apartheid.

    ‘Carnival’ and ‘festival’ are terms which are often used interchangeably across the world, and sometimes they are used to denote variations on the same theme. In Cape Town the annual street performances associated with new year celebrations are sometimes referred to as the Minstrel Festival and other times as the Carnival. Over time ‘festival’ has come to be a word which can more readily be used between contexts while ‘carnival’ has retained stronger connotations with music, revelry and joyous celebrations. The term is less capable of being accurately transposed into contexts which refer to book, poetry and film festivals.

    The Rio de Janeiro Carnival of Brazil as well as Afro-Caribbean Carnivals are strongly associated with hedonistic celebrations preceding a time of abstinence. The Cape Town Carnival has its origins in the history of the enslaved people of the Cape: it was the way in which they celebrated their annual day of holiday on 2 January after having entertained their slave-owners on 1 January. A variety of different musical, dance and performance styles were displayed and contributed to the evolution of a richly hybrid musical and performance tradition. Street processions in the city became an annual highlight.

    District Six at its peak was strongly associated with the tradition of street carnival. The destruction of the area had a strong impact on the marching traditions because a necessary part of it included moving through a populated neighbourhood, inviting participation, provoking delicious terror through the personae of assumed ‘evil’ characters and generally blurring the boundaries between performer and audience as people joined in along the way. As residents were forcibly removed to different areas the temporal and bodily memory of the carnival was retained: at the same time each year a version of the procession was enacted as troupes commuted from township to township, performing a much reduced form of the neighbourhood carnival. After many years busloads of minstrel troupes obtained permission to process through the vacant streets of District Six, re-calling the golden days of its existence in community, now characterised by absence.

    From these beginnings, the January Carnival has come to be associated with all of the current excesses of the ‘silly season’: a time characterised by excesses which are often anti-social in nature; it has been tainted with a very narrowly defined association with ‘coloured’ culture, having often been co-opted by the apartheid establishment to affirm the existence of a narrow ethnic identity. It has been representative of the worst of ethnographic representations of people in Cape Town and was used by the state to racialise images of working class performances in the service of apartheid ideology. For many years the Museum has maintained an arms-length approach to the carnival which continues to carry with it a number of ambiguities.

    Reimagining Carnival: 2003

    The title Reimagining Carnival was first used during the Cape Town Festival in 2003. It was a collaborative effort spearheaded by the Museum which combined the re-inscription into the city of the notion of carnival. A range of performers were gathered together in the Company’s Gardens, processing through key city streets, transforming symbols of colonialism and apartheid into subversive and exquisite performances: ghosts of slaves clambered onto apartheid statues, the dispossessed children in costumes inhabited the streets of their city. Musicians and dancers evoked the spirits of the diaspora along with a growing troupe of participant-observers who joined along the way.

    The project is concerned with imagining ways in which we can rescue the heritage of carnival and work with it to build an inclusive carnival culture in the city. We do not intend to replace or duplicate the work of the Cape Minstrel Carnival, but rather to develop imaginings around new possibilities. It is a research, performance and education project which aims to re-establish the carnival, so closely linked with District Six, as a dynamic part of the life of the city. The initial project was born out of conversations and work with Mac Mackenzie, a seasoned local musician and composer who grew up in a carnival household and has played in professional jazz and goema bands since the 1970s.

    Carnivals across the world make an interesting study of how people relate to spaces. It involves transformation of spaces both physically and psychically; it involves movement and music; assertions and inversions of identity; social commentary and taking ownership of places. Ethnomusicologist Angela Impey (2005), in a paper on music, memory and place, refers to mouthbows played as walking instruments in the Northern Kwazulu Natal Borderlands. She refers to the lyrics which often focus on being in space, about fixing relationships in space, while the practice of walking while playing is about transporting knowledge through space. Similarly, the musical processions associated with the carnival and the marching musical traditions in District Six, transported knowledge and the memory of performance on the body through spaces, expressing a relationship to the space through which this movement occurred:

    …sound is a wonderfully emplacing medium… sound and the affect of music-making operate as potent activating modalities for memories about self in place and time… the research utilises musical memory as a method to chart hidden geographies in a changing landscape…’

    Angela Impey, 2005


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