• Expressive Arts Research Project

    Reimagining Carnival: 2009 and beyond

    While striving to work very closely with the history and memory of carnival, in keeping with its methodology the Museum will not merely replicate it exactly as it took place in the past. Instead, we will retain some of the continuity while exploring contemporary legacies (ie in existing traditions), supporting the growth of new traditions and promote thinking about the many ways in which identity is explored, challenged, embraced and troubled through the carnivalesque. ‘Let no one jest you: fun is a serious matter’ quips James M. Brophy. ‘Why and how people laugh speaks volumes about their society and their political preoccupations. And when elaborate festivals are sustained over centuries, scholars are presented with a superb measuring rod to assess change and continuity’.

    The initial research that has gone into formulating this project has led to an understanding of a decentralised notion of carnival. A number of incremental elements will provide the momentum, culminating in a Heritage Day carnival in September 2010. It will consist of a number of milestones which will rotate around occasions which lend themselves to interpretations and imaginings of carnival: Heritage Day in September 2009; Emancipation Day in December 2009; Declaration Day in February 2010 ; Youth Day in June 2010 and Heritage Day in December 2010. The carnival outputs on each of these days will be themed around their relevance and will be preceded by preparatory activities involving a number of participants in the build-up as well as the processional performances.

    A range of modalities of expression will be accommodated so as to create a variety of opportunities for people with different interests, abilities and orientations, to participate. Through its research and writing programme as well as its performances and workshop activities, this reimagining is meant to challenge the notion that carnival in Cape Town can be nothing other than ethnically divisive and selectively owned. It aims to interrogate the notion of the spectacle performing for the tourist gaze, a preoccupation increasingly on the upsurge as the allure of tourism seems to offer solutions to economic challenges. While not intending to stand in opposition to the annual Minstrel Carnival, it is conceivable that we will encounter differences of opinion as we challenge the notion that carnival needs to be called into service to develop Cape Town’s growing tourist identity, as a rival to the carnivals of Rio, the Caribbean and Notting Hill. Rather, this array of carnival activities will deepen the Museum’s methodology of building broad-based public ownership of its programmes, increasing local participation and developing active citizenship as we lead and support people in their attempts to be part of an enabling city.

    The research programme will run for the duration of the project, and will include tracking the beginnings of the Cape Carnival, its earliest roots and the hauntings of slave memory in current musical interpretations of carnival. It will examine the post-emancipation influence of trans-Atlantic musical traditions on former slaves (especially through blackface minstrelsy and jubilee singing traditions). Most importantly, it will explore how slavery is remembered and memorialised and / or ignored by contemporary South African musicians, and the role of music and musicians in commemorating, suppressing or invoking the memory of Cape slavery.

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