Zak Ové’s Moko Jumbie sculptures will be installed in the British Museum’s Sainsbury Africa Galleries from Tuesday the 28th March 2017. These works were acquired and exhibited in 2015 in the Great Court at the British Museum and now form part of the permanent African collection, the first major works acquired from a Caribbean artist.
Ové has created male and female Moko Jumbie carnival figures on stilts dressed in striking black and gold costumes inspired by African and Caribbean masquerade. These figures emerged as a key feature of carnival in the Caribbean in the early 1900s, oral traditions describing the Moko Jumbies as village guardians who could foresee danger and protect inhabitants from evil forces. They were said to have waded across the Atlantic to protect the people of the Caribbean. These works spawned the artist’s celebrated wall-based Doily Series of African grids.
Zak Ové works with sculpture, film and photography. He uses these new-world materials to pay tribute to both spiritual and artistic African identity. This Moko Jumbie display is part of a larger body of work that draws inspiration from the Trinidad carnival, born from Ové’s documentation of and interest in the African Diaspora and African history. The artist’s intellectual and creative responses to this history are filtered through his own personal and cultural upbringing in London and Trinidad, and a belief in the power of the emancipation of self through play.
The relationship between carnival and Africa derives from the enforced movement of peoples during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Between around 1500 and 1900, millions of people were transported from West and Central Africa to the Caribbean and North, Central and South America.
Carnival in Trinidad began as a predominantly elite event. In the late 1700s French immigrants arrived on the island to run plantations, bringing with them enslaved Africans. The plantation owners staged elaborate masquerade balls during the carnival season. Africans also brought their own masking traditions of which the Moko Jumbie is but one. Masking for Africans in the Caribbean was a way to connect to ancestors and nature as well as notions of ‘home’. Traditional masquerades were also used to satirically depict their masters and turn a critical eye on plantation society. After full emancipation in 1838, Africans took over the streets at carnival time, using song, dance and masquerade to re-dress the still existing social inequalities.
Today, carnival on the Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago is an all-inclusive national festival, which takes place every year before Lent in February or March. It has become a global spectacle that celebrates the rich diversity of Caribbean culture and heritage.