Zak Ové

Moko Jumbies take over London
The GuardianJoshua Surtees
Moko JumbiesCelebrating Africa
The British Museum, LondonGreat Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG
28 July – 13 September 2015

Under a blue sky interrupted only occasionally by wisps of white cloud, moko jumbies parade outside the British Museum. Ella Andall’s Bring Down The Power rings out over the crowds gathered in the courtyard in front of the steps leading up to the columned portico.

Inside the famous old museum, which contains artefacts acquired (and occasionally pilfered) from the four corners of the globe, one section of the world has been less frequently curated than others: the Caribbean.So it’s inspiring to see Trinidad represented in an engrossing installation by British-Trinidadian artist, Zak Ové, whose futuristic authentic moko jumbies stand high in the Great Court interweaving postmodernism and tradition.

But this installation is not part of a curatorial celebration of Trinidad or the Caribbean. It has been commissioned as part of the British Museum’s Celebrating Africa series of performances, lectures and artwork and it coincides with London’s biggest celebration of multiculturalism, Notting Hill Carnival. Ové (son of Horace Ové the filmmaker) was chosen to make a work that celebrates the African diaspora and how its influence and history have travelled the world. It has succeeded and is a wonderful work quite unrelated to any other art in Britain today. Certainly it’s not what the thousands of visitors passing through the museum entrance each day expect to see.

The material culture of the Caribbean is a complex and contested arena.

The archaeology of the indigenous people who were wiped out by the Spanish is scarce and extends mostly to human burial remains and evidence of dwellings in mounds of earth and caves rather than art, tools, weapons and instruments.

The shackles, torture implements and agricultural tools of the plantation- era colonialists aren’t the kind of history the museum’s directors are keen to exhibit, and you can’t exactly export and curate the prettier aspects of colonialism like the great houses and public buildings.

So the Caribbean’s physical heritage represents the histories of the places where the majority of its people originated from many generations ago: Africa and India.

It is difficult in museology to convey to people—the children in the crowd, for example—why a moko jumbie display featuring Trinidad’s current Carnival Queen, Stephanie Kanhai, is part of a British Museum series about Africa, without using the words “slavery” or “indentured labour.” But these are words often avoided in museology for a whole raft of reasons, even though they are the only explanation as to why an Orisa ritual was carried out by Adé Egun Crispin Robinson, a priest of the Cuban Ifa tradition who spat rum and spilled oil, water and honey on the ground before the moko jumbies performed.

Attilah Springer, who curated the project explained the offering, saying, “The ritual was for ancestors, because the moko jumbie is essentially an ancestral type of masquerade. A common thread in African spiritual belief is reverence for ancestors.The ritual we did was following the Orisa tradition of Yoruba people, which can be found in various parts of the region, including Trinidad. What (Robinson) drew on the ground were the signs specific to a particular verse of the Ifa literary corpus that refers to ancestral veneration. We called the names of our own ancestors and some of the ancestors of carnival both in England and Trinidad like Claudia Jones and George Bailey. After that was the casting of the coconuts to find out if the offering was accepted, which it was. He closed with some praise songs for Egun, the Yoruba word for ancestors.”

Although jumbies are meant to watch over and protect communities, the sight of them can be scary; and not just in a vertiginous sense. Here in London, however, there’s poignancy to the performance. The beautiful costumes are designed by Alan Vaughan of Touch D Sky—a band based in Corinth, San Fernando that also has a branch in Newcastle where Vaughan is from and where he teaches British kids how to play moko jumbies.

Kanhai is wearing the same costume she won the Carnival Queen competition in: The Sweet Waters of Africa.

“The only thing that’s different is that the actual Queen headpiece is double the size,” says Vaughan. “…We couldn’t bring it over here because it was too big,” says Kanhai, finishing his sentence for him. The whole theme of our mas this year is called Crossing The River which is based on the Caryl Phillips novel based in the UK, US and Caribbean,” Vaughan continues.

He’s been coming to Trinidad for 20 years and this year worked at Robert Young’s Propaganda space in Belmont, close to the Queen’s Park Savannah.

“It’s about how the influence of Africa spread out and how it thematically runs across generations. There are throwbacks and leaps of time. So the whole mas, crossing the Savannah stage, or the ‘river’, was actually crossing the Atlantic. The original spirit from Africa manifests itself in music, rhythm, art design so it’s like the water is running out from Africa feeding the world, hence this ocean costume.”

As well as Kanhai’s magnificent costume, Vaughan and his two young protégés – Bradley Bell from Newcastle and Jonadiah Gonzales from San Fernando – are dressed in costumes with completely covered headpieces.

“These are a hybrid thing,” says their softly spoken designer, “ so you’ve got influence from Egungun costume from the Yoruba tradition that manifests itself across West Africa and looking across to Trinidad you can see the similarities with Pierrot Grenade with all the pieces of fabric coming off. It pays homage to both those things.”

Watching the show are Horace Ové, the playwright Mustapha Matura and the artist Peter Doig among other members of Trinidad’s extended artistic family.

Zak Ové is happy and slightly overwhelmed at how many people have come and how well it has turned out.

“This is mas making,” he says. “Even if you look at the copper skirt (on one of the figures), which I built in my garden. Really I got that from the Dame Lorraine: the Victorian skirt where you’re showing your bamsee. All the elements in this have an inspiration from the years I’ve spent chipping on the road in Trinidad watching and looking and learning from all the great mas men before me. Nari Approo, Jason Griffith, Peter Minshall, you’ve got so many art stars who were born and committed to mas making through my brief lifetime. I’ve been in awe of their work. It always struck me that we have such a powerful art philosophy...why hasn’t it had more influence in gallery work?”

Just like Vaughan, who intends his costumes to endure and be partb of his mas design next year, Ove too wants his work to remain.

“We break apart all these great works of art every year to enable new works the next year - which is a stem line back to Indian and African traditions. But on another level, wouldn’t it have been nice or exciting to have a museum in Trinidad that exemplifies the best of the best that was? Where we could still see Mancrab, where wencan see the costumes of people like Nari Approo and get a history and timeline of what each mas spoke about for the time it was created in.”

Ové, born in Camden to an Irish mother who ran a boutique store, was brought up surrounded by his father’s contemporaries.

“The whole way through my childhood, I was dragged from political and social situation to political and social situation by a handful of Trinidadian activists and artists who were in Britain at that time and they were kind of extended family, people like John La Rose, Mustapha Matura etc.”

He studied film at St Martin’s School of Art and went on to direct music videos for the likes of PM Dawn, Monie Love and Chaka Demus & Pliers in the UK and Jamaica. He later lived and worked in Trinidad making commercials including bmobile ads featuring a young, unknown Rihanna.

“I’ve always been back and forth,” he says of his youth. “Spent many summers of my childhood with old people having been shipped back home, up in Blue Basin, living in the bush. And that gave me a very interesting perspective because I grew up in old world Trinidad in that sense with people still talking broken French and men like Du Bois up in the hills. It’s something that stayed with me permanently. 

“My grandparents ran a big store on Nelson Street, Jones’ Hardware Store, the store for the poor. It’s been there since about 1907 and essentially my family’s trade is hardware but also the paraphernalia used by obeah practitioners: oils, incense, the stuff used in traditional medicine. Growing up between London and Trinidad was a weird experience because one was modern and then you’re thrown back into the mix on Nelson Street and Independence Square.”

The old and the new are interwoven in his work. The cheeky young childlike figures on the ground could be characters from a sci-fi movie set in space, but on top of the “bamboo” stilts (actually made of scaffold) the two main jumbie figures are wearing masks that could come straight out of Benin.

It’s impossible to tell with the naked eye whether the materials are organic or inorganic, but Ové says they are mostly aluminium and brass with a “Frankenstein” of different mannequins cut up to create the figures. Modern accessories like sneakers, a skateboard and a stereo boom box are transformed into a kind of exotic jewellery.

“I wanted to create characters that spoke about the past and the future, I wanted the amalgamation of black and gold, the colours and materials to impregnate that sense of old world: future world. I’m concerned that the characters and timelines in old mas need new investiture and new powers. What’s a superhero if he doesn’t have powers? What’s a superhero if his powers are out of date?”

Ové explains how he became infatuated with the philosophy and politics of Carnival traditions, particularly old mas while documenting Carnival in Trinidad.

“When I discovered the intellectual world of Carnival and how the process of transfigurement enabled people that had been brought to Trinidad through slavery or indentured labour and suddenly empowered them to be anything that they wanted to be, you realise that Carnival in itself is an incredible emancipator. The process of transfigurement in old mas is what really led us in Trinidad to a sense of independence. So if a men tells you “right, you’re a slave, your history is this” suddenly through the process of Carnival and costume and the creative investment of how you take yourself away from what somebody else might see you as, you’ve completed the transformation.”

He’s received the compliments of museum security staff from Nigeria and the Congo who recognise the moko jumbie tradition “which has literally walked the landscape of Africa before travelling to the Caribbean with slavery,” and see his work as celebratory, quite apart from most modern interpretations of African culture and society that are mired in violence, poverty and struggle.

What the Caribbean retained of African tradition is its celebratory nature and it’s something that will continue to grow in importance as it is passed back and forth across the Atlantic.

“The importance that Carnival has to play in the future of black contemporary arts globally is huge,” says Ové. 

“The other important thing is the return of Trinidad Carnival to Ghana and Nigeria. They’re playing Trinidad mas in Africa and using it to uphold African mythologies in the way Trinidad uses Carnival to uphold its own.”