We Asked the Women of ‘Pretty Mas’ About the True Essence of Trini Carnival
Photographer Candice Pantin captured the feathers, gems, and skin to shine a light on freedom of expression at Carnival.
All photos by the author.
During the two days before Lent, the backdrop of the sweltering Caribbean sun sets the stage for Trinidad’s capital Port of Spain to host arguably one of the world’s most joyous street parties. Lined with revelers flocking "down d road" in a euphoric state powered by soca’s driving rhythms, spirited by libations, and coloured with revealing costumes, Trini Carnival is definitely one of those times to spread your hands and let go.
Trinidad Carnival started in the 18th century as a means for African slaves to artistically express their united desired for freedom from their colonial oppressors. The enslaved mimicked their French wealthy masters’ fancy balls by holding their own folkloric masquerade parties (the derivation for the term Mas) in the backyards of plantations homes all the while assimilating their African rituals. With the passing of the Emancipation Bill of 1833, African descent Trinidadians and further East Indian indentured laborers carried on the tradition, as it was a social commentary decrying oppression whilst creating a public celebration for the common folk to unanimously state: “together we aspire, together we achieve”
Today, Rio-style sequined string bikinis replace the grass-root garments of yesteryears. However, many traditionalist Mas lovers lament over these extravagant bikini-and-beads costumes diverging from old-time Mas.
Trinidadian women increased earnings and economic independence grants them the ability to push back against strict moral controls that religion and society have place on them. By liberating their bodies while having well-earned fun they are able to express themselves as as powerful, desirable, and beautiful and not just successful, demure women. Carnival time is an outlet to expresses sexuality within a conservative culture as societal rules are briefly suspended.
Though through an array of exhibitionism, narcissism, and voyeurism, these Caribbean women have taken on the true essence of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival by resisting a form of oppressive societal norms and expressing their absolute feminist freedom.
One of the leading Trini Carnival Mas bands, Tribe, hostd a sweet mix of beauty and bacchanal with women in fab and flashy costumes wining (the Caribbean version of twerking) and getting on bad. We asked these women playing ‘Pretty Mas’ their thoughts on the freedom of expression celebrated during Carnival.
Lala Juraver, Artist from Guadeloupe living in Toronto.
“For me Carnival is this time of the year where all the social barriers and restrictive conservative ways are abolished! It’s about loosening up and finally be your true self with no approval of anyone or anything. Carnival has always been a way of transgressing the authority and it holds a meaningful sense of freedom! So yes nowadays the costumes have nothing to do with the Ole Mas times and nakedness is everywhere, making it more ‘sexual ‘ than it used to be, but the spirit of Carnival itself hasn’t changed.”
Liz-ann Jaggernauth, Trinidadian hairstylist
“Carnival allows me the freedom to express myself not only sexually, but to also promote beauty in one's skin, in one's colourful costumes and in one's surroundings during the parade. It provides us as a people the opportunity to ‘free up’ for two days and be unified by music, art, and rich culture.”
Cherisse Thurab, Trinidad-born Toronto-raised creative/art director and music festival reporter based in new York City
“Carnival is a space for self-expression and creativity, not exclusively sexuality. The festivities give individuals—women, men, and children—license to be completely free, while experiencing heightened social unity. There is no judgment. People are able to express themselves, celebrate true liberation, and enjoy a multisensory experience through food, extravagant costumes, color, music, great atmosphere and connectedness with others. Today, our revealing costumes and intimate dances lend themselves to the cultural misunderstanding that the festivities are about sex. This is not the case. Reveling is at the core of our history and Mas is about the freedom to be.”
Racine Burke, customer service representative, student in Toronto
“Well from my stance I don’t think Trini culture is conservative at all when it comes to our sexuality. I think we are very open. Yes we tend to take it a bit too far, we should remind ourselves that we can indulge but we should be mindful that we are the mothers, daughters, big sisters of young girls who we need to set examples for. So yes be sexy, enjoy your sexuality but do it tastefully.”
Shenilee Hazell, cosmetic dental surgeon
“I have always found it empowering to wear a carnival costume, especially a sexy one! I love the confidence that wearing an incredible design inspires. Carnival will inevitably keep evolving but what I feel remains consistent is the celebration and acceptance of a freedom to express oneself! The freedom passport is valid everywhere, and every road is a stage. The expressions begin from your costume design selection, to the carnival band alignment to the way you wine to the sweet sweet soca music. They don’t call Trinidad and Tobago Carnival the greatest show on earth for no reason.”
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We would like to thank Tribe for granting access to play with their band.