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The ‘deep limer’ of St Joseph
“My name is Kevin Adonis Browne. I am a poet, a teacher, a lover, a deep limer, a friend. I dance, I photograph, and I archive... I count the Blue Devil, the Moko Jumbie, and the Midnight Robber among my ancestors.”
With such colourful ancestry, Kevin Browne may have no problems at all with howling like a jab, or striding like a Moko Lord on stilts at Carnival time—in theory, anyway.
By day, Browne works quietly in the Department of Literatures, Cultural, and Communication Studies at the University of the West Indies (UWI), where, behind spectacles instead of blue facepaint, he studies contemporary rhetorical theory.
He specialises in ethnic and vernacular rhetoric, and rhetoric of the Caribbean and African diaspora. Already the author of a 2013 book (Tropic Tendencies: Rhetoric, Popular Culture and the Anglophone Caribean), he is now producing a new, more visual, more personal book—a collection of photographs and essays, seasoned with some poetic reflections, called Between Still Life and Afterlife: Mas, Photography, and the Self.
Browne is crowd-funding the book’s publication, because he believes the expression of mas is important. He is trying to raise $10,000 to cover the production costs of high quality offset printing.
The photos in this new book can be beautiful, reflective, and unexpected. Often the subjects are still, staring back at you.
Photographed between 2014 and 2016, the book features the Blue Devils of Paramin, the La Diablesse interpreted by Tracey Sankar-Charleau, and Moko Jumbies from the South. It will be published later this year or early 2018 by the University Press of Mississippi.
The new book project is inspired by T&T mas traditions; Browne’s personal encounters with individual mas players; and Browne’s reflections on aspects of his own life and society—including the possibility of his own physical blindness since he was diagnosed with glaucoma in 2007.
What is it that inspires Kevin Browne?
“I am driven by things. Spirits. Histories,” he says; and elsewhere, he has commented: “I am driven by the sublime dynamics of vernacular life—the everyday.”
Browne feels deeply connected to Afro-TT Carnival traditions. He’s also inspired by folklore, by his friends, and has been influenced throughout his life by a combination of spiritual and cosmic forces that he says he cannot always name, but that he can feel.
Born in San Fernando, Browne’s definitely a TT citizen, yet he has lived and studied in the US for many years, having moved there after his O Levels when he was 15.
He studied for both his Masters English degree and his doctorate in Rhetoric and Composition at Pennsylvania State University. Later, he worked as an assistant professor at several East coast US universities, before returning to Trinidad to work at UWI.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Guardian about his new book, Browne suggests there’s much value in the creative solace and power of performing your own masquerade, yet he’s also admitted that playing a mas is not always empowering: it can leave a body open to all kinds of ambiguities and risks, including misinterpretation by onlookers, and the possibility of failure if your mas falls flat on its face, leaving you to pick up the pieces.
Clearly, mas for this man is more than fun and games. It’s almost a metaphor or a tool for a ritualised, very public engagement or “testing ground” of life, where you draw from existing meanings and are free to create your own—through costume, movement, collaboration, sound and intention.
Indeed, this echoes the thesis in his book Tropic Tendencies, where Browne advances the view that the Caribbean Carnivalesque is not just a form of cultural display, but a fundamentally rhetorical lens through which Caribbeans define and express themselves.
In that earlier book, he defined Caribbean rhetoric as a process of exercising judgement; seeking redress for historical wrongs; expressing a desire for recognition (to be seen and heard); and reinforcing Caribbean identity through artifacts and symbols.
Browne feels mas can bridge historical time, echoing the past even as a mas player is inventing his present. He sees, in today’s T&T mas practices, links with the Caribbean’s turbulent, brutalising, class- and race-divided past, and our constant ebbs and flows of peoples.
“Caribbean people are a collection of fragments...One of the difficulties of being able to enact citizenship is understanding oneself as belonging to a place. With Trinidad being one of the historical hubs of the Caribbean region, we realise that people here have always been in flux, or on their way to somewhere else... society here has been very fluid in how it has evolved...That kind of constant errancy of Caribbean existence means that we’re negotiating with not only who we are, but who we’re becoming; we’re dealing with the doing and undoing of ourselves as part of that existence.”
Browne sees the masquerade process being used (consciously or unconsciously) to express these and many other things. It is a way to jump up and celebrate your spirit, for example, and also a way to connect with (or exclude) various communities. It can be just a street party; or if done more consciously, it can be a form of art, or self-discipline, or community pride, or a negotiation or expression or exploration of one’s self and/or other ideas. Mas can be passive, or subversive, or any number of qualities: mas is its own rhetorical language and process, he believes.
Meanings, of course, are at the heart of Browne’s profession. As a specialist in rhetoric—which has been defined as the art of using language well, often to persuade an audience—Browne expands the idea of rhetoric to include different kinds of language: the visual, for instance, or the performative, or art, or music.
So in the same way that, say, a Barack Obama can use verbal rhetoric to dazzle you with ideas, so too can a Blue Devil use the “rhetoric” of a mas well played—screams, blue paint, rhythmic biscuit tin drumming, special body movements—to move you in other, different ways: remembering past traumas, perhaps, or voicing visceral dissent, perhaps; or maybe simply asserting: yes, I am here, I exist. See me.
Browne also links rhetoric with the whole idea of citizenship: using language well (whether oral, visual, or performative) with a view to influencing the choices or reactions that people make.
In ancient Greece, only citizens were allowed to engage in rhetorical performances such as speechgiving, says Browne: “So I take that idea, and I deconstruct it. What does it mean for people who are dispossessed, to perform a sense of belonging? What does it mean for people who have been fragmented, or who have been wrestling with their citizenship, to now perform persuasive speeches or visual activity—a mas?”
How do mas players themselves see the meaning of the mas they play? Browne’s curiosity about this helped motivate the new book. In one poem, he writes about specific mas players:
chive farmer, Paramin,
is now no longer himself alone, but the screaming Blue Devil
who rallies his painted imps to scour the grotesque
streets in town.
An erstwhile daemon,
Tracey Sankar-Charleau turns,
a little white woman
enters her, she contorts, and the glistening cheeks of her skull sharpen.
Her black hoof, heavy.
Entranced, her guttural speech, her ‘You will not defile her!’
What new, familiar terrors!
We almost lose her.
Stephanie Kanhai battles, battles after a high fall
(her stilts, leaving her).
She will reach for sugar across the ocean of a stage.
A tall twisted nymph,
she unfurls, balances, then wins.
Jonadiah Gonzales waits.
A world of crossroads beneath him, he waits.
But, a child discloses himself from beneath a werewolf
mask—not the Lagahou’s painful reversion from shapeshifter
Not a changeling but somebody boy-child. Mine, maybe.”
From the photo series Jouvay Reprised, Browne reflects: “The colonised mind is a cruel, cruel fiction. Looking now toward the sun, welcoming the morning, you realise that you do not wake to the truth of yourself by passing through memory and myth into dream, but by actually waking. You must do the work of waking up.”
From the section Seeing Blue, Browne reflects on the possible role of Caribbean photography in all of this: “For all the seeing it can enable, Caribbeanist photography is also an art of conjuring our missing pieces...It is the collection and tenuous resetting of broken bones and of kept, forgotten pieces. It is a conjuring up of missing things that cannot be bestowed with sight alone, but also with vision: to see what exists beyond the boundary of the frame and in the mystery of unexplored shadow.”
Kevin Browne’s website: https://drbrowne.me/
Go Fund Me: https://www.gofundme.com/9zhcoo
Donation incentives: From an initial print run of 1,000 books, Browne is offering up to 100 signed copies as gifts for donations of $200 or more. He will also provide access to exclusive events (exhibits, talks about the book, etc.) and will include a list of donors in the book’s final acknowledgments or on the book’s promotional website.
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