Visual Culture: Ten Traditional Mas Characters You’ll Find At Trinidad Carnival

February 8, 2016

Words by Tishanna Williams and Jesse Serwer
Photos by Colin Williams

When most people think of Trinidad Carnival today, what comes to mind first are fit bodies, decked out in feathers and beads, wining in the streets to soca music. This is one interpretation of modern Carnival, and certainly an accurate description of what you might find on the road in Port of Spain this Carnival Monday and Tuesday. However, if you look hard enough, you will spot the remaining vestiges of the original Carnival spirit: traditional masquerade characters whose costumes, rituals and traditions have been passed down through successive generations.

Find any one of these characters on the road, and they may tell you a fascinating story. Collectively, they tell the story of Trinidad Carnival. Though the designs of their costumes evolve year after year, many of these figures can trace their roots back to the original Carnival celebrations from the early 19th century, when slaves would parody the masquerade balls held by their colonial masters in the period just before Lent. Following Emancipation, Carnival took on even greater significance, as freed slaves took to the streets of Port of Spain with exuberant and “vulgar” displays meant to shock. Over time, and amid repeated efforts by authorities to suppress these displays, these representations developed a complexity and significance comparable to that of old-world mythology.

Many traditional mas characters have sinister characteristics which, while represented playfully in Carnival, can only be properly explained by tracing a dark and twisted backstory. Often, they will ask you for money, as reparation for some wrong they have experienced. Given the level of theater and vibrance that they bring to the celebration, and the cost and energy expended into building their costumes, these tolls are not exactly unfair fees.

For years, these characters have been diminishing in visibility, their presence drowned out by skin and feathers and other efforts to “pretty” up Mas (There have been several movements over the last century make Mas more comfortable for the upper classes and visitors). Fortunately, our Colin Williams has kept his eye on them, documenting many of the same characters year after year with his camera. We’re fortunate to be able to share what is certainly one of the most vibrant set of images documenting the traditional masquerade characters of Trinidad Carnival.

While this is by no means a complete list, these are many of the characters and figures you’ll find during the main Carnival in Port of Spain, and at Carnival season celebrations throughout Trinidad & Tobago.

See the list here.