By DAVID CAVE
CART, Kwynn Johnson’s art documentary film which was launched at the Globe Cinema on September 4th, focuses on the lowly beverage cart and its history in the Hart’s Carnival Band. The film is a worthy exercise in illustrating the significant changes that have been made in our Carnival over the past 40-odd years alongside the things that have remained the same.
Until the film’s launch, my last encounter with Johnson had been her impressive “Red Appropriated” exhibition of 2009. In covering that show I had her previous “Blue” studies to cross reference. I admired that Johnson was going through the colour spectrum, while simultaneously presenting a kaleidoscopic plethora of imagery that is distinctly Trinbagonian. The “Blue” studies resemble the traditional laundry blue packaging and address certain references to the colour blue such as “a blue bottom fly”. “Red” was an even more elaborate study. The artist literally wove an elaborate tapestry of colour-specific iconography that belongs to us such as the red ant and a red solo. Through this exhibition, which formed part of her UWI Masters’ thesis, Johnson did a very effective job of interrogating the role of colour, image and culture.
Now in 2010, while everyone else was “palancing” Johnson was hard at work again, documenting the lowly beverage cart. Why this subject? Johnson, whose fulltime vocation is centred on Carnival could have chosen anything else; there is the music, elaborate costuming, and the sky-rocketing fees. Why dedicate one’s time, money and effort to making a documentary on the lowly cart? Johnson answers this question by stating that, “CART presents an intimate view of a unique, yet hidden innovation, which is emblematic to the band. This film has been produced to archive this tradition, while pivoting on the fact that this year Hart’s celebrated its 50th anniversary in Mas-making.” For Johnson, the beverage cart is the single object that most succinctly encapsulates the concepts of history, subtlety and ingenuity; ideas that are essentially to what Carnival has always been about.
As the film progresses, the viewer is forced to realise that Johnson’s decision to focus on the cart comes with several layers of meaning. These multi-dimensional trajectories offer her an unprecedented degree of flexibility for addressing many complex issues in a surprisingly compressed time frame. The opening scene of the film depicts a procession of beverage carts passing in front of the controversial National Academy for the Performing Arts Building in Port of Spain. The sheer simplicity of this scene eloquently alludes to myriad statements about the multi-million dollar structure: the corruption, cost overruns, and the rifts between government policy and the real demands of the public to preserve the cultural heritage.
Another interesting feature of the film is its subtle coverage of the passage of time. There is no time-specific narrative, but it is clearly shown through the sequence of events that the cart is acting as a symbolic vehicle that is transporting the revellers and the viewer through the course of a day in Carnival. As the film unfolds, it is clear that as time progresses, the orderly, early-morning procession of the beginning of the movie gives way to late afternoon mayhem where intoxication abounds. Band leaders who set stringent rules concerning the use of the cart give way to the demands of the revellers.
As nightfall sets in, the Cart is brought to rest. Johnson’s treatise on a day in the life of Carnival as seen through the “eyes” of the Cart succeeds in conveying the importance of this humble yet indispensable object. The film CART also conveys to the viewer that what has happened to the beverage cart over the years is also symbolic of what has happened to our Carnival over the past forty years or so. Like the cart, our Carnival had humble beginnings. The years have brought their innovations; the beverage cart has received engineering makeovers and has been expanded from a small cooler with wheels to a 2000 pound behemoth.
This does not mean that the beverage cart should be scrapped or removed from the Carnival landscape. Perhaps in bringing the cart centrestage, Johnson is asking for some thought, consideration and respect for Carnival itself as a vehicle of the people. So the next time you take a wine on the cart or grab some ice or liquor, spare a thought for what has taken place to make that simple gesture possible. Perhaps this is the most profound statement that one can take away from CART.