John Lyons’s Whip Snake, 2004. Photograph: Courtesy the artist
Discussing their recent show that examines the holiday’s electrifying atmosphere, cultural importance, and intricate rituals is Paul Dash, Errol Lloyd, and John Lyons
The originator of London’s Notting Hill carnival, Claudia Jones, famously said that “a people’s art is the genesis of their freedom.” In light of Jones’s statements, it is appropriate that three of the most important British-Caribbean artists—Paul Dash, Errol Lloyd, and John Lyons—have each felt compelled to reflect the event’s historical and cultural importance in their own bodies of work. Each artist’s work in the upcoming show Paint Like the Swallow Sings Calypso at Cambridge’s Kettle’s Yard inspires various recollections, historical moments, and color schemes that combine to conjure the atmosphere of carnival. Dash, Lloyd, and Lyons have chosen pieces by David Bomberg, Barbara Hepworth, Goya, and Picasso from Kettle’s Yard and the Fitzwilliam Museum to display alongside a collection of their own etchings, drawings, and paintings.
While some of the pieces focus on the vibrant and colorful elements of the joyous occasion, others examine freedom and liberty, which are fundamental to the origins of carnival. The Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) masquerade parties that the French hosted in Trinidad and Tobago in the 18th century were closed to Africans who were kept as slaves, giving rise to the Mas custom. Instead, they created their own custom, complete with chanting, singing, dancing, drumming, and costumes. The Mighty Swallow, a calypso performer whose songs denounced the injustices meted out to enslaved Africans and indigenous communities in the Caribbean under colonial control, served as the inspiration for the exhibition’s title.
“Carnival for me is the voice of freedom for African diaspora people
Carnival and the Caribbean have long been important themes in the works of the three artists. At the age of 11, Dash moved to Oxford from Barbados. His abstract figurative paintings capture the exuberant carnival mood while also examining its historical origins in resistance. The creatures and characters from Caribbean folklore and mythology have been preserved because to the powerful expressionist and surrealist paintings of Lyons, who was born in Trinidad in 1933. Lloyd, who was born in Jamaica in 1943, vividly depicts live images of troupes and individuals visiting the Notting Hill carnival in portrait form.
The linkages between Caribbean aesthetics and European art history are yet another significant aspect of the show. The show offers an opportunity to reconsider and recreate a connection between the three artists’ work and the canon of western art, according to Habda Rashid, senior curator at Kettle’s Yard and the Fitzwilliam. “I admire the connection between David Bomberg’s The Virgin of Peace in Procession Through the Streets of Ronda, Holy Week and Graham Sutherland’s The Deposition [depicting Christ’s descent from the Cross] and Lyons’ Eloi! Eloi! These three pieces highlight the spiritual component of carnival.
More people have been interested in preserving the history of Caribbean artists’ works in recent years, most notably with the opening of Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s-Now at Tate Britain in 2021. It compiled a comprehensive list of Caribbean-British art spanning four generations. Paint Like the Swallow Sings Calypso is not the first time Lyons and Dash’s art has been presented together; it was included in the exhibition (Lloyd and Dash also have a longstanding working relationship as active members of the Caribbean Artists Movement of the 1960s). However, the emphasis on carnival specifically offers a chance to have a direct dialogue between Dash, Lloyd, and Lyons as well as with other artists they respect.
“We’re mixing up collections,” says Rashid. “We’re bringing in historical works and we’re not doing it in a chronological order. [The show] has deep links to history, tradition and ritual, but it is presented in a really contemporary way.”
Brilliant parade: the artists on their works
Paul Dash’s Carnival Dancers Mingle, 2019-20. Photograph: Courtesy the artist
Paul Dash – Carnival Dancers Mingle, 2019-20
“Carnival for me is the voice of freedom for African diaspora people,” says Dash. “I try to depict the sense of liberation that comes through carnival celebration.”
Errol Lloyd’s Notting Hill Carnival IIC, 1988. Photograph: Courtesy the artist
Errol Lloyd – Notting Hill Carnival – IIC, 1988
“The images I produce are based on sketches or photographs I’ve taken over previous years’ carnivals and of a wide range of bands,” says Lloyd. “Those few revellers depicted are from a specific band, Elimu, which I’ve been associated with over the years. I intended to capture the compositions that could be translated into paintings.”
John Lyons – Whip Snake, 2004 (main image)
“There is a long green snake in Trinidad and Tobago called the whip snake. If one goes close, it throws itself at the intruder in a whipping motion. Jab Jab, the character in this carnival woodcut, carries a whip. When they meet, they play a game of whipping each other as they dance, and incant ‘Jab, jab! Jab, jab!’”
Paul Dash’s Masked Stick-Lick Fighters Parade, 2019. Photograph: Courtesy the artist
Paul Dash – Masked Stick-Lick Fighters Parade, 2019
“My intention was to signal a period that extends to Elizabethan times. The sticks imply stick-lick, the plantations’ martial art, and symbolise a determination to strike back.”
John Lyons’s Mama Look A Mas Passin, 1990. Photograph: Courtesy the artist
John Lyons – Mama Look a Mas Passin, 1990
“On carnival Monday and Tuesday, all streets in the city of Port of Spain, as I remember it, were crowded and in an electric atmosphere of excitement,” Lyons says. “Individual carnival masqueraders, including the Midnight Robber, the Devil and his drum-beating Imp, Jab Jab and many others, in their colourful idiosyncratic costumes, stopped by to entertain spectators.”
Paint Like the Swallow Sings Calypso is at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, from 12 November until 19 February.