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Community activist and artist Nation Cheong

28 July 2011 One Comment

By Adebe DeRango-Adem

“Without question, carnival had become a symbol of freedom for the broad mass of the population and not merely a season for frivolous enjoyment. It had a ritualistic significance, rooted in the experience of slavery and in the celebration of freedom from slavery…..Adopted by the Trinidad people it become a deeply meaningful anniversary of deliverance from the most hateful form of human bondage
-Professor Errol Hill in The Trinidad Carnival, 1972.

Originally from Guyana, Nation speaks to SWAY about the inspiration behind his debut exhibit, and his own experience of Carnival from a multitude of perspectives.


DeRango-Adem: Your debut photography exhibition at the ROM is a retrospective look at the history of Caribana (now Scotiabank Toronto Caribbean Carnival) in Toronto, and the cultural legacy behind Carnival.  What inspired you to put this exhibition together?

Cheong: I started documenting Caribana after reading the book Trinidad Carnival by Jeffrey Chock in 2007.  The images moved me so much to want to deepen my understanding of the cultural significance of Carnival and the history of all its permutations.  The intention has always been to publish a powerful book documenting Toronto’s Caribana and the history of the Caribbean families who immigrated to Toronto.  This exhibit came about after Karen Carter the ED of Heritage Toronto and Chair of Black Artist Network in Dialog (BAND) contacted me to inquire if I had any Caribana photos that could be part of an exhibit that would mark the history of Caribana from 1967 to today.

How has your work as a community activist and musician factored into your debut as a photographer?

Community activism brings me closer to the impact of social injustices that break people’s spirit or bring out the divine in them; it is these broken and divine expressions, emotional and physical expressions of liberation, resistance, transcendence, joy and innocence that I seek to record.  My music allows me to tap in to the rhythm of a space very quickly and it allows me to dance with the events unfolding around me.

Have you ever played Mas?

I’ve not yet found a local Mas Band that has produced a costume that speaks to me. After seeing Brian McFarlane’s Mas in 2009, however, I know it’s possible to have a costume with social value that I would be proud to wear. Locally, I love what Ricardo McRae is doing by preserving the jab jab tradition here in Toronto.

Despite combining archival photos and film and more recent visuals, your work seems to insist that carnival is not an archaic type of folksong fit for the archives.  Would you say this is the case?  How has carnival kept abreast of changing conditions and remained a contemporary cultural expression for those of Caribbean ancestry?

I would like to see more social and politically conscious Mas here in Toronto to keep the equally important bacchanalian spirit in balance.  I think there is a real danger of first, second and third generation Canadians of Caribbean descent losing touch with the sociopolitical expressions of Carnival.  Ras Stone, a local Trinidadian artist, is doing very conscious work that celebrates the emancipation spirit of Carnival. This year he created a float for Kiddy Carnival that was a tribute to the Marcus Garvey.  This year’s Caribana will also have a Rasta float for the very first time. These are both encouraging examples of folks keeping the conscious spirit alive.  We have a great opportunity every year to remind people of our past, to celebrate our diversity and to promote love and understanding among the many nations that celebrate Carnival, despite colour, class, creed and sexual orientation

As much as people around the world enjoy the carnival as a unique celebration of culture, there is a political dimension behind the music and performances.  How you would describe this dimension to those just learning about carnival history?

The old calypso’s like Sparrow’s 1959 Paye up to David Rudder’s 1988 Panama and Ella Andall’s 2007 Black Woman are a small examples of the type of consciousness that lives in Calypso music.  Soca is party music that should not be ever confused with the musical tradition that preserves the place of the African Griot that survived the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Calypso was initially used a social outlet that would give rise to a national theatre predicated on a sense of collective memory.  How does photography allow for a passing on of memory? Are photographs performances themselves, in the sense that they re-enact and re-call history?

Photographs are a static record of a moment in time that exemplifies humanity or nature at its best, worst or most mundane.  It’s an art form that preserves important moments that trigger deeper and more fluid, complex memories.  Our collective experiences and memories are the makings of history, and a photo can remind us of those important, perhaps transformative moments.

Toronto’s Carnival: Festival Photographs from 1967 to Today runs between July 16th and August 1st in the Hilary and Galen Weston Wing, Level 2. It is part of the duo-location exhibit, also featuring at The Gladstone Hotel until July 31.  In this exhibition, Cheong’s contemporary work captures and communicates the myriad of experiences that have been a part of the Carnival experience in Toronto from its roots in 1967 to today.












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One Comment »

  • Karen said:

    The show at the ROM is only 1 half of Nations work on Caribana. Be sure to check out his show at the Gladstone Hotel if you want to understand the true talents of one of Toronto’s great local artist

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