“HIGH MAS: Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Culture by Kevin Adonis Browne”
Reviewer: Stephen Stuempfle | INDIANA UNIVERSITY
Journal of Folklore Research. May 2019
While the masquerades (mas) of Trinidad’s famous pre-Lenten Carnival have inspired many academic studies since the 1950s, there is nothing quite like this new book by Kevin Adonis Browne, a Trinidadian scholar of rhetoric and a photographer associated with the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine. To date, most researchers have offered general overviews of the wide variety of masquerades that appear on the streets during the two days before Ash Wednesday, or have carried out systematic analyses of particular mas types. Browne, however, eschews comprehensive reporting and instead selects a small number of masquerades and a handful of practitioners as catalysts for the consideration of broader themes. Moreover, his approach is unabashedly subjective, meditative, and evocative, in contrast to the documentary realism that has characterized most examinations of Carnival. The result is a deep account of the materiality and symbolism of mas in relation to Trinidadian social experience, presented in several essays and four series of color and black-and-white photographs.
Browne’s stunning photographs in this collection illuminate multiple facets of the ever-evolving masquerades of the Trinidad Carnival and challenge viewers to look more closely. At the same time, his essays point toward new ways of describing these enactments and interpreting their significance for individuals and society as a whole. Readers with an interest in Caribbean studies, public performances, or experimental writing and photography will find much to contemplate in this well-crafted book.
Title “Beautiful, Dangerous Things: A Review of HIGH MAS”
Reviewer: Ayanna Gillian Lloyd | UNIVERSITY OF EAST ANGLIA
MOKO Magazine. December, 2018
High Mas does not rest easy. Certainly, the cover image—the body of a blue devil in motion—will draw you in. You may even expect a simple coffee table book. Something your guests can peruse over post-dinner coffee and feel good about the beauty of the Caribbean and the splendor of Mas. Place it there, in the center of your comfortable living room by all means, but do not expect to be merely comforted or entertained. “Beautiful, dangerous things” live there. By the time you have lived with the text and the images a while, you might be one of them. HIGH MAS: Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Culture follows Browne’s Tropic Tendencies: Rhetoric, Popular Culture, and the Anglophone Caribbean published in 2013 by University of Pittsburgh Press. It continues a line of enquiry into a distinctive Caribbean rhetoric tradition in vernacular texts and performances and posits a theory of the Caribbean carnivalesque. High Mas goes a step further and investigates performers and makers of Mas while also implicating the eye of the photographer on these subjects to present a poetics of Caribbeanist Photography. I use the word ‘subjects’ warily, as does Dr Browne, I suspect. It’s a complicated term. ‘Subjects’ can feel like a far too distanced, far too imperialistic word to describe the relationship between the Mas makers and players photographed, and the eye and body of the ‘Caribbeanist Photographer’ who tries to capture them. Again, a troubled word–‘capture’. The more you live with the ideas in these essays the more the words that you have grown comfortable begin to chafe. For how can gods be subjects? How can daemons be captured? How can the ever-present dead be fixed and framed?
Title: “HIGH MAS: Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Culture”
Reviewer: Shivanee Ramlochan
Caribbean Beat Magazine. Issue 155, Jan/Feb 2019
Perhaps it’s only when our sight is risked that our seeing acquires a specific urgency. For Kevin Adonis Browne, “open-angle” glaucoma prompted a reflection on how he might see the world, and his place in it. In High Mas, his book combining essays and photographs, we witness myriad possibilities not only of seeing mas but of seeing oneself as a mas—a personal conglomeration of the mystical, the rapturous quotidian. If we believe the sweetly-crooned mantra that Trinidad and Tobago Carnival is the greatest show on earth, Browne’s essays in High Mas are confessional agents at that altar. Composed with sociological cartography, the rhetoric on display here is that rarest of things: accessible, and joyously available to all—like Carnival itself should be. In the vivid, immersive suites of photographs that follow the essays, Browne’s lens tears down the tiered barriers that often dictate how Carnival bands are organised. As co-celebrants of his vision, we see the inhabitants of mas at sweating range, plastered in blue paint or dragging their cloven hooves before them. The images, even to an untrained eye, have been composed with all the accuracy of which love is capable.
Additional Praise for HIGH MAS
Dame Marina Warner, DBE, FRSL, FBA
Novelist, Short Story Writer, Historian and Mythographer
“HIGH MAS is a hugely energetic, original multifaceted, deeply engaged action in book form, which takes up what he calls ‘the magic of perishable things.’ Kevin Adonis Browne moves between memoir and history, aesthetics and gender politics, visual imagery, poetry and, prose to think about Carnival and Mas at a highly original and personal depth. He asks, ‘What does a Caribbean pessimist do with the unfulfilled imaginings of his former deities?’ He confronts his own methods as a photographer to forge astonishing images from the inside of the rituals and the frenzy, and combines these with his academic, critical formation to meditate on theoretical approaches to maleness, to blackness, to the black male body, to being visible and being invisible. He is troubled and his material is troubling, but the book took me and the other judges to unexpected dimensions of understanding and awe at human complexity and depth.”
Editor-At-Large, The Guardian (UK)
“HIGH MAS is impressive in scope, lyrical in style, and innovative in form. [It] impresses both as a work of literature and art. Browne peers into the soul of a people with whom he feels a deep kinship. The result is a radical, genre-defying tribute to a cherished tradition in the finest tradition of literary non-fiction.”
Professor of Humanities at York University, Toronto
“Kevin Adonis Browne’s High Mas: Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Culture is a gorgeous rhetoric, a poetic, visually stunning, and necessary book. That it is a rhetoric is clear from Browne’s essays that theorize, meditate on, and historize Carnival. These essays explore memory, blindness and the problems of sight, composition, light, refusal, something like freedom and the practice of Caribbeanist photography. The subjects with whom he collaborates—those people who make Mas—inform and co-shape the photographic praxis that Browne elaborates in the essays and performs in the photos. A visual textual document of the present, HIGH MAS leaves me breathless with the beauty of what we make, how, and under what conditions.”
Dionne Brand, OC
Poet, Novelist, and Essayist; Former Poet Laureate of Toronto
“Kevin Adonis Browne’s HIGH MAS: Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Culture, is a one of a kind work that understands fundamentally all that is at stake when people make Mas—the embrace of their fierce unexpurgated beauty. The writing, and by that I mean both text and image, is as liquid as Mas itself catching the exquisite balancing of life here, life after, and life before which is ‘being,’’ in Mas. Mas is the body abstracted from the formal tyrannies of history and of the quotidian—not a fleeting or temporary state of performance but the production of an ongoing state of being; neither cosmetic nor decorative nor even dramatic but lodged in the existential, or as Browne might call it the rhetorical. Browne shows us everything about the permeable, uncanny habitations of these figures of Mas in his lucid images. This book is wise and field changing.”
Novelist and Distinguished Professor of English at Hunter College, CUNY
“Lest we forget there was Mas (still is!), Kevin Adonis Browne reminds us of its crucial role in Caribbean culture and history. In this remarkable book, Browne turns his Caribbeanist photographic gaze on images of Mas present and past, too many taken for granted, too many in danger of being lost forever. Poet, visual artist, photographer, essayist, visionary, Browne warns us to pay attention to what we see and feel. This book with its riveting photographs and poetic prose is essential reading. It will open our eyes to what lies beneath the revelry of Mas.”