My journey to becoming a carnival artist (Part 1) – Ray Allan Mahabir
my culture, my history and my passion
Ray Allan Mahabir July 2020
I grew up in the small village of Penal in South Trinidad, the third child from a family of four children. Life as a child was simple. There wasn’t a lot, but a lot of love and compassion from my mum and dad, so my childhood was memorable. My mum, Dorren Mahabir’s impact in our lives from a young age was always a positive one. Her method of teaching us was allowing us to grow and experiment in life. With this I can say my life has been filled with growth and experiments, as the saying goes “when one door closes another opens”.
My mum was also the driving force in my cooking abilities – one of my passions in life. At the age of eleven, I thought I knew I wanted to be a chef, but I was discouraged by all the adults around me and my school because “boys don’t do home economics”. This was just the traditional society that I grew up in, it had specific gender-based expectations that were carved in stone. So, my first dream was crushed, but even as a child I chose not to live in the past and to never give up – especially not on your dreams.
Carnival was a major part of the culture of Trinidad and Tobago. Every carnival Friday we had a ‘jump up’(1) at school. I remember my mum going with me to the chicken shop in Penal (I think it was called Bernardes) not for fried chicken, but this was a poultry shop where we got our fresh chicken from. Here I would collect the white feathers, come home, wash them and use mums food colouring to colour my feathers to make my carnival headdress for school. So carnival and mas making(2) is rooted and embodied in my life from a very early age.
My childhood memories of carnival mas men were Peter Minshall and Wayne Barkley. I was fascinated by both Peter and Waynes’ work. Also other mas men stuck out in my memory – George Bailey, Ken Morris and Irvin McWilliams to name a few. But Minshall was my idol, his work was unique and different and he always had a profound story to each of his productions.
I remember making miniature models of Minshall King costumes as a young person, one of my best was when I took my Ken doll, or was it GI Joe? and made a miniature of Sacred and Profane from 1982 band Papillon. Coming from the countryside of Trinidad where, at a young age I knew I wanted to be an artist, but living in a small village south of the island there was no outlet or know-how to become this. The only real art job I could see was a ‘Mas Man’, is that something I could be?
At secondary school level I studied art, geometric drawing and architecture after which I did two years of geometrical and building drawing, at which time I realised sitting behind a desk is not for me! I wanted to be creative, and not in the typical and constructive “art class” way at school/college. I wanted to create, but in a unique manner. You see, I believe cooking is creative, but that dream was not one I was allowed to pursue. So after leaving school with little to no qualifications, I fell into what I could do by chance – I got a job at the University of the West Indies St Augustine campus as an office staff for 4 years. This was not the standard office work sitting behind a desk so it was ok, but I wanted to be creative.
Every day I looked in the newspapers for jobs and by chance I saw a job for a window dresser – WOW! for me this was different. The only problem was that the advert read “Girl wanted for window dresser”. I remember calling up and asking for an interview and saying ‘but I’m not a girl!’. However I got an interview and got the job in the department store Susans on Frederick Street Port of Spain - I could be an artist after all.
My destiny as to what I was to become was not clear yet but came throughout my life. Things became clearer with every sunrise. I started to design my own shirts as I found the shirts then were so boring! I would take my designs and material to my tailor and ask for the shirts and was then told it could not be done or I would come back to find it was not the way I designed it, so what do you do? Well you take apart one of your old shirts, make a pattern and make your own! And that’s what I did. At this time I was still living at home in Penal and we had just got a Singer sewing machine, one of the peddle ones! I bought a sewing book and taught myself to sew. Now I had my own unique style and with that came orders for clothes from friends and the girls from the fabric shops.
I moved from Penal to Curepe, East Trinidad, which was closer to Port of Spain. I spent most of my spare time sewing I enjoyed it so much, I would be up until 1am after work sewing. In 1986 I started my own collections of my original designs – my label was called By Design. After four years at Susans I moved on and I was already an established fashion designer with my own collections, supplying local boutiques and a full list of clients. I had moved to St James by this time.
I was also now taking part in carnival, playing mas with Minshall’s band. I was very involved in taking part and that became my passion. I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a Mas Man at that time as I was involved in my fashion. My fashion creations were made of textiles and I made jewellery to match the outfits, I was fulfilling my dream… or was i?
As a fashion designer I met a lady call Judy Sanchez who created jewellery from the Bacano leaf and natural materials which I really loved. She was friends with Minshall and in 1989 Minshall was going to give a workshop at the UWI in masking. I was invited to take part in these workshops. WELL! that made my world to meet him and to be a part of it.
After that Minshall was producing Tantana 1990 (a carnival production). Judy invited me to volunteer at Minshall’s mas camp which was on Long Circular Road, this worked great as I lived around the corner and could walk to the camp. I was/am always a hands-on person so for me the mas camp was a bit slow, yes its a big ‘lime’!(3) We did the basic painting and sat around and chatted the rest of the night, then a bit more painting.
On the second night I contacted Judy and said mas camp is not working for me! I wanted to make, not sit and chat. She told me she would contact me later. When I got the phone call from her she suggested I do some of the more intricate painting of the jewellery for the band at my workshops and I agreed. No looking back after that! I was passionate about making mas now and loved every moment of it. I also started sewing some of the squares for the band (the squares were an accessory for the costume wearer).
After that year I met Pascal Ramkissoon – who then give me a major role in sewing for the band for the next couple of years. This is the first man who believed in me and made me the mas man I am today! I was still running my fashion company By Design and was building on my success but I remember July 1990 when we had the coup attempt in Trinidad and that took me for six. I remember after that year It felt like rebuilding the company and my career, at that stage in my life I was involved in a mix of mediums in terms of my work/career with Fashion/Carnival. I always knew that I wanted to be creative, and not in the typical ‘art class’ way at school. I wanted to create but in a unique manner- and here I was doing things and work I loved, my life blessed me with these opportunities and experiences.
Minshall’s mas worked for me as a fashion designer – handmade textiles, his use of textiles, the human body and movement was my inspiration to create my own costume designs. Over the coming years I got more involved with Minshall’s production and learnt a lot.
In 1997 I decided I needed to take a trip and my friend Anthonio was traveling to Europe that same year. I had a friend Michael Guy James working in London for Notting Hill carnival (NHC) and I decided I should visit him and see London, see another carnival.
As usual I got involved in the mas camp, I enjoyed the community aspect of the mas camp and met a lot of artists and mas members from South Connections. I was working closely with artist Ali Pretty (Kinetika) and Charles and Julieta (Mandinga Arts). Over the years and up until now we still cross paths in projects. In 1998 and 1999 I was asked to co-design with Ali Pretty. It was my first time designing for Notting Hill Carnival and we won best band adults, with children’s day (the bands Call the Rain and Flight) saw us winning top bands. Ali and myself made a great team designing, creating and delivering the productions. We were also invited to design for the opening ceremony of the Millennium Dome. This was a great opportunity to be involved in, such a great project. This was my first full year living in London – and boy they did not joke about the UK grey days !!!
Ali Pretty decided to move on and open her own company Kinetika working with the arts. I took on the role of Designer, Mas Maker and Production Manager, and South Connection continued its run of success in being one of, if not the top, band at Notting Hill. At this time I had the opportunity to work with Alwin Chow Lin On (who was instrumental in a lot of Minshall’s large costume). We called him “Chowie”. I got very involved in larger costume designs then as it took me back to my Architecture school days. I had a master structure Engineer working with me, his passion for the drawing and engineering of costume construction was a pleasure to witness. We created many individual pieces, Kings, Queens, male and female individuals. We were an outstanding prize winner of one I fondly remember which is MaMa La Terre which was created for Avion Mookram a take for the traditional carnival costume Dame Lorraine from the band ‘Canboulay, out of the fire come, DANCE OF THE CLOTH’ in 2000.
Well, A ‘Mas Man’, That was my new dream and to tell you the truth, I never thought that it was going to happen. It was not easy to obtain, but Britain and the diverse cultures of the communities of this place inspired me to work towards that dream, and I have achieved it. So do dreams really come true? Yes, but only if you are willing to work hard for it.
*Ray’s Trini Dictionary:
(1) Jump Up – To dance to calypso and soca!
(2) Mas – Abbreviation for masquerader, masking or carnival costume. To play mas is to wear a carnival costume at Carnival time, to join in the masquerade, or carnival band.
(3) lime – Hanging around, usually in a public place with friends, enjoying the scene.