Empathy of Place: Carriacou’s Shakespeare Mas. 59th Biennale di Venezia, Grenada National Pavilion (2022)

Working with several other artists from Grenada over the past year as Cypher Art Collective, I am introducing this work as part of a local embodiment of long-term work of mine, Empathy of Place. I believe that the objects around us and the environment we live in contribute, poetically, to our identities. Further, the act of movement and aesthetic engagement constitute ways of knowing that may fall outside a firmly cognitive, empirical way of knowing about the world. The objects in this installation were found along Grenada’s coasts and join artifacts of Shakespeare Mas to give the viewer a sense of place. Objects that are likely to add to the experience of knowing what Shakespeare Mas is without conceiving of it in a vacuum or strictly theoretical.

Empathy of Place: Shakespeare Mas

Asher Mains, MFA

(b. 1984 – )

Grenada, West Indies

Empathy of Place is an ongoing exploration of interpreting one’s identity and perception of reality through the interaction with the environment and objects in a place. This overarching concept has been the underlying philosophy of several of my projects. At times, this has taken the form of creating art objects, and paintings, to see what effect they may have in unlikely contexts such as my Painted Portraits for Cocoa Farmers project in 2014. Can the imposition of an art object in a space affect the way one feels about themselves? One of my projects involved sewing together banana fiber as a way of exploring memory and collaboration with material in my space. Sea Lungs was about trying to create a sense of empathy with the life of coral reefs which have been on the decline over the past few decades. This current work, Empathy of Place: Shakespeare Mas is an attempt to recognize the material and aesthetic experience of viewing Shakespeare Mas with a particular focus on the objects one may encounter in Carriacou during carnival.

This current exploration involves recognizing different ways of knowing. Shakespeare Mas, as a performance and practice, has different levels of ‘knowable’ elements. We know, of course, that it is based on the recitation of Shakespeare texts. We know that it is a synthesis of different cultural and historical forces. For all that we can know, there are elements of Shakespeare Mas that history has not recorded. We then must rely on our ability to experience and know through the aesthetic experience. This poetic engagement with an anomalous synthesis, unique in the world, involves movement, and an inevitable acceptance that even as we deconstruct, analyze, classify, categorize, the way we tend to do to gain greater understanding, there are ways of knowing that are intuitive, shrouded, and poetic. As an artist, Shakespeare Mas becomes a metaphor for the impossibility of truly understanding everything that contributes to who we are and how we process reality.

Geographer Doreen Massey, in describing what happens in a space said, “…a domain of co-presence, of relationships-in-practice, of the entanglement of multiple lifelines as they become caught up with one another in going their respective ways. It is, to cite just two of her many formulations, a ‘sphere of … contemporaneous multiplicity’ and the ‘simultaneity of stories-so-far’” (Massey 2005: 10–12, 148, 183). This, along with Tim Ingold’s concept of a ‘meshwork’ of entangled lines of life, growth, and movement (Ingold 2011) helps to put this installation into context as a minimalist description of what one may know or encounter as they are experiencing Shakespeare Mas in Carriacou. Relationships in practice, multiple lifelines, simultaneity of stories-so-far, all in the interwoven texture of the meshwork of experience, reality, and perception as represented by my objects, in relation, set into grids. One may visit Carriacou and witness Shakespeare Mas and never notice pieces of ghost nets, small pieces of boats, sea fans, fabric, etc. yet all these banal artifacts contribute to the experience of being in the same interconnected space as the Shakespeare Mas players.

This poetic response to Shakespeare Mas comes after many years of engaging with regional thinkers such as Edouard Glissant, Derek Walcott, Aime and Suzanne Cesaire. As the result of the surrealist movement and the Caribbean’s role in it, these thinkers exemplified a way of interacting with reality that transcended the model of the western Enlightenment. There is an anecdote that Glissant would find inspiration in listening to the sound of the sea. This statement is easily understood within the realm of understanding how poetics can cause us to reach the conclusion that rationality never could. One cannot say, “go to the sea and you will have Glissant-like thoughts.” It is understood perfectly though intuitively, especially as Glissant references Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite in the idea of our “submarine unity”. This poetic proposition, Cesaire’s Calling the Magician, provokes us all to embrace surrealism and ultimately poetics as a revolutionary response in breaking with the European tradition.

“A new attitude towards the object. After the exploitative nonsense that is our bourgeois, comfortable attitude, it is healthy and profoundly important that André Breton restores liberating, catalyzing, and dangerous power to the object, that he gives back the profaned object its dignity of mystery and its radiant force, that, when all’s said and done, he makes of it again what it should never have ceased to be: the Great Intercessor. Once generalized, this attitude will lead us to the great made sweep of renewal.” (Richardson 1996) In short, Cesaire’s pronouncement is that surrealism and poetics will save us all.

This installation allows viewers to engage in a variety of ways through media. This is important to me in conveying the narratives of the objects and the context for understanding how a sense of place contributes to who we are and how we engage with and process reality. As people tend to categorize identities through questions like, “where are you from?” or “who is your family?”, there is an alternative, poignant set of questions that can place a person; “Do you know this smell?” “Have you ever tasted that?” “What does this object cause you to remember?”. I’ve heard of someone commenting that every parish on their island has a particular smell. For those of us who have seen Shakespeare mas – we carry pieces of it. As with many memories, it comes in pieces and moments. Hearing, “brave” from the Shakespeare Mas player’s opponent. Flashes of bright cloth and mirrors and standing in the hot sun at the junction at the top of the hill. The intangible little objects around that we may not remember explicitly but are inextricably part of the meshwork of our experience. This minimalist approach to Shakespeare Mas is my own response to Cesaire’s call of the magician and a prompt for us to consider how poetics will guide us to know more than we knew we were able to.

Ingold, T. 2011. Being Alive, Essays on Movement Knowledge and Description: Routledge.

Massey, D. 2005. For Space. London: SAGE.

Richardson, M. 1996. Refusal of the Shadow, Surrealism and the Caribbean: Verso

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