Rights of Passage – Alex and Sophia

Play de Devil, play it bad….

Alex Kahn in the harness operating the large Bookman puppet

As part of their artist residency in Trinidad and Tobago at Caribbean Contemporary Arts, CCA7, the American puppeteers, Alex Kahn and Sophia Michahelles have devised a contemporary adaptation of a traditional carnival Dragon band. The project consists of puppets and masks made from waste materials like newspapers and discarded telephone books. On Carnival Tuesday, their small carnival band hit the streets of Port of Spain, and they both experienced the full magnitude of the festival that requires stamina and endurance to carry these large costumes on their backs all day.

Sophia Michahelles in her Dragon costume playing mas in Port of Spain, Trinidad in 2006, using razor wire as the frame of the mystical beast, and covered loosely with strips of green cloth. She also toyed with puns over how she sees the Trinidad mystic, and how people barricade themselves from the outsiders with high walls surrounded by barbwire trimming. See the Canadian artist Paul Fortin version of being barricaded. ***

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Text and images courtesy of Alex Kahn and Sophia Michahelles :

This is a contemporary adaptation of the traditional Dragon Band. Constructing a variety of puppets, masks, and other elements from street materials and found objects, we envision the dragon’s frenetic but inhibited dance as a commentary on current constrictions of class, space, and mobility within Carnival and Trinidad.


The Dragon in its working stages at CCA7, Trinidad

First conceived in 1906 by Mas-man “Chinee Patrick”, to integrate Chinese mythic iconography into the Mas, the Dragon Band consists of three basic components. The Bookman leads the troupe, taking note of the misdeeds of mankind, followed by the Dragon, who struggles against the chains of torments of his keepers, the Imps. The Dragon Dance is triggered at the band approaches a body of water – any gutter, puddle, or river-crossing will do. The Dragon is associated with the Devil; and thus with fire, while water symbolizes the Holy Water of the Church, and by association all the prohibitions and hierarchies implied by any authority structure. The suddenly fearful Dragon writhes, shrinks, recoils, lashes out, and does anything in its power the avoid crossing the water, but eventually, dragged by the Imps, he leaps across, and continues down the road. Whether this crossing implies a supplication or a transgression, or both, is deliberately ambiguous. In either case, one can see The Dragon Dance is a cyclic enactment of constraint, conflict, and release, and as such, a microcosm of Carnival itself.


The headpiece made from street materials and found objects

The traditional Bookman carries a pen and a large tome on which he inscribes the misdeeds of mankind (and of those he encounters en route). Our contemporary Bookman’s is himself the book, with a pile of newspapers, as his torso revealing the accumulation of headlines that sow the seeds of fear and immobility. His head and arms are made of names from the TT phonebook, whose neutral list of names implies a non-hierarchal (Carnivalesque) space where divisions disappear, while at the same time conveying universal responsibility and culpability for the current situation.

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