The University of Iowa
The University of Iowa News Services Home News Releases UI in the News Subscribe to UI News Contact Us

University of Iowa News Release

July 11, 2005

PHOTO: Loyce Arthur, left; Michaeline Crichlow, right

UI Obermann Center Hosts Research Seminar On Carnival

A group of nine scholars selected through a national competition are spending 10 days at the University of Iowa this month examining "The Arts and Cultural Politics of Carnival" as part of the 2005 Obermann Summer Research Seminar. The group is in residence at the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies through July 16.

The seminar, co-directed by UI professors Michaeline Crichlow and Loyce Arthur, is focused on the interrelationships of symbols and the meanings of Carnival events around the world. It also explores the changing meaning of the aesthetics and cultural politics of carnival interpreted broadly as the clash of cultural meanings and practices between social actors.

Crichlow, associate professor of African-American world studies, said the goal is to support and enhance scholarship that will add to a better understanding of the rich cultures and history of the Caribbean region and its peoples.

"All too often, people associate the Caribbean with a few islands that offer sun and beaches, and think of carnival as a raucous, pornographic party where large amounts of alcohol can be consumed," she said. "Carnival as an art form is very misunderstood."

A yearly event throughout the world, Carnival is part artistic celebratory festival, part demonstration of socio-political ideologies, Crichlow said. Contemporary issues of race, class, gender, economics, and more, are on parade in the streets, embodied in masquerade bands playing everything from calypso music to polka music to Top 40 hits. It can also be a vehicle for dissent, opposition and even ridicule of the dominant authorities. In Cuba, New Orleans, Angola, or Brazil, for example, carnival has reflected numerous struggles for identity, bitter class and race clashes and other cultural upheavals.

"Carnival is a kind of theatre, except anyone can take the 'stage', and you end up with strange combinations of the most elaborate, breathtaking characters in feathers and sequins from head to toe next to someone who puts a paper bag on their head and calls it a mask," said Arthur, associate professor of theatre arts.

Arthur, who last fall designed costumes for the UI production of "Shadows of the Reef," a play that dealt with sacred and profane carnivalesque rituals in the Philippines, is using the seminar to continue her exploration of Filipino traditions of ritual performances, past and present. She is interested in the way that carnival can bring to light, social, political and community issues so that people are empowered to change their lives and words, then "whip off the carnival mask to show the human beings beneath them."

Crichlow is studying political masqueraders in the Caribbean who engage in a dialogue with the state, but do so using carnival forms, making their critique indirect but potent.

Other seminar participants and their topics include: 

Piers Armstrong, assistant professor of Spanish and Portuguese, Dartmouth College, "The Symbolic Logic of Bahian Carnival: Race, Politics and Cultural Syncretism"

Judith Bettelheim, professor of art history, San Francisco State University, "How Are Historical Texts Maintained and Transferred in Caribbean Carnivals: A Case of the Haitian Presence in Cuban Carnaval"

Lawrence M. Bogad, assistant professor of theatre and dance, University of California at Davis, "Tactical Carnival: Social Movements, Public Space and Dialogical Performance"

Lesley K. Ferris, professor of theatre, Ohio State University, "'Playing Mas' in Port of Spain and London: A Mandate for Theatre?"

Mary Hufford, Director of the Center for Folklore and Ethnography, University of Pennsylvania, "Carnival Time in the Kingdom of Coal"

Kristen McCleary, assistant professor of history, James Madison University, "Ethnic Identity and Elite Idyll: A Comparison of Carnival Celebrations in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, 1890 to 1910"

Philip Whalen, assistant professor of history, Coastal Carolina University, "Carnival as Social Text and Theory: Why the Popular Front Suppressed Dijon's Popular 'Mère-Folle'"

Jay Semel, director of the Obermann Center, notes that these annual summer seminars have covered an extraordinarily broad range of topics -- disability and employment, human tissue samples, opera, and aging, for example -- and have an impressive record of publication.  "But what is really great about the Obermann Seminars," Semel said, "is having the opportunity to showcase the state and the university to visiting researchers from all over the country."

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Mary Geraghty Kenyon, 319-384-0011,