By Kiersten Meehan
Carnival is many things to a wide variety of people. For some, it is a historical festival deeply rooted in religious tradition, often tied to the beginning of Lent. For others, it is a unique opportunity to take its Latin meaning “farewell to flesh” quite literally and temporarily abandoned social norms and standards, while taking on a new identity through use of costume and masquerade. Most, however, simply view the whole ordeal as a street celebration in which heavy drinking, ridiculousness and fun are boundless.
For me, Carnival appears to be an artistic venture. Though, initially, I was admittedly unqualified to make this claim, seeing that I had no experience with Carnival nor with art.
For the first time, however, Marres House of Contemporary Culture sent a performance art exhibition to participate in Maastricht’s Carnival and I volunteered to be apart of it. The director of Marres, Valentijn Byvanck, claimed that the institution truthfully enjoys stepping out of the house to showcase work, as he believes it is important and mutually beneficial for both the town and the artists to bring art and design out into their local fabric. Nevertheless, the distinctions between society and high art often inhibited Marres of ever participating in Carnival previously. Artists felt that such a context might deride their work and some locals perceived the idea as meddling with traditions. Thus, there appeared to be hesitation from both sides.
Mette Sterre was one of the artists whose work was showcased in the festival’s parade. The piece, titled Hummelmania, featured myself and four others dressed in suits and rubber heads, which served as a critique of office culture.
After two days of extensive practice, our ‘Hummelmanian’ clan marched down to the parade’s start. Flamboyant shades of yellow, green and red wildly colored the buildings, while outrageously dressed people danced to folk music booming in the streets. It was like the whole town had gone mad.
Following the parade, we took on the town and were welcomed warmly as we danced amongst the live bands and performed various skits. One woman approached me and said, “This is beautiful. Thank you for doing this with us.” It was then I realized it wasn’t solely us performing but rather the entire town collectively creating a unique atmosphere, which permitted anyone to play and act just as we were.
Though I did not have any initial expectations, I came out of it all with some rather definitive conclusions. Creative expression in any form is important. Whether that be art, cultural traditions or perhaps even writing, being able to pause for a moment and project your imagination is invaluable. However, due to the constraints of day-to-day life, it is also unfortunately a rare prospect. Carnival is one of the sole phenomena I have stumbled upon that effectively breaks these social barriers. All were welcome to join in the madness, though, truthfully, celebrating our creativity shouldn’t be seen as madness but rather as necessary.
Its necessity was verified in the cheerful grins and ceaseless laughter I found at each street corner. Everyone looked so genuinely happy with one another, taking immense pride in not only their own intricately detailed costumes but in each and everyone’s artistic ingenuity as well. The town became a theatrical stage open to receive and showcase all. Thus, Carnival might be many things but to me, its art and the best I’ve seen yet.