School of Cultural Studies and Humanities

Funding Success: Exploring Women in Caribbean Carnival

Emily Zobel Marshall has secured funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to forge a unique research network focused on ‘Women in Caribbean Carnival’. Read her blog below explaining more about the network and the research it will be undertaking.

a woman in a sequin carnival outfit

The Women in Carnival Research network will be the first international network of carnival scholars and artists focusing on the changing roles of women in carnival (inclusive of anyone who self identifies as a woman). Alongside co-investigator Dr Cathy Thomas and supported by Adeola Dewis, I have secured funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to undertake an ambitious series of workshops and forge a unique network. The workshops will take place in Trinidad (The Lloyd Best Institute, Feb 2022), California (University of California, May 2022) and Leeds (Leeds Beckett University, Sept 2022). This work will build on the existing Caribbean Carnival Cultures research strand I lead at the Centre for Culture and the Arts at LBU.

A home for creativity and debate

The aim of the network is to stimulate new debate across international and disciplinary boundaries. We want to facilitate creative approaches to researching women and carnival by bringing artists, practitioners and academics into dialogue with one another.

The network will scrutinise the role of women in shaping carnival cultures post Covid-19. One of the main criticisms aimed at contemporary Caribbean carnivals by traditionalists is that they no longer seek to challenge the power of the establishment and have become a spectacle of the female body. The Women in Carnival project, through the creation of an international network and the delivery of a series of multi-disciplinary workshops, will explore the many new ways women are participating in and creating carnival; as traditional masquerades, organisers, event curators, designers, performers and steel pan players.

Uncertain times for carnival

In August 2020 two of the biggest UK carnivals, Notting Hill and Leeds West Indian Carnival, were both cancelled. They were replaced by online events and again in August 2021, despite a small number of live events, both carnivals were predominately digital. There are anxieties about the long-term sustainability of the Trinidad and Rio carnivals as we question the public appetite for being in large crowds. Carnival funding also comes from a host of commercial companies, many of which have faced financial insecurity and the effects of a recession. Without funding and preparation time, the fragile economy of carnival could unravel. 

Creating a future built on dialogue

In the face of these threats to carnival and carnival cultures the creation of the network becomes ever more vital. For carnival to survive there must be an ongoing dialogue between participants, artists and academics to develop new ways of delivering carnival and securing its future.

The workshops will be designed to specifically explore these issues, alongside the roles of women in carnival, through making each session inclusive and accessible to a diverse range of participants involved in the creation of the workshop. Each workshop aims to bring together carnival academics and artists; carnival designers and practitioners will discuss and exhibit their work. Dancers and performers will run short workshops and academics will present their ongoing research in the field.

The importance of this project is to observe and document how women are active participants in the creation, study and delivery of carnival. Carnival was born in an extremely patriarchal society. Yet, while its cultural forms have replicated some of the gendered binaries at its heart, it also remains a space in which patriarchal rules are turned upside down. The labour of women behind the scenes in the sewing and creation of costumes often goes uncelebrated and unacknowledged, while the perfection of the female body for the road is often the focus of attention.

Yet today, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, women are changing carnival and using it as a platform for feminist empowerment, social and racial justice and challenging preconceived ideas around sexuality and femininity. Today, the manifestation of feminist activity in carnival is more explicit than ever.

We aim to approach our research and workshop delivery with open hearts and minds. We want to hear from the women who create, study, and perform carnival to understand the role carnival plays in women’s everyday lives today. We intend to help participants to play a key role in shaping the workshops and the direction of our discussions. And we hope to learn, to celebrate, to critique and to be guided towards an even more in-depth insight into the myriad ways that women make carnival happen. 

Women in carnival costumes

photos of Leeds West Indian Carnival troupes, including Mama Dread Masqueraders, by Emily Zobel Marshall, Guy Farrar and Max Farrar

A woman in a feather carnival outfit

photos of Leeds West Indian Carnival troupes, including Mama Dread Masqueraders, by Emily Zobel Marshall, Guy Farrar and Max Farrar

A woman in a green carnival outfit

photos of Leeds West Indian Carnival troupes, including Mama Dread Masqueraders, by Emily Zobel Marshall, Guy Farrar and Max Farrar

Women dancing at a carnival

photos of Leeds West Indian Carnival troupes, including Mama Dread Masqueraders, by Emily Zobel Marshall, Guy Farrar and Max Farrar

Dr Emily Zobel Marshall

Reader / Cultural Studies & Humanities

Emily’s research is informed by postcolonial theory and includes examinations of constructions of identity, race and racial politics and Caribbean carnival cultures. She is particularly interested in forms of cultural resistance and cross-cultural fertilisation in the face of colonialism. Emily is an expert in the role of trickster figures in the literatures and cultures of Africa and its Diaspora and has published widely in this area.

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