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Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Natalya Mills Interviews Albert Bailey

The Carnival of Trinidad and Tobago: An Interview with Albert Bailey 

By Natalya Mills

“Beauty and Perpetuity” by wire bender Steven Derrek, a remake of a George Bailey classic in 2010 Kiddies Carnival.

The carnival of Trinidad and Tobago—one of the most renowned and celebrated carnivals worldwide—is known for its innovation, creativity, imagination and fanfare. During each carnival season, a great level of originality is generated by the mas-making [mask-making] community, which produces costumes worthy to be deemed the Couture of the Caribbean. These handmade, one of kind costumes often leave spectators and the masqueraders alike in awe. However, in recent years there has been a significant change in the quality of costumes that are being produced in Trinidad. Mass production of costumes and an increasing urge to make larger financial profits takes away from the distinctive cultural and creative aspects of mas.

Wire Bending is at the heart of mas making, without which a large part of the singularity of the Trinidad carnival would be lost. These wire benders bring signature styles to the carnival and assist designers in bringing their ideas to life. Many of the wire-benders have no formal training, yet they create great engineering and mechanical feats. One of these craftsmen Mr. Albert Bailey continues to build elaborate costumes and teach the craft of bending wire. On my trip back home to Trinidad I had the pleasure of sitting with him to discuss the Trinidad carnival.
NB Wire Bending is the heart and backbone of Trinidad carnival costume making. Unlike carnivals in Brazil and New Orleans that consist predominately of large floats, Trinidad’s carnival costumes are carried by the masquerader. Wire bending is not a simple procedure and the costumes are not as heavy as they may seem. It takes a great amount of ingenuity and skill to create the frames of these grand costumes that you see on the streets of Trinidad, Brooklyn, Canada, London and other Caribbean islands during carnival season. There is a lot of precision needed to create these masterpieces made of wire and tape, alongside, bamboo and fiberglass. These frames are then decorated and paraded during carnival, but beneath the feathers, fabric, glitter and beading, are these great wire structures.

Natalya Mills: Tell me about yourself Mr. Bailey.

Albert Bailey: My name is Albert Windsor Bailey, brother of the great George Bailey. I was born on December 4th 1936. I was born on 12 Buller Street, Woodbrook, Trinidad and Tobago. I am 73 years old and I have been working with wire since 1946. I am the oldest wire bender in Trinidad and my skills are based on form. Since the time I started, carnival has changed: we have become more commercialized and we have faster operations. We make forms from plastic now, but thank goodness we still have some forms made in wire. There are a few of us that work exclusively in wire, people like Clyde Basker, Senor Gomez, Stephen Derek and myself that do form bending. We now have the Mas Academy of Trinidad were we teach form making. If we don’t save the art [of wire bending], the Trinidad carnival would loose its singularity and become like the one in Brazil with massive floats, as opposed to wire frames carried by an individual. We are the ones that are supposed to make sure that the art [of carnival] will be on our people and Brazil will keep their art on the floats. This sort of craft [of bending wire] is dying out slowly, but we are trying to hold on to it. With people like you seeking the information, I believe the craft will be in good shape and will be preserved. But I don’t only do wire, I do copper, I do papier-mâché, I do form work, I do fiberglass work, which is now taking the place of the wire. I also do steel work.

NM: So you’re a well rounded with materials. How did you get involved in this type of carnival art/ craft?

AB: When George (my brother) started making mas in 1856, I was just peeping around and saw certain men doing certain works with wire and figured I can do it. I tried it and I became successful at wire. As a little child I tried it with traditional costumes: the wild Indians, the fancy Indians, as well as bringing improvement to the fireman costume. My first fireman had a big collar. Then I started to make sailor mas, and eventually I began making massive costumes.

NM: Did you only work with your brother?

AB: I worked with Peter Minshall [a very well-known carnival designer] for 12 years

TanTan and Saga Boy from the band Tantana 1990-Peter Minshall.

NM: And what was that experience like?

AB: That was is what I would call a classic experience. It was a continuation from George to Peter, which I enjoyed very much. I was part of the creation of TanTan for Peter Minshall’s band Tanana in 1990. I was involved in the creation of Lord of Flies (Santimanitay). I was responsible for scorpion. If a smaller band requested me to make something I would. The craft must go on, right now I am training my granddaughter to bend wire. She designs for a children’s band in Trinidad.

NM: So let’s say for example, when you did Santimanitay, what was the process? How did it start?

AB: Well it started with the idea of the designer Peter Minshall. When he showed me Santimanitay on paper, I studied it and gave him a prototype. If it was satisfactory he will give you the ok to proceed and start to construct the piece with wire.

NM: It is amazing to see TanTan in motion. The fact that she is so large and is carried by an individual is an engineering feat. Turning to the making of it: so you do the prototype, Minshall agrees to it and you go ahead and start. Looking at something like TanTan how do you know how much wire you need

 AB: You don’t know, you just keep going. You look at the footage, if it 30 feet then you start scaling. If the legs are 50 inches then the arms will be this much, the torso will be this much etc. And you keep putting the human body into focus until you get what you are looking for. It took about 480 wire rings to make Tan Tan mobile.

NM: So when you are using the wire are you using other materials as well and does that cause a problem?

AB: Well the matching of the materials will be done with paint or skin color or clothes. But that’s when the seamstress comes into play.

NM: Is the seamstress working alone or does she have help?

AB: If the seamstress decides to get the garments made by a factor or make them herself that’s up to her. All the wire benders do is get the measurements from the individual that will be carrying the costume and work from that. I have to build the costume off of the individual wearing it.

NM: Have you worked on King and Queen costumes that were being judged during the carnival?

AB: I worked on all kinds of mas, individuals, Kings, Queens, and kiddies. Children’s mas are my pride now.

NM: Do you use different wire gauges?

AB: I do, it depends. The kid’s costume I work with fiberglass and 12-gauge wire. With adults I use 8-9 gauge wire because it’s thicker and I use fiberglass jackets or aluminum jackets on the individual that is wearing the costume.

NM: When you say jacket you mean the piece that is worn under the costume that holds it up on the individual?

AB: Yes the brace is what they wear to hold the weight of the costume. It’s worn like a sort of backpack.

NM: So when you start with the brace, you already have someone to fit it? So before TanTan you already knew who was going to carry/perform her?

AB: Allyson Brown performed TanTan and Peter Samuel performed Saga Boy. The individual must come and be measured and fitted. Everything works from the base and then you build up as high as you want. Sometimes it gets heavy. But most of the time you working with the scale and the most you want the costume to weigh is 45 or 50 pounds, reasonable enough to wear for 7 minutes on the stage to be judged. If you are wearing the costume in the streets for carnival I will try to make it lighter or to get someone to help you carry it.

For the rest of the interview see FASHION PROJECTS

About the author
Natalya Mills

Growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, West Indies, Natalya Mills watched her grandmother create men suits for politicians; she played around in a Steel Pan-Yard while her uncle practiced his music. Her grandfather, a talented artist and musician, made her life-long love for art inevitable. After leaving Trinidad in her teen years to move to New York, she took her early influences with her. Natalya attended the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she studied Fashion Design, as well as Display and and Visual Arts Management. At present, she is completing her masters in Visual Culture: Costumes Studies at New York University. Natalya is also currently researching and working on a book about wire benders from Trinidad.

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