Any artist who succeeds in opening up aspects of a culture to a foreign audience can count it as a job well done. When, however, that artist succeeds in opening up aspects of a culture to its own people, then the job becomes all the more remarkable. This is precisely what German photographer Stefan Falke has done with his resplendent book Moko Jumbies: The Dancing Spirits of Trinidad. Trinbagonians, having read this book, are likely never to look at these walking, dancing towers in quite the same way again.
It is not that, as a subject, moko jumbies are not impressive in themselves. High in the air, they overlook the people below in keeping with their ancient African antecedents, where, mostly masked, they represented the ancestral spirits overlooking their tribal community. The Trinbagonian novelist Earl Lovelace in his lyrical, informative introduction to the book depicts them as “seeing beyond the present space and time, providing a sense of history and a vision of the future”. What Falke has brilliantly done with his camera is to look beyond the physical characteristics of height, colour, and even movement — although all these features are inevitably and gloriously captured — by breaking them down, as it were, so that here the gods are in the details, the camera as it focuses on the artistic process of becoming a moko jumbie forcing us to appreciate them in their human whole.
Working for over six years with the Keylemanjahro School of Arts and Culture — whose visionary founder Glen “Dragon” de Souza 17 years ago “revived here the almost forgotten West African tradition of the Moko Jumbie . . . and adopt[ed] stilt walking into the annual Carnival celebration” as one means of “keeping underprivileged children from street life and drugs” — Falke has delivered a 200-picture photographic essay that, frankly, boggles the imagination.
Designed by Stafford Cliff, the book begins with a dust-jacket spread of flamboyantly dressed children. Moko Jumbies then opens into a frontispiece of red, white, and black, the colours of Trinidad and Tobago’s national flag, which, as if to signal the photographer’s intent, flows into an arresting full-page photograph of two earth-rimmed red and white boots resting on two stilts from which dangle two black seat-belts, used to bind the moko jumbie to the stilts.
There is no human figure here, but the photograph speaks with its own voice that has its echo on a picture spread, two pages following, of a silhouette of moko jumbies practising in a schoolyard in the coolness of the evening’s dusk, the lengthening shadows evoking a sense of playfulness and mystery at one and the same time. Almost reluctantly, one turns that page, settles on a photo on the contents page of Dragon’s two-year-old son, the youngest stilt-walker in the yard, before coming to a broadly smiling picture of the Rasta-haired de Souza, himself, framed by royal African fabric of red and gold.
The book has barely begun, because what follows demonstrates why the phrase “riot of colour” just had to become a Carnival cliché, and, if the book were just that, it would still easily have passed muster. Only it is all that and more, the “more” making it different — which is to say, superior — to the average Carnival coffee-table book in that, just as Carnival is only partly and, perhaps, not even chiefly, about colour, Falke’s book is really about feeling and emotion, which means that he must have fallen in love with his subject and, as reward, the moko jumbie muse must have decided to bless his work for him.
And work it was, Falke going behind the scenes to register and record the effort required to become a moko jumbie, the getting ready, the first cautionary steps of the novitiate — for surely this is a spiritual vocation — the hours and dimensions of practice, the weariness, the sleeplessness, the camaraderie, the ingenuity, the pathos, the joy, all these children making to become gods even as this gifted photographer contrives to produce not only a fulsome fabulous book about a living art-form saved from death but an underlying snapshot of all-too-familiar aspects of the enduring human condition.
Location, location, location, because much of the force of Falke’s book has to do with his exquisite sense of and feel for background. So that one of the standout pictures (and even to put it this way is, if one is not careful, to tamper with the overall integrity of the work) shows a midnight-robbered moko jumbie practising his choreography in a back alley in Cocorite. The nappy-haired young man is startlingly handsome, in that easy way of the multi-ethnic Trinidadian tribe. His cape swirls behind him, blood-red, and such is his stilt-walking pose that he seems to be advancing to “draw”, in the gun-style of one of those Western films, on some village invader. He is watched, all the while, by a thumb-sucking child standing against a house from which hang clothes drying, the photograph having many elements that you see only in the going-over — the UNC legend on one wall, the pile of gravel on the road, a fat lady putting on an earring on a step. But one could write similar mini-essays on so many of these wonderful moko jumbie pictures that, as a Trinbagonian thanking Falke for helping us to see yet another of the taken-for-granted marvels that this country possesses, suffice it to be said that in his book of photographs, The Dancing Spirits of Trinidad, art meets art, making the imagination start.
– Keith Smith