A curiously joyless celebration of carnival

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At the opening of Kettle’s Yard’s latest exhibition, Andrew Nairne, the director of this historic house and contemporary gallery, recited the show’s unwieldy title and joked that he’d test those in attendance on how well they’d managed to recall it.

As titles go, Paint Like the Swallow Sings Calypso – Impressions of carnival by Paul Dash, Errol Lloyd & John Lyons in dialogue with works from The Fitzwilliam Museum & Kettle’s Yard – taxes the memory. The bagginess of that moniker is symptomatic of this exhibition’s flaws: it is fundamentally lacking in direction, trying to do far too much at once.

Three venerable Caribbean-born artists have selected works loosely connected to the theme of carnival from the collections at Kettle’s Yard and the Fitzwilliam Museum. In one gallery, Paul Dash explores the history of carnival, including Roman Bacchanalia (festivals of Bacchus), Italian commedia dell’arte performances, and European Mardi Gras events.

Paint Like the Swallow Sings Calypso: Impressions of Carnival by Paul Dash, Errol Lloyd & John Lyons in dialogue with works from The Fitzwilliam Museum and Kettle?s Yard Kettle?s Yard John Lyons, Mama Look A Mas Passin, 1990. Oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist Provided by hsd29@cam.ac.uk All images are for the promotion of the above exhibition only. Images should not be cropped, overprinted, tinted or subject to any form of treatment without the prior approval of the copyright owner
Mama Look A Mas Passin, 1990, by John Lyons (Courtesy the artist)

Errol Lloyd and John Lyons have dipped into the collections to assemble a pictorial procession evoking the spiritual and symbolic essence of carnival. In both displays, the artists show their own carnival-themed works alongside the historic pieces.

There are some big names flying around (Picasso, Hepworth, Goya) but all are represented in very minor ways. The more exciting works are by less familiar names, notably two drawings by Avinash Chandra that evoke thronged bodies and movement.

Dash’s selection is mainly of prints. The one large canvas (by Pieter Brueghel the Younger) sticks out jarringly. I can understand Dash choosing works of subdued tone – his own paintings and prints in the show are largely composed of rhythmic strokes of black ink that in places coalesce into thronged figures but elsewhere suggest a mass of movement. They are the highlight of an exhibition in which the art is otherwise of patchy quality.

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Why were the collections of Kettle’s Yard and the Fitzwilliam Museum selected? On the strength of the work shown here, they did not yield rich pickings. As a concept, this show feels ill-suited to its partner venues. There is so much exciting work elsewhere on the subject that this feels a missed opportunity to assert the cultural importance and complexity of carnival.

To my mind, the carnivalesque ­suggests misrule and the (temporary) inversion of dominant power structures – aspects little explored here. For a celebration of dance, music and masquerade, it is curiously joyless.

To 19 Feb (01223 748 100, kettlesyard.co.uk)

Notting Hill Carnival – Aztec, 1997, by Errol Lloyd (Courtesy the artist)

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