“Paint Like the Swallow Sings Calypso” at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, England, wove joyful threads between Caribbean Carnival and the conventions of European merry-making, from the religious feast day to the masked ball. Working with curator Habda Rashid, three largely overlooked Caribbean-born British artists—Paul Dash, John Lyons, and Errol Lloyd—exhibited their work alongside paintings, prints, and drawings they chose from the predominantly white male artists in the collections of Kettle’s Yard and the Fitzwilliam Museum, two Cambridge University institutions. Their selections—including a Brueghel, a Dürer, a Picasso, and even an abstraction by Helen Frankenthaler, one of a handful of Americans in the show—set up thrilling pairings such as Dash’s sensual throng of revelers in Carnival Dancers Mingle (2019-20) seen with Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s A Village Festival, With a Theatrical Performance and a Procession in Honour of St Hubert and St Anthony (1632). Equally memorable were two haunting depictions of Christ: John Lyons’s incandescent figure arching on the cross in Eloi! Eloi! (Lama Sabachtini) (1979), conflating the agony of the crucifixion with the fervor of Carnival, alongside Graham Sutherland’s emaciated, Holocaust-inspired Christ in his disquieting painting The Deposition of 1946.
The first of two rooms in the exhibition placed Dash’s dynamic crowd scenes in conversation with historical works. This was the realm of the Bacchanal, the Commedia dell’arte, the medieval carnival in the Bakhtinian sense: anarchic moments in which hierarchies and social norms were temporarily suspended and subverted. Brueghel brilliantly captures this hedonism in the details of his festive scene, such as a drunken man vomiting, a couple snatching an embrace, villagers joining hands in a lively circle dance.
Dash’s pen-and-ink drawings also encapsulated this sense of liberation in collective abandon, with figures at times dissolving into a blur of pure movement through his use of intricate crosshatching and collage, as seen in Dancing Through the Night (2022). From close up, the work could appear abstract, but, stepping back, the lines form into swaying, whirling, dancing figures that almost seem to float free of the paper. Dash’s distinctive technique contrasted with Dürer’s crosshatching in his 16th century woodcut The Torch Dance at Augsburg, but where Dash evokes motion, Dürer creates shadow and depth.
If Dürer’s sedate court dance felt a far cry from the frenzied rhythm of Carnival, Dash’s fluid movement of figures was echoed in Agostino Veneziano’s 17th-century etching Dance of Fauns and Bacchantes. But Dash’s figures were not limited to exuberant crowds: his wonderfully sinister etching Masked Stick-Lick Fighters Parade (2019), of a baton-wielding troupe in white masks, pointy hats, and Elizabethan ruffs spoke to the darker side of Carnival with its roots in European colonialism and slavery.
The second room presented Lyons and Lloyd alongside Modernist figurative and abstract works. Lyons’s work drew on popular figures from Caribbean folklore such as the Soucouyant, a bloodsucking hag, and Obeah woman, a witch-healer. His woodcuts have a primordial force and resonated with Fritz Möser’s linocut Monstrous Head Breathing and a phantasmagorical black-and-white painting by Picasso of a blind minotaur being guided by his lover Marie-Thérèse through a starry night. A highlight of the exhibition was Lyons’s vibrant 1990 painting Mama Look a Mas Passin, with three masked carnivalgoers—two crowned, one with demonic horns and red eyes—gyrating against a radiant backdrop. Lyons juxtaposed this with David Bomberg’s The Virgin of Peace in Procession through the Streets of Ronda, Holy Week (1935), a vivid expressionistic canvas composed of vertical brushstrokes.
Lloyd’s watercolors portraying London’s annual Notting Hill carnival, while accomplished, lacked some of the vitality of his peers’ works, and a few of the connections felt slight. It seemed a stretch, for example, to compare his naturalistic dancers with an abstract Frankenthaler nearby. The exhibition was also hindered by a lack of sculpture that might have further enhanced the comparisons it set up.
Despite such quibbles, “Paint Like the Swallow Sings Calypso” was a revelation. Its pairings of artworks accompanied by lyrical wall texts from Guyana-born poet Wilson Harris (1921-2018) filled in omissions in the Western canon, namely the exhilarating and important voices and stories of the formerly colonized. The question is: what took so long?