The University of Iowa

How Iowa City soon will become a 'carnaval' city

May 2nd, 2012

By Loyce Arthur for the Iowa City Press-Citizen

As a costume designer in the theater, I feel that my work often is a re-creation of memories. The actors and I create a life for the costumes and the characters, partly based in fact, and partly in imagination.

Working with other theater artists, we construct a world for the audience that they inhabit with the performers during a performance. That is the magic of theater — a shared existence in real time made up of memories and the suspension of disbelief.

There is great sweetness in remembering a work of art, particularly when it is an experience like a theater performance and you are surrounded by a crowd, a community of focused participants all sharing the same time and place.

That is why it is so vital to have theaters, museums and concert halls, both humble and grand, to experience art in community.

In the University of Iowa Department of Theatre Arts, we feel extremely fortunate that our wonderful spaces survived the flood. Great news for all of our collective memories — past, present and future.

However, because of the floods, the arts community, artisans, and audiences know that art and community can happen anywhere and everywhere.

To borrow a phrase, “Can’t contain us!”

Along these lines, over the past 20 years I have been extremely fortunate to research a unique artistic tradition and to work with the artists who create it — carnaval. In particular, I have focused on carnaval events in the Caribbean, the Caribbean Diaspora and the Atlantic region.

I grew up in Grenada in the West Indies, and I have fond memories of the jar of Ovaltine that I won for a carnaval Sugar Plum fairy costume.

I have attended many carnaval events, including those in Trinidad, Cuba, London, Toronto, Rotterdam, Brooklyn, Xicotepec and Rio de Janeiro.

That is one of the fabulous aspects of carnaval — it can be found all around the world.

The most talented carnaval designers are master storytellers who tap into the collective memories of the complex societies that they live and work in and whose artistry brings stories to life. Very often narratives unfold in carnaval parades that illustrate epic stories of Africa, China, the Caribes, Europe, India, the Amerindians and many others.

To Caribbean people far from home, carnaval can evoke sweet memories of the islands at the same time as they create new memories.

Over the course of a year, an army of artists, musicians and ordinary people come together in communities in major cities and small towns to create stunning works art, made up of fanciful shapes and forms.

Participants become works of art, donning costumes, sometimes 15 or 50 feet tall! What awe-inspiring displays of storytelling, memory and imagination!

Over the next year, Iowa City will become a carnaval city.

The UI Iowa Museum of Art, Hancher, K-12 schools and UI faculty and students will be working together on a series of carnaval events, culminating with a carnaval parade during the Iowa City Arts Festival in June 2013.

I invite all interested parties to come together as a creative community to share, recreate, imagine and re-live a vision of Iowa in all of its rich diversity born out in carnaval costumes and floats. We can make Iowans into works of art and celebrate memories of our Meskwaki, Norwegian, Czech, Mexican, Hawkeye, Swedish, German, African and other pasts.

All who represent all that Iowa is are welcome to take part. I can’t wait for people to say, “Remember the Iowa City carnaval parade of 2013? Wasn’t it fantastic!? I can hardly wait until the next one!”

Loyce Arthur is an associate professor of theater in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She will be a guest on the radio and television program “WorldCanvass: Art and Memory” at 5 p.m. Friday in the Senate Chamber of Old Capitol Museum. For information, go to