BitDepth 787 - June 21

A memoir of the intersections in my life with designer Wayne Berkeley.
Wayne Berkeley, designer
Wayne Berkeley directs the pre-competition assembly of Eve, his final queen of Carnival. The costume did not move beyond the preliminaries later that night. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

The first time I worked with Berkeley was in 1978 when he designed the set and costumes for Helen Camp’s production of Equus. I’ll always remember the devilish glee with which he presented me with my costume, a metal frame of a horse’s head for a headpiece, boots with six-inch heels and, I kid you not, a thong.

I’d taken a photo of Berkeley for Equus, but I was 19 and unready. The first time I truly did his portrait was in 1989 at his Cipriani Boulevard mas camp with the costumes for his band Heromyth neatly arranged behind him. I had to ask for a component of a costume to lay on the empty worktable in front of him.

With weeks to go still before Carnival, the bandleader was done, waiting to hand out his costumes to his masqueraders.
In the 1980’s this was still something of an aberration among Carnival bands.

This notion that the festival didn’t actually sneak up on unwary bandleaders and that it was possible to design, build and deliver costumes to paying customers punctually.
If you were a rival bandleader with a reputation for tardiness, sneering at Berkeley’s “production line” was almost required.

His meticulous and careful approach to Carnival costuming was no accident. The designer was also famous for his work designing decor for events, a business with definite deadlines and expectations, so it wasn’t surprising that he had only one way of working, and that was hard.
I photographed him again after he had his first stroke in 2002, which cost him his right drawing hand, effectively for the rest of his life.

Undaunted by the critical loss, Wayne Berkeley pressed his left hand to realising his ideas and he returned to work. That photography took place in a small room Cipriani Boulevard where he kept a workspace. He sat at his desk, surrounded by a rainbow of colourful markers and with a nervous laugh pleaded with me not to make him look “too bad.”

What Berkeley looked like in those photos was very much the man he was, recovering from illness but determined to live a life larger than his disability.
My last encounter with the prolific designer came this year, when I worked on a story about Genesis 1 Creation (Berkeley won in 1980 with his own Genesis), the band by Catholics for whom he designed his last band queen costume, Eve.

Everytime I turned up to
photograph the work on Eve, the painting of the metal frame, the decoration of the metal rods that defined the costume, the mechanical test of the finished piece, Berkeley was there, weak, I think, but intent on seeing his work presented the way he envisioned it.

Carnival designers tend to be one of two kinds in Trinidad and Tobago, engineers and decorators. Cito Velasquez and Peter Minshall were engineers of the art rethinking the structures that underpin our understanding of mas, Irwin McWilliams and Lil Hart were decorators, redesigning the accepted forms in intriguing ways. 

I don’t think either calling is necessarily superior, but Wayne Berkeley vacillated between the approaches, sometimes within the same band. He loved outsized, fantastic interpretations of real objects and he loved insanely detailed costuming. Understanding that conflict is the only way to truly understand 1992’s Titanic, which I recall as a surging, manic mix of elegant finery and giant chandeliers and roulette wheels that overcame the streets of Port of Spain with unadulterated surreality.

I don’t think of him at the peak of his powers, cocky and triumphant, but working on Eve, diminished physically but unbowed, the essential masman, his keen, specific mind tending to his final Carnival costume as it took shape, piece by piece.
blog comments powered by Disqus