Front of a Padd Elimu teeshirt - a typical carnival teeshirt


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In 2005 Kinetika Art Links International launched a carnival arts project entitled ‘Roads to Freedom’, engaging young people in street performance with carnival music, dance and costume. In each of the three years, Ali Pretty designed individual projects to offer and involve young people in an exploration of ‘freedom’ historically and personally, and in ways that informed and entertained. Each project created a carnival performance.

The first of these projects in the series took the same title as the overall project, ‘Roads to Freedom’, and was designed for Paddington Arts Elimu mas band at Notting Hill Carnival 2005. The theme explored how carnival in Trinidad arose out of emancipation from slavery and looked at the African influence in carnival though costume, music and dance. Designs inventively and wittily drew on and referenced traditional characterisations from Caribbean carnival, and historical and contemporary African textiles, art forms and symbols were used  in the designs.  Extensive use, for example,   was made of  West African adinkra symbols.

Adinkra symbols are proverb-like. Each sign has a meaningful reference or encapsulates wise action. Originating in Ghana, the symbols are widely recognised and used in West Africa and the diaspora.  In Roads to Freedom, the symbols were used both decoratively and meaningfully to enhance the  communication of the freedom narrative.

The T-shirt  archived here was designed by Ali Pretty in 2005 for Roads to Freedom. On the front it bears four adinkra symbols which connect to the mas band theme. For example Aya, to the left as you look at the T-shirt, means ‘fern’ and is a symbol of endurance and resourcefulness. The fern is a hardy plant which can grow in poor conditions. The symbol therefore brings to mind, and describes, the resourceful men or women enduring slavery or other hardship. To the right as you look at the front of the T-shirt  is Sankofa.  Literally, Sankofa means ‘go back and get it’; it  symbolises the importance of learning from the past. This is a particularly popular symbol and its relevance to ‘Roads to Freedom’ is not difficult to understand.

Carnival mas bands and music bands nearly always have a  newT-shirt printed up each year. It is purchased by members of that band and as well as bringing in some income, it
offers a sense of membership or allegiance when it is worn and at carnival it clearly identifies who belongs to a specific band on the road. Anyone who is with a band and not in costume will be wearing the band T-shirt and might be following on or assisting with stewarding or possibly driving the truck! The T-shirt is ‘a badge of identity and belonging’.

In addition to indicating the band’s theme, verbally or visually or both, the shirt may identify sponsors, refer to a band anniversary or prize-winning status, or even name the designer or band leader. ‘The Roads to Freedom’ T-shirt, on the  reverse side, gives the title of the band theme, the designer’s company website, the sponsor and the names of participating schools, and arts and mas groups.

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