An Inside Look: J’ouvert Comes to Life at Lefferts
August 17, 2023
Kick off your J’ouvert celebration in Brooklyn’s Backyard! Prospect Park Alliance, JouvayFest Collective and City Lore have opened the J’ouvert Genesis Immersive Experience at the Lefferts Historic House. The exhibit is part of ReImagine Lefferts, the Alliance’s initiative to re-envision the mission and programming at Lefferts Historic House to focus programming on the lives, resistance and resilience of the Indigenous people of Lenapehoking and the Africans enslaved by the Lefferts family. The multimedia exhibit offers an exploration of the rich and colorful history of J’ouvert in Trinidad and Tobago and its important role in Brooklyn today.
The inaugural exhibit of the ReImagine Lefferts initiative, through funding from the Mellon Foundation, J’ouvert Genesis Immersive Experience is reflective of the community that surrounds Prospect Park. “Prospect Park borders the largest Caribbean community in the world outside of the Caribbean,” shares Maria Carrasco, Prospect Park Alliance Vice President of Public Programs. “We want Brooklyn’s Caribbean community to see themselves represented in the park, as well as at Lefferts Historic House.” J’ouvert (pronounced jou-vay) translates to “opening of the day or I open” in French, and marks the beginning of the official two days of Carnival before Ash Wednesday in the Francophone Atlantic. J’ouvert Genesis Immersive Experience sheds light on the often-misunderstood aspects of J’ouvert, allowing viewers to better understand this essential Caribbean cultural tradition, right in the heart of Brooklyn.
Alongside immersive video and traditional steelpan instruments, “Dame Lorraine,” the character costume pictured above in red, is one of the traditional J’ouvert costumes on view in the exhibit. Originally created by enslaved Africans as a mockery of plantation owners, the satirical character exaggerates the features of a French madame. c. Prospect Park Alliance
“Many people don’t know the historic connections and significance of J’ouvert celebrations. J’ouvert is a living tradition. It has a big story to tell. It’s a story of resistance and resilience,” says JouvayFest Co-Founder and Exhibit Curator, Sandra A.M. Bell. Formerly enslaved Africans in predominantly French-speaking Caribbean colonies created J’ouvert as part of their bitter battles with the authorities to participate in the pre-Lenten festivities of the ruling class. The tradition was made official in Trinidad and Tobago in 1881 when communities fought for their freedom during the famous Canboulay (burnt-cane in French) riots, when they destroyed valuable sugarcane fields to protest British attempts to suppress their way of life. This struggle secured the J’ouvert celebration from colonial interference. J’ouvert has flourished into a potent living tradition and symbol of the power of resistance and resilience in the Caribbean, Brooklyn and beyond.
The exhibit immerses the community in the J’ouvert experience through life-sized J’ouvert costumes, signature percussive instruments, large-format photography of traditional Mas (masquerade) Carnival costumes and celebrations, plus virtual reality. “Put on those goggles and you’ll be immediately transported to a J’ouvert celebration. You’ll have the experience of being inside a J’ouvert band on a J’ouvert morning and gain a taste of this centuries-old tradition,” says Bell.
Large scale J’ouvert character costumes at J’ouvert Genesis Immersive Experience. c. Prospect Park Alliance
This vibrant cultural exhibit at the newly reopened Lefferts Historic House will also include workshops and discussions on the food, dance and music of the classic Trinidad and Tobago style of J’ouvert on select dates while it is on view at the house through October 29.