Vibrant colors, Mardi Gras masks and whiffs of smoked foods made for a feast of the senses at the Montclair Art Museum last week during a Carnivale-themed event in the museum’s Free First Thursdays series.

Carnivale is a tradition celebrated throughout the African diaspora that encompasses music, dancing and traditional costumes. Carnival season usually begins in February and runs through early March.

Elizabeth Frasco, organizer of the event and communications specialist for the museum, said it was not only timely to celebrate the tradition but also to honor one of the museum’s exhibiting artists, Vanessa German. Her exhibition “...Please Imagine All the Things I Cannot Say…” is on display until June 25. 

“Vanessa German said that she wanted to make sure that when we opened an exhibition of Black, African American, African Caribbean artists, that we reach out to the community, and we make sure that we don't just open the exhibition and ignore the needs of the local community,” Frasco said. “So that’s why we planned this.”

From October to June, TD Bank sponsors Free First Thursdays, where the museum holds  themed events and offers free admission. 

At the entrance of the museum last Thursday, township resident Nicholas Chevalier showcased his food company, Rhythm & Ribz Smokehouse.

“I've never had the opportunity to serve food in Montclair, so when I got the opportunity, I was like doing backflips,” Chevalier said. 

Sylene Poteat of Poteat Accessories had the chance to display her handmade jewelry. A resident of Montclair for 35 years, Poteat found herself making dresses or hats for her daughter when she was growing up. 

When she started making jewelry, people would invite her to fashion shows and parties to exhibit her talent. Now, Poteat is grateful that she has the opportunity to be part of an event that celebrates Black businesses and the Black community in Montclair. 

“I live here and I know a lot of people here, and we just bring a lot of people to the museum that have never been to the museum before, so that's why we're happy to get invited,” she said.

Alongside vendors like Poteat, the children of Montclair played a prominent role in the festivities, as they had the opportunity to create Mardi Gras masks with Montclair Art Museum instructor Mansa Mussa. He also taught them the importance of the craft activity. 

“The significance of Mardi Gras is that it's really in the tradition of an international festival where people come together and they sing, they dance and they party,” Mussa said. 

Children also had the opportunity to create friendship bracelets out of beads donated by Kumarie Persaud of Charmed Beading Studio. 

Music was provided by the Afro-Caribbean Ensemble from the John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University. The organizer of the ensemble, Vic Ortiz, wanted to create a group that reintroduced his generation to their culture. 

The Afro-Caribbean Ensemble from Montclair State University performing. (Courtesy of the Montclair Art Museum)
The Afro-Caribbean Ensemble from Montclair State University performing. (Courtesy of the Montclair Art Museum)

“I'm Dominican, I’m from the Caribbean,” Ortiz said. “So that's why it's called Afro-Caribbean, because I wanted them to know their roots, especially their African roots.” 

With Afro-Caribbean beats playing throughout the evening, the Kofago Dance Ensemble from Queens performed traditional dances infused with West African and Caribbean influences. Kevin McEwen founded the group in 2018 after the death of his father. 

“We got this thing called Kofago to the world,” McEwen said. “That's what we say. The reason why we say it is because the work that we do is for everybody. We might be based in New York, but that doesn't mean that our work is limited to that. 

“So you know, we're actually excited about being  here because we're trying to spread what it is that we do to everybody.” 

The dance ensemble members also taught participants the dance moves. 

The children of Montclair were honored in the Montclair Black Coalition Poster Contest, where students were encouraged to create artwork honoring Black History Month. Kay Richards of One Love Culture Kids said she told students to think of the people whom they wouldn't normally think of or to think of moments in time that are not in their textbooks. 

The children who were honored in the Black Coalition Poster Contest. (Courtesy of Madeline Gale)
The children who were honored in the Black Coalition Poster Contest. (Courtesy of Madeline Gale)

One of the students, Morocco McLean, decided to draw a picture that honored his great-uncle, Clifford Layton, who was a player in the Negro Leagues and played for the New York Black Yankees. McLean said it “felt good” to be honored for creating a portrait about his family. 

As families and residents moved throughout the museum taking in the different sights, participants like Janet Siders said she was happy that the event allowed her to get out and mingle.  

“This time of year there's so little going on,” she said. “This kind of thing brings people out and is good entertainment, and it's happy and fun and it's free.” 

The next Free First Thursday will take place on April 6 with the theme Spring Break.