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Review: Cardiff Carnival 25th Anniversary Exhibition

(February 21, 2015)

Review: Cardiff Carnival 25th Anniversary Exhibition
Cardiff Story Museum, Cardiff

CarnivalImage: © Dan Green Photography

As Bristol, Newport and Cardiff consider becoming a triumvirate economy, the cultural capital of the three cities will need to be harnessed. If this results in a three parent baby, it leads me to consider what is in Cardiff's DNA. Cardiff has the variety and unique mix of its citizens in its mitochondria to add to Newport's heritage and to Bristol's reputation as a lively, grassroots cultural powerhouse.

Cardiffians don't always celebrate (or even know about) the activities their city has to offer. I was lucky enough to attend the premier of Helia Pheonix's wonderful We are Cardiff at Chapter, which showed me that even I could be taught a thing or two … This is what the Cardiff Story Museum celebrates and it does it, as Helia did, with the input of the local people; although they also had £2.4 million budget, courtesy of Cardiff City Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

In the Grade II* listed Old Library Building, a gem of Victorian splendour opened in 1882, we find the welcome to The Cardiff Story as an intriguingly lit cavernous space behind glass doors. Through these you encounter Cardiff in Context - a chronology of the city's past, highlighting the importance of its port, how Cardiff has changed and how we work in it.

The south face of Cardiff's Old Library The Cardiff Story at the Old Library, Cardiff
Grade II* listed, Old Library Building, Cardiff

The Cardiff Story at the Old Library Building
Image: Seth Whales

Most people are distracted either by the interactive model - a mix between building blocks and Sim City that I find irresistible - or the Spillers T-shirt in a display case to one side. Spillers Records, the oldest record shop in the world, has such a loyal following that any local bringing guests to the space points this out immediately. They tend to end up holding hands and talking about all the records and gig tickets they bought and get all misty eyed; there's a tip for a first-date!

The Every Object Tells a Story display then shows us objects from historic collections as well as donated items and recordings of locals and their stories.

One plate, of Clarice Cliff-like colour and exuberance depicting a flower seller, is an early work by local artist Charles Byrd. Born in Pontypridd in 1916, Byrd is better known as a kinetic artist. I recall a piece of his on display in the same space as part of BigLittleCity:Cardiff. I watched the artist enthraling a group of young people, simply by quietly describing his life and practice. They were just hanging out like a Parisian salon, or maybe a Bwyty Hayes Island Snack Bar, having a cuppa and a chat. It's very Cardiff that something so erudite could happen under our noses and yet we dismiss it as ordinary, merely because it is local and familiar.

Carnival exhibition

Dan Green was the Project Leader for BigLittleCity. Well known and admired locally as a photographer, he has a hand in the current exhibition brought to the space. Dubbed "The most FLAMBOYANT exhibition in Wales … EVER!", it celebrates the history of Carnival in the city. Dan has produced a wraparound montage piece for the exhibition. Alongside the costumes, you get the sense of colour and happiness that Carnival is. The opening VIP event was full of activity and sound. To get the full feeling, now that has moved on, catch the Carnival itself in June, or join that merry band of enthusiasts and give a helping hand.

Carnival exhibition

Butetown Carnival and SWICA (originally South Wales Intercultural Community Arts, but now known just by its acronym) may not see eye to eye on the history, but both can take credit for the spirit of inclusivity, creativity and flamboyant exuberance that Carnival in Cardiff has become. I happened to see the Carnival last year - on a bus stuck in its wake, yet it still managed to make me smile.

Carnival exhibition Carnival exhibition

A handfull of paid staff and an army of prop and costume makers - as well as musicians, youth leaders, educationalists, artists and enthusiasts - turn their hours of labour into fun. I recall attending the Butetown carnival in my youth, tasting my first sugar cane; fresh from a van and cut with a machete. How very exotic for a six year old Welsh girl … like travelling without needing to. Last year saw its return after a 20 year hiatus. In that time, they have taken an intercultural and family approach to Carnival, running the MAS Carnival (MAS is short for 'masquerade') itself and growing a permanent, fully-costumed carnival dance and drum troop that can be hired, bringing the carnival to many Cardiff events, such as the city's annual St David's Day Parade.

Carnival exhibition

All cities comprise smaller communities, and contain hidden communities within and under them. Cardiff seems to have managed to be a mix of coexisting cultures, which rarely annoy each other. We have a rich seam of subcultures, and this museum is bringing them slowly out into the open, one by one. Make sure you visit regularly, or you may find that your visitors know more about where you live than you do.

Jennifer Pearce, March 2015

The exhibition ran from 31 January to 28 February 2015

For more information:

Jennifer Pearce is the founder of Art Club and can be followed on Twitter

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