Iowa City Carnaval gives Afro-Caribbean traditions a Midwestern touch
Extravagant costumes, celebratory music and dancing will be on display June 7
Melissa Gilbert has painted 66 feet of thin rows of fabric to look like bacon.
On the third floor of the Wesley Center in Iowa City, she is crafting that fabric into a giant hoop skirt — part of a handmade “Bacon Queen” outfit. A University of Iowa graduate student in costume and scenic design, Gilbert will wear her dress June 7 in the second annual Iowa City Carnaval parade during the Iowa Arts Festival.
“I am interested in anything that has to do with spectacle and joy and community,” she says.
Those are apt descriptors of Carnaval.
Known for extravagant costumes, celebratory music and exuberant dancing, Carnaval traditions are more familiar in places like the Caribbean, Brazil and New Orleans than Iowa. But UI theater arts associate professor Loyce Arthur says, at its heart, Carnaval is not that different from the summer parades and festivals already found across the state.
With Carnaval, however, revelers are encouraged to jump up and dance and march alongside the parade floats and musicians.
“On one level it’s a little foreign because people aren’t actually used to dancing in the streets, and on the other level it’s familiar,” Arthur says. “Iowa does have a parade history.”
She and others are working to create a uniquely Iowan version of Carnaval.
“The idea is to involve as many Iowans as possible in the parade, which contains costumes, masks and puppet representations of Iowa’s culture, people and environment,” she says.
In addition to Gilbert’s Bacon Queen dress, the Iowa City Carnaval costumes include representations of farm animals and crops, “corn children” puppets and brightly colored flowers with gears to represent industry and the state’s natural flora and fauna.
One costume features 80 cloth squares decorated by people around the state. Another, the “Iowa River Stories” piece, is a 50 foot quilt of fabric written on by young Iowa writers.
All these costumes and accessories will be on display when the June 7 parade winds its way through downtown Iowa City. But the parade is just one part of the Carnaval efforts.
The yearlong effort includes community workshops and Iowa City visits from international Carnaval artists. In April, Carnaval participants performed during Iowa Dance Week, and they recently had a float in a parade in Council Bluffs. As their efforts grow, the group is open to getting involved in more such community events around the state, Arthur says.
“It is so much the idea of a community celebration. It’s a way to pull people together in a really exciting and vibrant way,” she says.
Her interest in Carnaval stems from growing up in the Caribbean nation of Grenada. As an adult, her memories of Carnaval intersected with her studies of costume and theater.
“Wearing a Carnaval costume, you actually become a work of art,” she says.
Anyone is welcome to participate in that art. That could mean crafting costumes at daily open work sessions between now and June 7, or stopping by the Iowa Arts Festival Carnaval booth to make a mask before the 3 p.m. parade.
It could also mean joining in the parade. Parade participants can either don a costume beforehand or just jump in as the parade goes by.
“The whole idea of Carnaval is, if you see it going down the street, you’re welcome to join in,” Gilbert says. “We want to promote community spirit and have a lot of fun.”
UI adjunct theater professor Jae Hee Kim looks up from working on a billowing hoop skirt based on Coralville’s Devonian Fossil Gorge.
“I just want people to enjoy the Carnaval,” she says. “It’s artwork in the streets.”
l Costume-making workshops are held from 1 to 5 p.m. daily in May and 1 to 9 p.m. June 1 to 5 in Room 210 of the Wesley Center, 120 N. Dubuque St., Iowa City. Follow other Carnaval events throughout the year by liking Iowa City Carnaval on Facebook at Facebook.com/IowaCityCarnaval