Paul H. Williams, Contributor
Jamaican Revivalists are known for their colourful and elaborate uniforms, sometimes embellished with objects and symbols to which deep spiritual meanings are assigned, and which say something about the wearer. Their spirited dancing and the dramatic cadence of their singing are also some of their peculiarities.
It is a ritual that they carry out whenever they meet to worship, and the processes border on the histrionics, with the sites (mission or sealed
grounds) of the rituals becoming stages. The purposes and actions of the 'actors' are deliberate, and they use their objects, bodies and voices to communicate subliminal messages, not only to the living, but to the recently departed and their ancestors.
Revivalism is a composite of European and African religious beliefs and practices, which merged and thrived on slavery-days plantations, despite efforts - legal and otherwise - by the members of the plantocracy to suppress it. God, the one who will deliver them from all harm, became the centre of the enslaved African religious philosophies, but they didn't let go of their own traditional beliefs, integral to which are ancestral adoration and communion, which include feasting and feeding with their ancestors.
The feeding may be individualistic and private, or the feasting may take the form of one or several days of elaborate thanksgiving, baptismal and other special-occasion ceremonies, in which a table or tables are set with a vast array of food, drink, fruits, flowers, herbs, candles, incense, religious objects, pastries, prepared meat and fish, spices, nuts, legumes, etc.
There are different sizes and types of revival tables, all of which have candles. Some are circular, rectangular, and cross-shaped. Others are actual spaces created on the ground. There are also those that are holes of various shapes dug outside and within a building. These are called pool tables.
And while revival tables contain similar objects, edible and inedible, and are arranged in a similar way, no two tables are arranged in the same way. The contents are arranged to suit a particular purpose and spiritual order. In speaking with Arts & Education recently, Danny Williams, who is well known in revival circles to be an expert setter of the table, said the table is set depending on how "you get it" - 'it' being the instructing. "You go to your bed, you get a vision, as to how it is to be set, what is to be done, and you follow those instructions."
Presentation is key, Williams also said, and each table represents the taste and essence of the spirits for whom they are set, for instance, the African, Hindu and mermaid spirits. And while the types of tables are specific to the occasions for which they are set, it is the artistry of the settings that stands out.
Dr Clinton Hutton, Revival scholar and lecturer at The University of the West Indies, Mona, writing in the Institute of Jamaica's 130th anniversary issue of Jamaica Journal Vol 32 Nos 1-2, says, "For me, the revival table is a visual art form and a very important one, one that is deeply rooted in the Caribbean artistic and aesthetic traditions, although it is hardly recognised and articulated as such in discourses on Caribbean visual art."
The tables are not just arbitrary collages of objects. They are arranged to be aesthetically pleasing, while conveying concrete and abstract messages, just like a work of art. The setter, then, is the inspired artist who sets out to create a certain effect using the objects at his disposal, arranging and rearranging, composing and decomposing until he gets it right.
The effect can be striking as described by Hutton: "The lighting of the [table] is followed by intense singing, chanting, scatting, dancing, trumping, and labouring. All this is done in a circle around the table, an artistic assemblage of a universe of natural and man-made objects denoting the central meeting place in which the communities of the living and spirit worlds join in communion."
Yet, the art of the revival table, unless photographed, is not permanent. For it is temporary art, art for the moment; art for the ritual, art for a particular purpose; art which is eventually consumed and savoured. Hutton writes: "The rituals enacted after the entry of the royal procession end with the breaking (dismantling) of the table and the sharing and eating of the food, the final symbol of the ritual feasting with the spirits."