Nanno V. Smith’s work Fireball, is among the works about Carnival at Pepco’s Edison Place Gallery in Northwest, through March 11. (Courtesy Photo)

For millions of people across the globe, Carnival serves as a time for celebrations leading up to the Christian observance of Lent.  And while its historical traditions have shifted from a nonmeat Italian (Catholic) festival, it is often associated with fast-paced music, dance, and colorful parades, but the African influences are often overlooked.

A new exhibit Carnaval: Celebrations of the African Diaspora, being held at the Pepco Edison Place Gallery in Northwest from Feb. 2 – March 11, offers an insight into those African influences.

Virginia historian Kamau Rutledge said the Carnival tradition borrows heavily from traditional African religions and customs, including the ring shout and call and response communication. For instance, he said, Carnival festivities in Caribbean nations often include ancient African traditions of parading and moving in circles through villages in costumes and masks.

“When we see carnival imagery today, the focus is on the tantalizing, the movements of scantily-clad dancers, but in every aspect of their movements there is something spiritual that has nothing to do with sex,” Rutledge told the AFRO. “Circling villages was believed to bring good fortune, to heal problems, and chill out angry relatives who had died and passed into the next world.”

In addition, Carnival traditions borrow from the African tradition of putting together natural objects (bones, grasses, beads, shells, fabric) to create a piece of sculpture, a mask, or costume — with each object or combination of objects representing a certain idea or spiritual force.

“Culturally and historically masks and headdresses of the African people are used ceremonially,” Winfred Wallace, who works in mixed media art, told the AFRO.  “As an African American, I used the mask decoratively because of the disconnect caused by the Diaspora of Africans to the Americas. I work intuitively to give dimension and texture to my pieces. I embellish them with extra fibers, textile pens, markers, paints, crayons, buttons, hand- made beads and found items.”