Between 1791 and 1804 Haitians led the only successful slave revolt in history which resulted in the abolition of French colonial rule, and in Haiti becoming the first black-led republic in the New World. Leah Gordon’s photographs of Jacmel’s kanaval ('carnival' in Kreyol) tell the story of a country intimately in tune with its past.
Light years away from the sequinned and befeathered, sanitized, corporate-sponsored carnivals found elsewhere in the Americas, the Mardi Gras celebrations in Jacmel rely upon home-grown surrealism, poetic metaphor and inventive self-expression. Performers act out the nation's history with masks, costumes and narratives that are a fusion of clandestine Vodou, ancestral memory, political satire and personal revelation.
With no set route or parade, it is a carnival of flaneurs and meanderers. Turn a corner and a group of cardboard-masked judges have set up a table and chairs in the middle of the street to perform a play based on a French 19th century novel. Extravagant troupes can totally overtake the streets: Zel Maturin, satin-clad devils in papier maché masks smack four-foot-hinged wooden wings together dangerously; hordes of Lanset Kòd, behorned men, skin shining with an oily patina of cane spirit, syrup and charcoal, rage the streets, ropes in hand. But there are also lone, idiosyncratic performers, such as Bounda pa Bounda, who enacts a Vodou vision given to him by a spirit sitting high in a tree.
Leah Gordon began photographing the carnival in Jacmel in 1995. Her portraits of the performers and the stories behind their masquerades were first published in 2010 in ‘Kanaval: Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haiti’. A revised and expanded second edition including photographs taken and oral histories gathered since 2010 will be published by Here Press in June 2021.
Leah Gordon is a photographer, film-maker, curator and writer. Her attraction to Haiti is part of a trajectory: a culmination of her love of grassroots religious, class and folk histories that started in the UK in the 1980s, and a commitment to celebrating the proliferation of informal economies.