British photographer and film-maker Leah Gordon first visited Haiti in 1991 and has built an extraordinary body of work over thirteen years. Jacmel, a coastal town in Southern Haiti, holds pre-Lenten Mardi Gras Festivities as part of a yearly carnival. Troupes of performers act out mythological and political tales in a whorish theatre of the absurd that courses the streets, rarely shackled by traditional parade. Whatever the carnival lacks in glitz and spectacle, it makes up for in home-grown surrealism and mythical metaphor.
The exhibition of black and white photographs at Photofusion premieres this work to UK audiences. Consisting mainly of medium format portraits, the exhibition includes stand alone pictures of iconoclastic individuals, themed sets and series presented as short narratives. It is significant that they are posed photographs, taken through negotiation with troupe members and influenced by traditional portrait photography. They represent snatched moments of calm freed from the dirt, sweat and colour of the chaotic ambience of the streets during the festivities.
The images will be contextualized by a series of oral histories related by the members of various troupes who oversee the design of the costume and generate the narrative of the street theatre during carnival time. Some have inherited their alliance to certain characters through family, whilst others claim to have been inspired by divinities or simple childhood fancy. Their stories reflect the wealth of invention, fable and self-generated mythology prevalent in much of Haitian culture.
The characters and costumes partially betray their roots in medieval European carnival but the Jacmellien masquerades are also a fusion of clandestine Vodou, ancestral memory, political satire and personal revelation. The lives of the indigenous Taino Indians, the slave’s revolt and more recently state corruption, are all played out using drama and costume on Jacmel’s streets. Jacmel is a former coffee port which has suffered gradual economic decline during the latter half of the last century but it still has a strong tradition
of arts, and it is this creative legacy that fuels this genuinely grassroots carnival.
Kanaval evolved through long periods of sustained research and photographic work in Haiti, and whilst carnival is the focused subject matter, the annual event also reflects past and present conditions in Haiti through an incredible mix of African, European and indigenous influences, political/gender satire and religious reflection. Masquerade has the ability to transform the wearer into an iconic performer and can harness the energy of hardship and poverty to empower both the wearer and the spectator. This exhibition does not want to merely articulate nostalgia for an authentic popular culture but wishes to be a positive celebration of the vivid potential of contemporary communal creativity in Haiti.
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