The Phi Centre is pleased to present Kanaval, an exhibition of photos by Leah Gordon that focuses on the pre-Lenten Mardi Gras festivities held in the town of Jacmel in Southern Haiti. Troupes of performers act out mythological and political tales in a riotous theatre of the absurd that courses the streets, rarely shackled by traditional parade. The usual carnival glitz and spectacle are replaced by home-grown surrealism and poetic metaphor. The characters and costume 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.
Gordon first witnessed and documented the Jacmel carnival in 1995 and developed this series over a period of fifteen years. Using a 50 year-old entirely manual medium format camera, she wandered the streets searching for people that would agree to be photographed. The long and quite laborious photo taking process seemed to open up a space where she and the sitter would leave the street and enter the territory of the old-fashioned portrait studio. This method allows for a more collaborative relationship between photographer and sitter and has been referred to as ‘performed ethnography’. Along with the selection of photographs are a series of accompanying oral histories of the people making and wearing the costumes that offers the stories behind the masquerade, giving voice to their many narratives.
As Gordon contends, Haiti’s history is not an easy one, but it is a significant and important one. While in most countries history has been replaced by consumer, media or terrorist spectacle, it is still a potent force in Haiti. Carnival has become a potent vessel for the people’s telling of Haiti’s history and as Gordon writes, “(it) is people taking history into their own hands and moulding it into whatever they decide.”
This exhibition is offered as part of a fund raising initiative for Fondation Kanpe