Kanaval: Mardi Gras in a Haitian town

Leah Gordon documents Haiti's unique and political Mardi Gras tradition

February 1, 2011
4 min read


Leah Gordon is the author of Kanaval: Vodou, politics and revolution on the streets of Haiti, published by Soul Jazz Publishing

Each year Jacmel, a coastal town in southern Haiti, holds pre-Lenten Mardi Gras festivities. Troupes of performers act out mythological and political tales in a theatre of the absurd that traverses the streets, rarely shackled by traditional procession. Mardi Gras in Jacmel is light years away from the sanitised, corporate-sponsored, tourist-driven carnivals around the world.

There appears to be no set time, route or parade. One can wander a deserted Sunday afternoon street and turn a corner to find a surreal masked man in drag with a snake necklace carrying a mini-me baby doll with an arm for a leg. Around another corner you might find a group with suits and bag masks on their heads made of kitten material with a board proclaiming ‘Down with the fat cats’.

It is a carnival of flâneurs and meanderers, rather than marchers and processors. The characters and costumes partially betray their roots in medieval European carnival, but the Jacmellien masquerades are also a fusion of Vodou mythology, ancestral memory, political satire and personal revelation.

I started this project in 1995, and after seven or so years it became apparent to me that there were many underlying narratives. As a photographer, I was always keenly aware of the difficulties and responsibilities in representing Haiti. Since the slaves’ revolt, Haiti has been a mythological epicentre for racist and colonial anxieties. And many of these encoded mythologies are reproduced and replicated through the visual representation of Haiti. Looking at my increasingly iconic photograph of the Lanceurs de Corde, the two men with the bulls horns, one of the first images I took of carnival in 1995, I was aware of how easily the wildly exotic image could feed into a deep well of stereotype.

While I could not eradicate all the power inbalance inherent in photographing another culture, or overturn the 200-year cultural demonisation of Haiti, I could at least find strategies for ‘damage limitation’. So I returned three times to Jacmel in a calmer, more tranquil, non-carnival period and collected the oral histories of the people making and wearing the costumes – the stories behind the masquerade. I tracked down the leaders of the groups and asked them to tell me their tales. I wanted to restore the narrative to the photographs and reduce the level of spectacle.

Carnival has become a potent vessel for a people’s telling of Haiti’s history. As Henry Ford once said, ‘History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we made today.’

What we find on the streets of Jacmel at carnival time unravels this statement with acerbity, threat, imagination, grace and wild surrealism.

The whole event is swirling around in a miasma of warped historical retelling. This is the kind of history-telling that would be making Henry Ford’s palms a tad sweaty. And so it should.


Leah Gordon is the author of Kanaval: Vodou, politics and revolution on the streets of Haiti, published by Soul Jazz Publishing


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry

Airport expansion is a racist policy
Climate change is a colonial crisis, writes Jo Ram

Momentum Kids: the parental is political
Momentum Kids is not about indoctrinating children, but rather the more radical idea that children have an important role to play in shaping the future, writes Kristen Hope


8