Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

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


  share     tweet  

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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

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


The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite


7