In 1995, British photographer and curator Leah Gordon traveled to Jacmel, a port town in Southern Haiti, for the first time. Then as now, the country was reeling from unrest, but that did not stop Gordon from documenting a vibrant street tradition that mines the country’s brutal past called Kanaval, a communal masquerade held in various Haitian cities in advance of Mardi Gras. She captured Jacmel residents organizing public processions that involved donning masks alluding to various traumas—from colonial debt to foreign interventions—registered during Haiti’s 200-year history.
Haiti gained independence from France in 1804, and scars of violence enacted by foreigners are still present in these masks. In Gordon’s works, bodies are vehicles for performances through which the past is reanimated.
Gordon has continued documenting Jacmel’s street scenes in the years since she first arrived there, and a survey of those black-and-white images is now on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami. Alongside them is a feature documentary she produced alongside director Eddie Hutton Mills, Kanaval: A People’s History of Haiti in Six Chapters.
“Rituals continually escape boundaries,” Gordon said in an interview. “We find mask after mask, but rather than concealing, they are revealing, story after story, through disguise.”
The feature-length film surveys Jacmel’s neighborhoods during that annual event, shifting between raucous and quiet moments. Interviews with anonymous narrators from Jacmel are intercut with archival footage. In this preexisting footage, soldiers arrive on Haitian beaches, and early Hollywood films offer racist tropes about Haitian vodou that would eventually become cemented in the Western mindset. (Some are also considered, and subverted, in Gordon’s photography, offering “autonomy” to her subjects, Adeze Wilford, the exhibition’s curator, said.) All this is cut alongside shots of residents dressed in street clothes, flooding the port city’s narrow avenues, and men whose bodies are painted, moving in sync while holding a coffin—meant as a symbol of Haiti’s metaphorical death following its 1804 liberation—as the sidewalk fills with watchers.
Wilford told ARTnews that Gordon is surveying the changing political taboos within Haitian enclaves, whose residents are “shifting and parsing them in real time.” What emerges in Gordon’s work, according to Wilford, is “an intergenerational conversation happening on the ground.”
Wall texts featuring interviews from Jacmel’s masquerade participants describe characters they’ve donned over the years, adding context to the black-and-white stills. Some of the people depicted in their chosen aliases are no longer alive, Wilford points out; their characters passing on to younger relatives. “To have their voice on the wall became really important to us, as we were talking about which oral history to present in the public.”
Gordon is an outsider—a foreign-born Westerner who has little in common with her Haitian subjects. She has admitted in the past to a sense of “not belonging” as she’s navigated Jacmel and its community. But she has made efforts to uphold Haitian artists, founding the Ghetto Biennale in Port-au-Prince with the artist collective Atis Rezistans. That group, alongside Gordon, figured in this year’s edition of Documenta in Kassel, Germany.
Gordon and Wilford envision Kanaval not in the sanitized way that Westerners may expect, but as an explicit form of protest.
“It is this moment for putting on disguise,” said Wilford. “Being able to overtly discuss things politically that you might not be able to in the same way on a day that isn’t Carnival.”
In Gordon’s images, street processions run by residents, whose clothes are politically oriented, make references to Haitian military figures and tragedies from throughout the country’s history.
New characters portrayed in Kanaval periodically arise from concerns roiling Haitian cities. “Back in the ’90s, there was a lot of resentment about the broadening gap between the rich and poor,” said Gordon. One menacing image from 1997 titled Gran Manje (Fat Cats), features two figures who wear fabric masks and suit jackets. They’re taking on a popular character that makes a mockery of the Haitian elite. Gordon has captured more recent images of residents carrying empty petrol cans, an allusion to the 2018 “Petwo Karibe” scandal, which saw government officials siphon billions in funds earmarked from public use via a Venezuelan oil deal.
Various Kavanal’s participants fill audio laid over footage in Gordon and Mills’s film. At one point, a group of adolescent boys dressed in black masks appears. They are shown armed with cardboard and wood vests, and wield makeshift weapons that appear like paramilitary gear. The narrator speaks about Haiti’s Cacos rebels, who resisted forced labor during a brutal period of U.S. occupation that lasted from 1915 to 1934, during which time Haiti’s finances were controlled by the U.S. “It was seen as a return to slavery,” one of the film’s interviewees says. (The film does not name the speakers.)
In their native Creole, narrators tell of what could have been built for Haiti—the first modern Black republic—if not for a massive debt that has bled the country dry of its resources. Forced to pay reparations for successfully liberating themselves from their French occupiers in 1804, Haiti has reportedly given out $560 million over the course of seven decades, amounting to an estimated $115 billion in economic losses.
Gordon’s project comes to Miami more than year after the Haitian president Jovenel Moïse was assassinated by Colombian mercenaries. Since then, the U.S. has carried out large-scale deportations of migrants back to the country. Describing the move as “inhumane,” Haiti’s former U.S. envoy, Daniel Foote, said it was the reason for his resignation last year. Anonymous voices narrating in the exhibition’s film echo a silent scream resonating in Foote’s recent critique.
“To denounce what hurts us,” says one speaker, whose message is played over vintage depictions of Haitian guerrilla fighters, “we do it through Carnival,” calling it “the one place that allows political voices.”
Residents have resisted repeated attempts to commercialize the annual event. At various points, there have been outcries over efforts by local telecommunications companies to advertise during it. Gordon labeled such campaigns “quite aggressive.” Some people have even donned what they call “Maskod Publisite” (“Publicity Masks”), with locales posing as mannequins to critique corporate interventions in Kanaval.
Gordon’s sees that close guarding of Kanaval’s roots in protest as facilitating Jacmel’s ongoing resistance. “This is what, in my mind, gave the space for the narrative, street theatre and consequently the history,” she said.