‘Before Carnival, you never sleep, always dreaming of bringing pleasure, innovation and creation.’ – Fanel Saint-Helere & Frantz Denoujou (Flanbo Mardi Gras troupe)
Leagues away from the sequinned, sanitised, corporate-sponsored carnivals found elsewhere in the Americas, the Madigra troupes of the Haitian port town of Jacmel enact and subvert myth, legends and the nation’s own histories, their improvisational costumes and surreal narratives a Vodou-charged blend of folk memory, political satire and personal revelation.
Here the Zèl Maturin, satin-clad devils in papier-mâché masks, hinged wooden wings clapping on their backs, do battle against Sen Michèl Arkanj and his army of pastors; further on the Chaloska in their cows’-tooth-adorned masks transform the feared early twentieth-century police chief Charles Oscar Étienne into a metaphor for the corrupting nature of absolute power.
At the crossroads the horned Lanse Kòd, their skin shining blacker than black with a mixture of cane syrup and charcoal, perform press-ups before running amok through the crowds. Meanwhile a trouser-clad donkey, led by the leaf-skirted Atibruno troupe, speaks into a mobile phone and eats fried plantain, to show the world that the peasants are as good as anyone, that all donkeys are important.
Here too are lone, idiosyncratic characters: Geralda, the single mother of a starving child, the mermaid-in-disguise Madanm Lasirèn, and Bounda pa Bounda, who plays out a Vodou vision revealed by a treetop-dwelling spirit.
The photographer, film-maker, curator and writer Leah Gordon has been photographing Jacmel Carnival and recording oral histories with its participants since 1995. Her attraction to Haiti is the culmination of a love of grassroots religious, class and folk histories that began in the UK in the 1980s, and a commitment to celebrating the proliferation of informal economies. She is directing a feature-length documentary on Jacmel Carnival for BBC’s Arena, which will appear in 2022.