Michael Magers photographs high art and cutting cultural critiques during the annual Kanaval celebration–Jackie Mansky reports for the Smithsonian Magazine. Follow the link to the original report for the full gallery of gorgeous photos.
Haiti’s Kanaval celebrates the pre-Lenten festival of Mardi Gras. While the country’s national Kanaval has traditionally been held three hours away from the beachside Jacmel in the capital city of Port-au-Prince (though this year politics got in the way over which city would officially host), Jacmel’s artistic reputation has long made its homegrown festivities a uniquely Haitian affair.
The theater of the absurd might describe it best, says Magers. There are people dressed in full-body paint and wearing fantastical, elaborate masks depicting rhinos and lions and tigers and dragons. Lots of dragons. In the hours before the parade, Magers watched as neighborhood groups painted each other fully using house paint. One man even did his teeth.
Often, there are deep political themes intermingled among the revelry. As the main parade was just getting started, Magers watched as one man wearing a mask with the colors of the Haitian flag whipped another who was wearing an American mask and carrying a giant cross. They were putting on a show—a commentary about the missionaries who go to Haiti to, as Magers says, save people “quote-un-quote.”
The day is full of people like Georges William Marshall—one of the master mask-makers that Magers got to know in Jacmel—who use Kanaval as a way to tell their own narratives about Haiti. Marshall has been working on his craft for more than 30 years, and his latest piece, “Le Rage du Guerre” or the Rage of War, a mask of a lion papered with foreign dollars, serves as its own socioeconomic critique on how the influx of foreign aid money has added to income inequality in Haiti.
The poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, Haiti’s narrative has long been told as a tragedy by the outside world even before the devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit seven years ago. But as Kanaval illustrates, Haiti’s past and present is more than a story of poverty, dysfunctional politics and the failure of international aid.
“Haitians, rightly so, are proud of their culture and proud of who they are and don’t like being the poster child of what a disaster can do to this place,” says Magers.
In 1804, the most-successful slave revolt in history founded the free Republic of Haiti from the French colony of Saint-Domingue. The world’s first black republic, it became the first nation in the western hemisphere to abolish slavery, and its proud, revolutionary origins still influence the country today.
In Jacmel, the festivities continue on long after the costume parade ends. Then the sounds of chanting and brass instruments fill the air as bands play songs composed specifically for the day. Many of these songs are written about Haiti’s current political climate and also address its five centuries of history speaking to slavery, revolution, occupation, military dictatorships and internal politics. “Kanaval’s a chance to express some of that in a really creative way,” says Magers.
Some of the most striking photographs in Magers’ series of Kanaval are those that capture the point of view of the children peering out at the pageantry around them. “Some of the kids are terrified,” says Magers. “I would be too if I was three years old, and I saw these things clomping down the street.”