The eternal and universal world of carnival has famously been described by the Russian theoretic Mikhail Bakhtin in a book about the culture of carnival in the work of François Rabelais. The fascinating study explains in detail how, in the late middle ages, the culture of carnival was shaped as a very rich counterculture.
Pieter Breugel, The Fight between Carnival and Lent, 1559 (Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna)
Basically, Bakhtin shows how the loud and frank laughter, that was rolling all over the late medieval carnival places, was the expression of a condition in which the powerless did not fear the powerful. This condition was not a gimmick but was felt as a deep reality in which divisions between different people or different classes no longer existed. The condition of carnival stripped down each and everyone to his basic condition of a plain and simple human being. And this human being was everything but nice and beautiful! Bakhtin showed how the world of medieval carnival was fundamentally a grotesque reality full of bizarre imagery only understandable in the perspective of nature’s eternal process of growth and decay.
Pieter Breugel (detail)
Carnival must have been something in those days. Today’s carnival however, seems to be more often than not a meagre theatre when compared to the weird inventories of the carnivalesque we can read in Bakhtin’s book. A contemporary carnival festival has often become a feeble re-enactment of the original. It seems that traditional popular culture has evolved into a smoother, commercialized one.
But this is not the case in Haiti!
And we can still connect with the original energy of Haitian carnival when we plunge ourselves into Kanaval, a photobook by Leah Gordon, published by music label Soul Jazz Publishing. It contains “photographs and oral histories” which Leah Gordon collected on the Caribbean island in a period of 15 years around the turn of the century. Its full title is “Kanaval vodou, politics and revolution on the streets of Haiti“.
We see how innumerable humble and anonymous dishwashers, gatekeepers, gardeners, metalsmiths, handymen, drivers, hotel room cleaners, street hawkers, money changers that normally serve the mansions of the economic elite and also the foreign tourists on the island, have been transforming their daily reality into something extremely powerful.
Richard Fleming points out in an accompanying text that they have transformed themselves in grotesque manifestations of their common history full of enslavement, dictatorship, torture, exploitation and death. For example, they proudly present themselves as the colonial judges that have sent them to rot in cells; as the infamous police commanders that have tyrannised them; they shamelessly present themselves as personifications of an illness (AIDS) that has been ravaging their ranks; and they also expose themselves as the demons, spirits and ghouls of ancient voodou traditions.
In Gordon’s book, the culture of carnival still seems to be totally immune to the smooth and comfortable high (tech) culture spreading around the globe, to its digitalization.
Richard Fleming also points out that the book is much more than a document of carnival and its practices: “the paradox here is that in Gordon’s photographs of these otherworldly characters, of grotesquery from our nightmares, of l’espri and Iwa, visitations from the Vodou pantheon, we always find humanity staring back at us, full in the face.”
The real tour de force seems to be that the photographs all are portraits: “Gordon’s photographs capture the lunacy, ritual, pomp and drama of Kanaval, but there are none of the stolen moments of street photography. ….In choosing to make portraits, Gordon further humanises her bizarre subjects….we see both and human beings taking pride and pleasure being photographed.”
Also formally, the book is conceived in a carnivalesque way. The book is an openminded fusion of heterogenous inputs coming from totally different dimensions (music, anthropology, sociology and all things popular, like vodou). It is as much in black and white as it is in colour. I love it because it is transmitting the nourishing values of the eternal and universal carnival to our comfort zone. Carnival is not dead. Long live Kanaval!