Kate Martin in conversation with Leah Gordon

9 July 2012

Once a year the Hatian coastal town of Jacmel hosts a assortment of Mardi Gras festivities, an event that has been brought into the spotlight through Leah Gordon's evocative photographs. I have been excited to get my first chance to view Leah Gordon's exhibition Kanaval ever since I first caught sight of this programme. So when I got the opportunity to hear the artist discuss her work in person I seized the chance; after all who better to provide us with an insight to her work than the artist herself!

If I was starting on a 'light' note I would propose that ethnology, anthropology, and classification belong to group of prevailing western discourses that have historically informed the roots of 'intellectual imperialism'. Yes there was a hint of sarcasm in the use of the word 'light'! Hopefully this blog won't read like a maze of indecipherable jargon like when you first chance upon a Homi Bhabha text (I have been there and re-read those texts to many times!)

In many ways the camera itself was often used as a weapon in colonial domination and its images contributed a hierarchy of power; responsible for upholding the hegemonic cultural order. Difficulties lie in who is being represented and who is doing the representing. So why does Gordon choose to use methods which traditionally have such negative connotations when representing non western culture?

Upon entering the exhibition I found it compelling that Gordon's images manages to avoid unravelling into a series of essentialist undertones. Gordon raised concerns that a lot imagery had a tendency to portray Haiti as lifeless or dead; both literately and metaphorically. She spoke of how she believed that there was a need for more engagement with the living and their transitional relationships.

In a frank but applaudable statement Gordon stated she felt more comfortable working in black and white film and in many ways her 'aesthetic is produced through her limitations as a photographer'. Beyond the technical aspects involved Gordon believes that black and white film allows for an exploration of history; a retelling of a history from the 'others' perspective. Significantly, Gordon negates her position as storyteller and instead juxtaposes her images alongside their oral histories. This union allows the images them to become active advocates for Haitian people and their culture.

The streets become Gordon's studio as she stages the photos in what she described as a 'fashionably distressed' look. Gordon aims to capture her subjects as they 'meander' as there is no pre-prescribed route for the carnival. The images themselves portray the satirical and composite nature of the carnival, which Gordon termed an 'uncommodified parade'.

People are shown to be wearing exaggerated costumes, which are both sinister and provoking. There are he's dressed as she's, zombies, whores, depictions of the dead, devils and saints. 'Lancers du Cord' are often adorned with horns for intimidation and the ropes that bound the slaves. 'Chaloska' depicts the Chief Charles Oscar renowned for his corruption and brutality. Many of the costumes illustrate the revolt against slavery and the solidarity that transpired, which forms such an integral part of Haitian history.

The 'masquerades' ability to allow its wearer to assume an alternative identity, one which could violate a variety of hierarchies is fascinating. Gordon's photos depict the interplay between masks, costume and storytelling and appear to suspend time and history. Gordon manages to produce equilibrium between the contextual and the visual resulting in visually striking images with and multifaceted narratives. This is a process of encounter; encountering oneself and encountering ones other.

Leah Gordon : Kanaval will be on until 11 August in the Mezzanine Gallery.

Join Alice Thickett, Editor of the NAE blog and Project Manager of No Official Name for a Gallery Walk and Talk. Learn more about the artistic themes, and share your opinions about the work.
Saturday 11 August, 12pm
Admission: FREE
Age range: All are welcome

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