Leah Gordon’s Kanaval Takes A Photographic Look At Haiti’s Carnival Via Mythology, History & Oral Traditions

Lansè Kòd (The Rope Throwers) 1996

Every year, Carnaval comes and goes across the entire world, tantalizing everyone with its fanciful costuming and celebratory antics. But beyond the tourist circuit of Carnival lies another Carnival, in locales with a connection closer to the festival’s origins. Haiti is one of many countries that celebrates Carnival at their own pace, and over the course of many years, photographer Leah Gordon was able to capture the beauty of those festivities in Jacmel, a coastal town in the south.

Kanaval is a black and white photographic series, true — but it is, more importantly, a series on awareness, about culture, and inclusive of mythology. After this series was taken, Haiti suffered its devastating earthquake and Jacmel was completely decimated. Gordon’s photographs, along with her heart-felt introduction to the series and the many oral mythologies passed down to her from carnival participants, can be viewed in the full post. Together, they forever capture a wonderful space in time and call attention to Haiti’s creative and spiritual existence.

We begin with a tale from Madanm Lasiren, which is just the first of many.

Madanm Lasirèn (Madame Mermaid) 2003

Madanm Lasiren
Andre Ferner, 59 years

Lasiren is a spirit that lives under the sea and does mystical work there, she is a Vodou spirit, I dream of Lasiren all the time. That is the reason I do Lasiren for Mardi Gras. I chose Lasiren because my grandmother, father and mother all served the spirits, I love her & honour her. The baby that I carry in my arms is the child of Lasiren who is called Marie Rose. When I walk the streets I sing her song which goes ‘ I am Lasiren and I cry for Lasiren, when I work mystically in the night bad luck can come my way’.

I prepare for Lasiren by putting on a hat, a mask and carrying an umbrella. I put on a necklace and gloves. This necklace is called Mambo Welcome, it is a fetish. Because Lasiren is a fish she has to disguise herself as a woman to be at Mardi Gras. My mask and hat cover her fish’s head. And the dress she wears covers her fish’s tail. The chain I wear is a sacred chain. Each year I change the disguise and fashion a new baby. In order to get inspiration I go to the place where the big beasts live and they instruct me how to do Mardi Gras. I have been doing this for 18 years. Before that I did another Mardi Gras call Patoko. This was a group of men who were dressed as women, with a nice dresses and high heeled shoes. We did a marriage between men and woman on the street. After that we had a group called the duck who carried brushes in their hands wearing blue trousers, white t-shirts, new sandles and a scarf around our waists. We swept the streets of Jacmel. I have always found a way of doing a Mardi Gras.

Kanaval will be on display for free at PHI Centre in Montreal (407, rue Saint-Pierre), from February 25th to April 27th, 2013. Opening night happens at 7:30pm on February 23rd, and its $175 ticket price (or a $400 VIP ticket) includes Haitian food, giveaways, and performances by Haitian dance groups, Haitian band Doody and Kami, and The Arcade Fire, who have a blog dedicated to their own trip to Haiti.

All proceeds will go towards KANPE, a non-profit “born of a desire to play an integral part in the fight to help Haiti break free from a vicious cycle of poverty”, through programs in health, education, agriculture, counseling, and other community services. Full event details can be seen at PopMontreal.



Esklav Yo (The Slaves) 2001

Jij (Judge) 1995


Gordon’s introduction to her series, Kanaval:

“Haiti seems to be on a fault line of history. Whilst much of the rest of the world seems to have efficiently papered over any cracks where history could accidentally seep, bubble or explode with a veneer of consumerism and wage slavery. Haitian culture is a potent vessel for this history, continually transmitting, telling, retelling and reinterpreting Haitian history. Though school fees are excessive for the majority of the Haitian people, and the education standards poor, you will be hard pushed to find a Haitian who doesn’t know the vast and intimate details of their own history.

Haiti’s history is not an easy one, but it is a significant and important one. It is the history of the decimation of the indigenous Taino Indians by the Spanish invaders. Subsequently it is the history of the most profitable, and correspondingly brutal, French colonial plantation system in the Caribbean, which was fuelled by the Transatlantic slave trade. The intensity of French barbarity in the pursuit of profit, coupled with whispers and rumours of the French Revolution in Europe, led to the Haitian revolution. This was an uprising of African and Creole 1 slaves against the white plantation owners. By the late 18th century dissent was rife amongst the slave population. In 1791 the dissent came to a head and turned into a rebellion which led to a 13 year struggle for the freedom from slavery and finally independence.

Vodou was both the inspiration and precipitation of the long fight for Haiti’s independence. On 23rd August 1791 2, a Vodou priest called Boukman performed a ceremony at Bwa Kayman, in the north of Haiti. Slaves and maroons 3 gathered from all over the region. Boukman sacrificed a black pig for the African ancestors, and in its blood wrote the words ‘liberty or death’. Inspired and invigorated the slaves returned to their plantations and spread the message of rebellion. Within days the fertile plains of cash crops were burning with a passion for freedom that did not dampen until independence in 1804.

May 1803, former slave and rebel leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines dramatically created the flag of the black insurgents at the Congress of Arcahaie. He took the French tricolour of blue, white and red, and ripping the white out of it, declared he was ripping the white man out of the country. The red and blue were stitched together, the initials RF (Republique Française) were replaced by Liberté ou la Mort, ‘Liberty or Death’, and Haiti’s flag was born. Time was finally running out for the French rulers.

The diffusion and transmission of Haitian history uses the drums, songs, dances and possessive ritual of the Vodou religion. It uses the improvisational songs of Twobadou groups and the collective melodies and rhythms of Rara bands. Haitian history uses the words and poems of its great literary tradition and the unique visions of its painters, sculptors and flag makers. Haitian history, and not only the revolutionary history, is also replayed through the masks, costumes and narratives of the carnival in Jacmel.

Each year, Jacmel, a coastal town in Southern Haiti, holds pre-Lenten Mardi Gras festivities. Troupes of performers act out mythological and political tales in a whorish theatre of the absurd that courses the streets, rarely shackled by traditional parade. Whatever the carnival lacks in glitz and spectacle, it makes up for in home-grown surrealism and poetic metaphor. The characters and costume partially betray their roots in medieval European carnival, but the Jacmellien masquerades are also a fusion of clandestine Vodou, ancestral memory, political satire and personal revelation. The lives of the indigenous Taino Indians, the slave’s revolt and more recently state corruption, are all played out using drama and costume on Jacmel’s streets. There have been many times that the future of Jacmel’s carnival has appeared unstable, but it continues to struggle and survive. Haitian culture is tough and resilient, as it needs to be. It is a vibrant, living avatar for not only Haitian history, but for all our histories. Carnival is dead, long live Kanaval.


This introduction was written two weeks before the dreadful earthquake in Haiti. I have been haunted by the almost prophetic first line. I decided I didn’t want to change it. The suffering on the human level and devestation on the material level in Port au Prince is hard to contemplate. All the churches have fallen and all the morgues are still standing. Many of the houses have fallen but all the tombs in the cemetery are standing. It is as if Death has won its bet against Man and God. The beautiful old town of Jacmel, where all these photographs have been taken, has been decimated. As I numbly traipse along what remains of the historic Grand Rue in downtown Port au Prince I realise that architecture has always been another avatar for history. In Haiti the material was always transient and weak, and now feels almost none existent, but the imaginative and creative is fierce. If there is a positive side, perhaps it is this, that people will sit up finally and really take notice of Haiti’s creativity. Haiti has so much to give and we really should be grateful that such a genuinely unique place exists. Kanaval is not Dead. Long Live Kanaval

1 Caribbean born of African descent.
2 Named International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition by UNESCO.
3 Runaway slaves living in remote mountainous areas in close-knit communities.”


Kouvrefe (Curfew) 2009

Bounda Pa Bounda (Cheek by Arse) 2003

Chaloska (Charles Oscar) 1998

Chaloska (Charles Oscar)
Eugene Lamour a.k.a. Boss Cota, 61 years

The Chief Charles Oscar was a military commandant in charge of the police in Jacmel. He died here in 1912. He was tall and strong with big feet and teeth and feared by all. At a time when there was political instability in Port-au-Prince, when President Sam had just been assassinated, Charles Oscar took his chance to take 500 prisoners from the local jail and kill them all. There was so much blood it made a river of death. The population was so angry that that revolted and tore the police chief to pieces in the street and burned him down. He was killed in the same violent way that he had treated the people.

This story has always been very striking to me, and in 1962, I decided to create the character of Chaloska for Carnival. I designed the military uniform and made the big false teeth with bull’s teeth bought from the market. Each year I change the costume a little by designing a different hat for the group to wear.

When I created Chaloska I also wanted to create some other characters to go along with him. I created Master Richard and Doctor Calypso. Master Richard is a rich man with a big bag full of money and a huge fat stomach. He walks with the group of Chaloska buying justice and paying the judges. He represents the impunity and corruption that hides behind Chaloska and is the real chief of the city. Doctor Calypso is an old hunch back with a black suit and a stick in his hand. He works for Chaloska and checks on the health of the prisoners, always reporting that they are healthy when they are dying.

These characters are still here in Haitian society so it is good to parade them on the street. It is a message to all future Oscars that you will end up this way. The group goes to different places in town threatening the people. The boss Chaloska always finally dies, and the others call for mercy as they are cowards, but then another Chaloska immediately replaces him. This is to show the infinite replication of Chaloska which continue to produce the same system. There will be Chaloska until the end of the world. They started with the beginning and will not end until the end.


Pa Wowo (The Way of Wowo) 2004

Pa Wowo (The dance steps of Roro)
Edmond Paul, 30 years

Pa Wowo is a Mardi Gras that I’ve been doing for a long time. It is part playing around and part theatre on the streets of Jacmel. We try to create an ambiance of festivity. Pa Wowo has created a character, a role he plays scenes just like theatre, as it’s an ancient Mardi Gras. He has a pipe because in the past all peasants had pipes in their mouths. He has a skirt of leaves because it is part of his disguise. The skirt is a symbol and the skirt means everything. It is the best symbolic costume for the Pa Wowo because he doesn’t have any family, he doesn’t have any thing, no-one to help him, not even the possibility of his own clothes to wear. So Pa Wowo represents someone who has nothing, no-one, nowhere to stay and no money. Truly people understand my message, which is if you have something you must help those with nothing. I have done this Mardi Gras for 15 years. I decided to do it to give continuity when the last person that used to do it died. I’m not sure it will continue after I am gone but I am always fighting to do it whilst I still can. Over the years Mardi Gras has a lot of sections missing and I’m doing Pa Wowo to make sure that carnival has a good power and to make sure that Jacmel shows a good face to the world. Because firstly I am a Jacmellian. But you know exactly if we keep trying perhaps Jacmel carnival is the best in the world. We feel that carnival in Jacmel is important for the face of Haiti in the world but it is always a fight as the government never supports us.


Zèl Maturin (The Wings of Maturin) 1995

Zel Maturin (The Wings of Mathurin: character from the St. Michel Mardi Gras)
Ronald Bellevue, 40 years

We did not invent this story. It came from older people, but we are keeping the tradition going. As a child I was scared to death of the Zel Maturin but the very next thing I wanted to see was to see them again. My favorite Zel Maturin is the red devil as he is always the strongest, most resistant and goes on until the end of the play.

The play is a fight between good and evil. The first scene has people with suits, ties, tuille masks and bibles all kneeling and praying. In the second scene St Michel the Archangel come from heaven to give them protection. With him are other angels in pink satin dresses and a small angel in blue and white. Then the Zel Maturin arrive to steal the angels.

There is a long procession of Zel Maturin but St Michel kills them by using his mighty sword. The strongest devil, the red devil, myself, arrives. This devil fights much harder but after a long struggle he is finally killed. All the devils lie dead on the street conquered by St Michel the Archangel. But then the black devil arrives. He is bigger than the others and wearing chains. He is chained mystically because his mystic powers are so strong that he must be restrained. He carries a skull and presents it to the four cardinal points and hits the red devil three times. Once the red devil is revived all the other devils leap awake. The black devil is a Vodou devil whereas the other devils are just Christian devils. The Vodou devil has greater forces than the Christian devils. As you can see from the masks on the wall I am not exactly a bible person, well you don’t play the part if you don’t like the part.


Gason Bo Kote Lanmè-a (Boy by the Sea) 2000

Nèg ak Konk (Man with Conch Shell Horn) 2001

Fantonm (The Phantom) 2009

All photographs are shot on black and white film on a Roleiicord 2 ¼ sq camera and are 95cm sq Giclee Prints on Hahnemuhle Fine Art Paper mounted onto di-bond aluminium.

Gordon’s book, Kanaval: Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haiti is also available for purchase on Amazon.


Written by
Vee Hua 華婷婷

Vee Hua 華婷婷 (they/them) is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer with semi-nomadic tendencies. Much of their work unifies their metaphysical interests with their belief that art can positively transform the self and society. They are the Editor-in-Chief of REDEFINE, Interim Managing Editor of South Seattle Emerald, and Co-Chair of the Seattle Arts Commission. They also previously served as the Executive Director of the interdisciplinary community hub, Northwest Film Forum, where they played a key role in making the space more welcoming and accessible for diverse audiences.

Vee has two narrative short films. Searching Skies (2017) touches on Syrian refugee resettlement in the United States; with it, they helped co-organize The Seventh Art Stand, a national film and civil rights discussion series against Islamophobia. Reckless Spirits (2022) is a metaphysical, multi-lingual POC buddy comedy for a bleak new era, in anticipation of a feature-length project.

Vee is passionate about cultural space, the environment, and finding ways to covertly and overtly disrupt oppressive structures. They also regularly share observational human stories through their storytelling newsletter, RAMBLIN’ WITH VEE!, and are pursuing a Master’s in Tribal Resource and Environmental Stewardship under the Native American Studies Department at the University of Minnesota.

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Written by Vee Hua 華婷婷
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