Art Through Time: A Global View
Ceremony and Society Art: Carnival au Cap Haitien
Although it seems to have its roots in the pagan past, Carnival is first known from a twelfth-century Roman account describing pre-Lenten festivities.
The idea of Carnival as a period of ritual play, celebration, and indulgence leading up to Lent, the forty-day period of penance and abstinence before Easter, gained popularity across Europe during the Middle Ages, taking on various forms as it spread. As Christian Europeans established their presence in North and South America starting in the sixteenth century, they brought the tradition with them. Among indigenous populations, Carnival morphed further, often taking on political as well as religious significance.
The history of Carnival in Haiti began with slave owners, who engaged exclusively in the practice until 1804, when liberated Haitian slaves adopted and adapted the festivities to serve their own needs and purposes. Although the observation has been made that Haitian Carnival is a time of tolerance and the blurring of class distinctions, over the years the event has been marked by a constant struggle between the official, elite preference for regulated activity and more popular forms of unrestrained revelry that push the limits of social control and pose a potential threat to the establishment. Rony Leonidas’s depiction of celebrations in the colonial town of Cap-Haitien not only captures the visual spectacle and exuberant atmosphere associated with Carnival season in Haiti, but may also hint at underlying tensions. While a boisterous crowd of people in costumes and face paint play music, dance, and generally let loose in the street, others, raised above the fray on balconies, play the parts of motionless spectators.
Judith Bettelheim, Professor of Art History, San Francisco State University
“If we are looking at Carnival in the Caribbean, the first thing one does is look to the colonial heritage of the particular countries and then you see historically what the population did in terms of street performance—how they dressed, what was their message in terms of their street performance. And this always involves the particular colonialists, or slave masters, in many cases. So there are very particular histories in any one given place, and then that changes with independence. And then you get people commenting on their own governments, on what’s happening in their own lives sociologically and culturally.
The importance of it, I think, is the fact that you have this commentary going on in public, in a public venue. So you have an audience that could be made up of your neighbors—the people of your country, of your neighborhood, of your district, who understand the performance. And then you have the government who might understand it a little bit differently. So one of the things that has always fascinated me is how these street performances are doubly coded, that you have an understanding on more than one level.”
Averill, Gage. “Anraje to Angaje: Carnival Politics and Music in Haiti.” Ethnomusicology 38.2 (Spring–Summer 1994): 217–247.
“¡CARNAVAL!” Museum of International Folk Art Web site. http://www.carnavalexhibit.org/index.php.
Nunley, John, and Judith Bettleheim. Caribbean Festival Arts: Each and Every Bit of Difference. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998.
Poupeye, Veerle. Caribbean Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 1998.
Viard, Emile. Haitian Art in the Diaspora. Vie et Arts, 2003.