Mirrors, Sequins and Selfies

On the title song on Arcade Fire’s last album ‘Reflektor’, Regine sings of an existence at the crossroads ‘entre le royaume des vivants et des morts’, between the realm of the living and the dead. This seems to be a reference to the singer’s Haitian heritage and to the close ancestral consciousness that is central to Haitian culture. The accompanying interactive video, ‘Just a Reflektor’, produced by the Cine Institute in Jacmel, Haiti, depicts performances of folklore through bodies clothed in fragmented,  mirrored costumes.

Making of 'Reflektor'

Making of ‘Just a Reflektor’, http://cineinstitute.com/project/just-a-reflektor/

Mirrors and sequins are often used in ritual garments and textiles in Haiti. The reflective quality and shine of these materials is thought to attract and call the ancestral spirits, while the dotting of their points as Robert Farris Thompson has suggested, acts, according to Congo belief, to mediate secrets and spiritual power. The proximity of the spiritual and mortal realms is therefore reinforced through the language of textiles in the video.

Film like the technology of spirit possession in Haitian Vodou allows for the presentation of an alternative existance or reality. The subjects in front of an ethnographic film lens are possessed,  unable to see themselves exactly as the film-maker sees them. But what about the ability of Vodou to flip the lens? The effect of a carnivalesque performance can be described, using Benitez-Rojo’s metaphor, as a ‘travestying mirror’, reflecting, dissimulating and refracting representations of the self. Clothed as if in mirrored costume that disperses a web of overlapping shards of gender, racial and social signifiers, the actor plays with this sign system in the (post)colonial space to shift Western boundaries of representation.

Leah Gordon, 'Kanaval', 2010

Leah Gordon, ‘Kanaval’, 2010

Haitian-American author, Edwige Danticat, in her book, ‘Create Dangerously: the immigrant artist at work’, cites the work of Israeli photographer Daniel Kedar. Kedar travelled around rural Haiti in the 90s photographing farmers, many of whom had never seen a photograph of themselves before. When offered a copy of the image taken, some refused to accept that this was really how they looked.

“No, I am not that skinny” or “No, I am not that old,” they would say.

As Danticat highlights with this example, how we imagine ourselves is often very different to how we are represented or ‘taken’ by others. As she says, “When everything does not rely on our image, do we imagine ourselves at all?” (147) Gaining ‘true reflections’ in this sense seems both impossible and pointless. Construction and deconstruction of one’s image has proven more crucial in urban areas of Haiti, where young people with internet access and camera phones, are forging and distributing ‘new narratives’ (Gina Athena Ulysse) of Haiti.  This authoring of stories from within challenges the emblematic and enduring images of Haiti produced throughout history: from staged ‘voodoo’ tourism to a post-earthquake culture of disaster tourism.

 

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