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Leah Gordon and her Caste Portraits series

Leah Gordon’s new photographs investigate the practice of the grading from black to white of skin colour, referred to as ‘Caste’, which revealed the extent of racial mixing in 18th century colonial Haiti.

A measuring system which moves through black to white in nine degrees, it was developed by a French colonialist living in Haiti during the slave plantation period. Moreau de St Mery created a surreal taxonomy of race which classified the skin colour of the colony’s population, where white, or ‘Blanche’ was inevitably socially superior to black, or ‘Noir’. Using names borrowed from mythology, natural history and bestial miscegenation, St Mery classified nine degrees of shading, from pure black to 1/8 white, and 7/8 black and so on through ‘Sacatra’, ‘Griffe’, ‘Marabou’, ‘Mulâtre’, ‘Mamelouque’, ‘Quarteronné’ and ‘Sang-Mêlé’ to ‘White’.

As Colin Dayan, a Haitian historian, comments, ‘Stranger than any supernatural fiction, the radical irrationality of Moreau St Mery’s methods demonstrates to what lengths the imagination can go if driven by racial prejudice.’

Leah Gordon’s discovery of Moreau’s classification system inspired her to make Caste Portraits of the nine skin varieties, with herself at one end of the scale, the ‘Blanche’, and her partner, Andre Eugene, a Haitian sculptor, at the other end of the racial spectrum.

Leah Gordon (UK/Haïti) is an artist and curator and has produced a body of work on the representational boundaries between art, religion, anthropology, post-colonialism and folk history. Her photographic work registers junctures between history, cosmology and the present.

Gordon’s film and photographic work has been exhibited internationally including the National Portrait Gallery, UK, Parc de la Villette, Paris and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. Her photography book Kanaval: Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haiti was published in June 2010.

Leah is the co-director of the Ghetto Biennale in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Gordon was the adjunct curator for the Haitian Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale, was on the curatorial team for the In Extremis show in 2012 at the Fowler Museum, UCLA and the co-curator of Kafou : Haiti, History & Art at the Nottingham Contemporary. Gordon is a senior lecturer at the University of Bedfordshire and is represented by Riflemaker Gallery, London.

The others artists of the Month of Photography

James Cooper presents four photographs

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Polibio Diaz, Desnudo Sorprendido & Dominican York series

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Leah Gordon and her Caste Portraits series

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Mark King and his Birding series

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Andrés Montalván, Rêve et Réalité & In-visibles Marks series

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Raquel Paiewonsky presents her photographs

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Enrique Rottenberg, Dormir con…, La Familia & Autorretrato series

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… And our report on Phot’Aix, with five Cuban photographers

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