Words by Jesse Serwer
Photos by Christopher L. Mitchell
In a few days, the streets of Jacmel, Haiti will flood with crocodiles, dragons, tigers and assorted nameless beasts. In a pointed contrast to the scandalous attire and increasingly commercial vibe you’ll find today at many Caribbean carnivals, in Haiti’s “Ville Creative,” as Jacmel is known, Kanaval costumes are growing more elaborate, artistic and unusual each year. Jacmel has long been known for its papier-mâché artists, and Kanaval is their Art Basel, a time to showcase their work to a captive audience and maybe even win over a few patrons to keep funds rolling in throughout the year.
The best masks at Kanaval du Jacmel have a grotesque beauty worthy of a Guillermo del Toro movie. Leading the evolution of papier-mâché mask-making here is a man with the impressive-sounding name of Vady Confident. As I arrived in Jacmel early one morning last March, a local fireman introduced me to Confident’s work through an Instagram video depicting what appeared to be a mechanical, and quite frightening, red monster mask with darting eyes. (I’d later learn it was completely analog, its movements mimicking the motions of the wearer).
By the time I visited Atelier 105, the spartan Jacmel studio where Confident and a small team of apprentices construct their creations, the red-faced beast I’d seen on IG was long gone. A savvy collector who’d seen it on display at the Allianz Francais in town had, wisely, scooped it up. It was now a few weeks after Carnival, a period of relative downtime for any artist in Haiti and, of Confident’s Carnival creations, only a single, fairly worn tiger mask remained. While it wasn’t the ideal time to view Confident’s work, it was an opportunity to sit down with one of Jacmel’s busiest people to discuss his role in the city’s thriving art scene.
A papier-mâché sirène (mermaid) hovered above, smiling down on us as we spoke in the studio, which is located above a beauty salon on one of Jacmel’s main streets (Atelier 105 is also the building’s address). This piece, Confident will tell me in Kreyol, was commissioned by a mambo (a female Vodou high priest) living overseas who had always seen herself as a sirène. She’d paid him to create the piece for her home, but never came to pick it up. Now it hangs from the ceiling, looking down on the works being created below.
Papier-mâché techniques originated in China during the Han Dynasty (BC 202 – AD 220), then spread to Japan, the Middle East and Europe. No one seems to know when the art first arrived in Haiti but, for as long as most Jacmelians can remember, the town has been known for papier-mâché. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of studios in Jacmel, where artists produce crafts for local and international consumption. The whimsical multi-colored roosters made In Jacmel are a staple of Haitian home décor. Papier-mâché vases from Jacmel have even been sold at Macy’s.
But it’s during Kanaval when papier-mâché comes alive, literally, as the city’s residents take to the streets in masks, and increasingly fantastic costumes made from the material. Kanaval du Jacmel preempts Haiti’s national carnival in Port-au-Prince (which itself coincides with many smaller carnivals in towns across the countryside) by a week, drawing visitors from Haiti’s larger cities and overseas.
Confident works across various mediums —he’s also an accomplished painter —and teaches drawing classes at the Universite de Jacmel Sud. But it’s clear from speaking with him that making papier-mâché, particularly for Kanaval, is his passion.
“In the beginning, when I first started, I was imitating all of the styles people were already doing,” Confident told me, in Kreyol interpreted by our photographer, Christopher L. Mitchell. “And then I didn’t want to imitate anymore. I wanted to be more original and change things up. So [I] started doing different styles, and it started to shift where other people are doing what I do now.”
His greatest contribution has been making the beasts depicted in Carnival costumes look more realistic. “Kids would look at [them] and sometimes they didn’t know what the animal was,” Confident said, as roosters crowed in the background. “The earlier works [were] beautiful, and had their own value, but I wanted to do something different that more resembled these animals.”
Before, tiger masks were worn over the face, held in place by a string, with marbles for eyes, and cow bones for teeth. Confident created more complex masks to be worn over one’s entire head, replacing the cow’s teeth with sharper, more precise fangs fashioned from mâché. “Tigers have four fangs so I made four fangs,” he said. “Before it would be any number of cow bones going across.”
These days, the style innovated by Confident is the standard at Kanaval. Off-season, meanwhile, he works on private commissions, like that unclaimed sirène, and orders from stores in Jacmel and Port-au-Prince, as well as in Martinique, Guadeloupe and France. One of his greatest pieces is a giant, practically life-like papier mache replica of “Manman Jacmel,” Michaelle Craan, the mother figure of Jacmel’s art community, which has been displayed in France.
Should you find yourself in Jacmel, and there’s many reasons why you should, seek an appointment with Vady Confident. Chances are, though, you will see his work regardless.
Vady Confident can be contacted here.