In 'Caste' the London-based photographer Leah Gordon takes the viewer in 18th century colonial Haiti. Her new photographic series investigates the practice of the grading from black to white of skin color, referred to as Caste.
A measuring system -- which moves through black to white in nine degrees -- was developed by a French colonialist living in Haiti during the slave plantation period. Moreau de St Mery created a surreal taxonomy of race classifying the skin color 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 Socatra, Griffe, Marabou, Mulâtre, Mamelouque, Quarteronné and Sang-Mêlé to White.
Leah Gordon drew her inspiration from Moreau's classification system 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.
The images reference celebrated Renaissance portraits. Gordon found her models in the Grand Rue area of Port-au-Prince, home to the artists' collective Atis Rezistans. She worked with local craftsmen to make the costumes for the sitters and wooden plaques bearing the names of the caste colors.
The series is one of Gordon's many investigations into her ancestral links with Haitian history, a country where she has been working as a photographer, filmmaker and curator for the last twenty years. Gordon was the adjunct curator for the Haitian Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011, and is part of the curatorial team for the upcoming In Extremis exhibition of Haitian Vodou arts (opening in Sept 2012) at the Fowler Museum and UCLA.