Riflemaker presents Leah Gordon ‘Caste’ a photographs exhibition on view through Saturday 14 July.
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 indigenous population, where white, or ‘Blanche’ was inevitably socially superior to black, or ‘Noir’. There are nine degrees of shading in all, 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.’
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.
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