As a prelude to ¡Carnaval!, see images from this remarkable West African Carnaval in 1987, which featured more than 500 newly made papier mâché masks promoting the dual themes of “Vaccination for Health” and “Agricultural Development.”
In the West African country of Guinea Bissau and its capital of Bissau, the Portuguese-derived, pre-Lenten Carnaval dates back at least 120 years. ‘Carnaval in Africa: Photographs of Guinea Bissau by Doran H. Ross’ includes more than fifty color photographs from a remarkable West African Carnaval in 1987, which featured more than 500 newly made papier mâché masks promoting the dual themes of “Vaccination for Health” and “Agricultural Development.”
In Bissau each annual Carnaval is organized around a central theme. In 1987 the primary theme was vaccination, and Ross’ photographs capture masqueraders costumed as syringes—some up to ten feet high—intended to encourage inoculations against polio, measles, and other preventable diseases. An ongoing secondary theme of agricultural/rural development accompanies the principal theme of every Bissau Carnaval. Candid photographs show revelers dressed as a veritable forest of papier-mâché trees being attacked by fire, axe, and saw to clear the land for planting. Several images also offer a glimpse of a recurring cartoon character in all Bissau Carnavais named Nturi Palan, a mischievous, but well-meaning trickster with large ears, bulging stomach, and big feet.
Ross is a specialist in the arts of West Africa, and former director of the Fowler Museum. His photographs appear in museum exhibitions across the country and he has curated numerous exhibitions, including Artists Advertising Themselves: Hand-Painted Signs from Ghana at Los Angeles’ Craft and Folk Art Museum in 2004. He is the author of many articles and books, including most recently, Gold of the Akan from The Glassell Collection, published by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.