Book Review: Freedom and Masquerade
Bright yellows, deep blues, and strong reds mark the unorthodox canvas. Faces are hidden by feathers or masks, and movements are caught in the moment by photographer Charles Freger. The canvases he captures are the people, and the art he focuses on is the culture he observes. In his new book Freedom and Masquerade, Freger addresses the history of many different communities of indigenous peoples, while celebrating their survival in the modern day.
A white cross stretches across the rotund belly of an older man smoking a cigar. His body is painted completely black, as he hunches over, mid-cough. The blue and gold crosses adorning his pants evoke the sense of Catholic altars, forced upon the native culture. Freger captures each of his images from a straight-on angle, allowing his canvas to move however they feel best represents their art. Some subjects face toward Freger, but look away into the distance, while others look directly into the camera, connecting with the viewer. Some ignore Freger all together.
A young boy, not quite old enough to be a man, stands with his back to Freger, covered from head to toe in hardened mud. A snake is draped over his shoulders. The dark mud is part of a ritual that pays homage to the rebellion against the Catholic church that was ensured by former slaves. Freger captures this honoring of the past with his canvas’ costumes, masks, and characters.
Some characters are based, not on people, but on symbols. In the middle of the photograph, two boys stand covered in coal oil. They imitate what is referred to as ‘the rope thrower’. Each is dressed only in underwear. A messily blackened shirt covers the head of each boy, eyes peering out through roughly cut holes. One holds a rope tied loosely around the other, symbolizing the Creole battle against slavery.
Honoring the past, but also looking towards the future, Freger includes not only the symbolism of slavery’s bondage, but also the freedom after. Large feathers, flamboyant hats, and exaggerated fans adorn the backs and arms of grifs, those with African and Native American heritage. Their African ancestors would marry Native Americans, and because of the free status of the Native American parent, their children would be liberated. The bright red feathers and headdresses mirror that of the Native American heritage, combined with a bright mask and vibrant images of the modern New Orleans Voodoo culture, create extravagant costumes.
Freger is able to articulate, through photography, which cannot be understood through words. He keeps the memory alive for the people who still celebrate their ancestors. The memories of hardships endured in the past can live on through the characters created by those in the present. Freger’s role is not for himself, but to archive and respect those of the past for those he photographs.