Charles Fréger – Cimarron. Freedom and Masquerade

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Review by Gerhard Clausing •

Charles Fréger’s latest photobook presents an intriguing photographic and ethnographic study of “the masks, costumes, and characters created by the descendants of Africans and indigenous peoples in the Americas to honor their ancestors, commemorate their history and celebrate their heritage.” (Back cover)

Our history certainly follows us around, and old customs and beliefs cannot be replaced easily, even if a particular dominant culture tries really hard to force its new beliefs and customs upon minorities. This process has gone on for thousands of years, if not longer. The suppression of original cultures in the “New World” is but one example, and has become an intense and exhilarating subject for Charles Fréger’s photographic portraits presented in this book.

To supply a bit of additional background, according to linguistic research the American-Spanish word cimarrón is said to be related to the English word maroons (independent descendants of Africans in the New World) and the French word marron, all of these referring to those groups that were separate, displaced, or had fled from intolerable conditions, mainly slavery or other forms of oppression. The meanings of these words cover the range of ‘wild, unruly, feral, runaway.’

Communities comprised of such individuals throughout the American continent and on a number of islands had brought along their old beliefs and ideas, along with ceremonial dress and other ways of distinguishing their appearance and honoring their history. In the New World they had to reinvent these ways using materials they found, and to continue their old customs in the context of their modified appearance and within a framework of the dominant culture.

It is here that the fascinating portrait work of Fréger finds its link. He presents a veritable typology of masks and costumes worn by present-day descendants that represent the beliefs and customs and the style of life that their groups had previously practiced for countless generations. His work is very much in the tradition of August Sander and others who have shown subgroups of populations in a representative fashion. The outfits are of course seen through contemporary eyes, and we can thus witness history through each group’s synthesis of old and new concepts and materials.

Fréger’s environmental portraits are colorful, dynamic, well composed, and a pleasure to behold. Nature and hunting are seen in animal imitations and the use of many plant materials in the designs of the clothing. Protecting your tribe is represented by elements of weaponry and fear-inducing masks. Appeasing the forces that are beyond logical comprehension is shown by replicas of spirit figures. And certainly not least, celebrations such as Mardi Gras that combine pre-Christian and Christian rites of spring are marked by colorful costumes that reflect the end of dreary winter (one could travel to parts of present-day Switzerland or Italy, for instance, to witness analogous costumes and carnival celebrations).

This book is enhanced by a preface by Ishmael Reed and an appendix detailing the background of the various ethnic groups, written by Ana Ruiz Valencia and illustrated by Cristobal Schmall. The images shown below were photographed in the following areas, in that order: Guadeloupe, Martinique, the Dominican Republic, Brazil (4, 5), Colombia (6, 7), Peru, Panama, and the United States (New Orleans). A most delightful photobook!

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Charles Fréger – Cimarron. Freedom and Masquerade

Photographer: Charles Fréger (born in France and resides in Rouen, France)

Publisher: Thames & Hudson, New York, NY; © 2019

Texts: Preface by Ishmael Reed; texts about the groups by Ana Ruiz Valencia

Language: English (editions in French, German, Japanese and Spanish are also available)

Hardback with sewn binding; 320 pages with 200 photographs and illustrations; 7.5 x 9.3 inches; printed and bound in China by C&C Offset Printing Co. Ltd.

Artwork: Cristobal Schmall

Photobook Designer: Léo Favier

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