Words by Nneka Samuel

Carnival is as unique and colorful as the individual countries that commemorate it year after year. A time of excitement, freedom and unfettered celebration, no one has documented the spirit of Carnival quite like photographers Mario Picayo and Mariano Hernandez. The Cuban born, St. Thomas-rooted Picayo has been photographing Carnivals for 27 years and Hernandez, of the Dominican Republic, for over 30. Their “Caribbean Carnival Portraits” traveling exhibit is currently on display at York College (CUNY) in Queens, New York. Free and open to the public until October 15, this culturally rich and visually striking exhibit is the fourth that Picayo and Hernandez have presented together. The collection proudly displays over 200 images from 25 Carnivals and 15 different Caribbean islands.

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Picayo attended his first carnival in Cuba at the age of 6 or 7 and attests that he did not choose Carnival as a subject to shoot as much as it chose him as one of its chroniclers. He affectionately describes the people that play mas as cultural heroes and acknowledges the hard work and dedication they put into making it all happen. He also insists that every Carnival has its particular charm. “Carnival is full of surprises,“ says Picayo. “But no matter what shape it takes or how it sounds, carnival is always, and above everything else, a celebration of life. That is the magic of the fete.”

What keeps Picayo excited about returning to carnival year after year is, “the openness of the people, the general joy, and the sense of collective power that is felt during carnival when the people take over the streets.” Picayo counts the Masqueraders in St. Kitts, the Vejigantes in Puerto Rico, the Moko Jumbies in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Cachuas and Lechones of the Dominican Republic in a long list of personal favorites.

Hernandez, who tends to capture Carnival with a telephoto lens, has amazingly run into Picayo only twice in all the years they’ve been shooting individually – at Bani in the Dominican Republic in 2010 and in Curacao just last year. In an interview with CUNY, Hernandez admitted that having to choose a few photographs among thousands to display was like “telling a child that you like its sibling a little better.”

Hernandez first started photographing carnivals in 1983 at the national parade in Santo Domingo. It was the beauty of the costumes that initially intrigued him, but he says, “When I started to travel around the country, I realized that some traditional characters that identified every region were disappearing, so I became interested in preserving and registering these iconic characters.”

The work of both artists has been described by Yolanda Wood, director of the Center for Caribbean Studies at Casa de las Americas Cultural Institute in Havana, in the foreword of “Caribbean Carnival Portraits,” a book based on the exhibit. Casa was home to the show’s first exhibit in May of 2013. Says Wood of Hernandez, “Mariano frequently contrasts a figure against a background that features a confusion of light and color and which, as an abstract image, evokes the movement and rhythm of what has taken place.”

“Caribbean Carnival Portraits” is currently available on Amazon and via publishing company Editorial Campana. Write to info@editorialcampana.com for details on how to purchase a signed copy.

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Photographers Mariano Hernandez and Mario Picayo