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Sardegna Carnevale: Land of Bitter Honey

Susan Ressler | Sardinia, Italy

Sos Tumbarinos (the drummers), Gavoi, Sardinia -- Wearing animal skulls and carved masks as well as blackface (to signify the underworld, death, and everything turned upside down), the drums beat while the crowd celebrates the birth of spring in a world gone awry.

Sardinia, Italy, February 2020: I was there to photograph the “pagan” pre-Christian festivals of Carnevale known by Sardinians as “Carresegare,” an ancient term that literally derives from “carre ‘e segare,” to tear or cut human flesh. Unbeknownst to me, the gravitas of blackened faces (signifying the underworld), animal masks, and traditional rites re-enacting the brutal sacrifice of a tragic victim would predict an exploding pandemic that has transformed the world today.

This series of photographs delves into six festivals. It is a work in progress as I'm still editing and processing the work and the experience. I found it hard to revisit these images when so much of the world, and especially Italy, has been suffering during this pandemic time.

 

Sardinia, Italy, February 2020: I was there to photograph the “pagan” pre-Christian festivals of Carnevale known by Sardinians as “Carresegare,” an ancient term that literally derives from “carre ‘e segare,” to tear or cut human flesh. Unbeknownst to me, the gravitas of blackened faces  (signifying the underworld), animal masks, and traditional rites re-enacting the brutal sacrifice of a tragic victim would predict an exploding pandemic that has transformed the world today.

This series, “Land of Bitter Honey,” a colloquial name for Sardinia, explores these themes and connections. It includes excerpts from six traditional festivals that take place annually in the hinterlands of north-central Sardinia. Some are profoundly dark and derive from Neolithic times: Sos Tumbarinos (the Drummers), Su Battileddu (the Victim), Mamuthones e Issohadores, and Don Conte (the Count). During this last, a huge grotesque puppet is carted through the the streets and chaos reigns until nightfall, when the effigy is consumed by a bonfire, reducing evil to ash.

In contrast, the other two festivals have medieval roots, and they celebrate horsemanship with competitions that are both daring and beautiful. These are the Carrela e Nanti, and Sa Sartiglia, where the participants gallop at high speed while trying to lance a silver star, suspended above the course.

In 2020, the tenor of these festivals was prophetic. For the last festival, Don Conte was dressed as a medic, and “Corona Vinus” was painted on his mask. New wine was plentiful, and was quaffed from animal horns. But there was also a small, mournful black cart that contained a prostrate woman, eyes closed and in black. Now the words “Corona Vinus” became “Corona Virus,” as if the “drum roll” of the Tumbarinos and the rumblings in the north had become audible. It was Ash Wednesday, and so ended Carnivale.

I returned home with a respiratory infection and immediately got tested for Covid-19. I was negative, but sick for many weeks and overwhelmed by the devastation in the news. The darkness in my photos was hard to bear. Then the concept for this series began to emerge. I realized that I’d been in Italy during Europe’s “ground zero,” and that my photographs — steeped in death and resurrection myths that stem from rites of Adonis, Dyonisus, Osiris and more — mirror this modern plague. All of Carnevale was cancelled in 2021 because of the pandemic.

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