BRIGHTON, UK — If the thought of a white artist from Britain making work about race in Haiti causes your hackles to rise, please bear with us. What Leah Gordon has to say about history concerns us all: “Sometimes postcolonial theory actually tends to separate quite a lot of histories out a bit too much,” the photographer from the north of England proposes, speaking from Haiti via Skype.
Gordon was born between Manchester and Liverpool, or “half way between the industrial revolution and the slave trade,” as she puts it. Her northern ancestors were peasants, “thrown off the land through the Enclosure Act.” There were several of these parliamentary acts, culminating in one in 1845 that allowed private landlords to own commons land. In most cases subsistence farmers became the new working class of mill towns in the north.
Which brings us back to the slave trade and Haiti. “I think it’s very interesting that the Manchester industrialists were actively backing the abolition of the slave trade in the UK,” says Gordon. But don’t be too impressed by that; the pioneering Adam Smith was less bothered by the brutality of slavery than its economics. “He felt that the whip was a more expensive way of controlling a workforce, and as he said, if you gave them the choice of starvation or work, it’s a lot cheaper.”
In Britain, the slave trade was abolished in 1807. “But at the same time,” Gordon points out, “you have the abolition of pretty much most of the laws that protected the working class or workers rights.” There was perhaps more room for optimism in Haiti than in Manchester at this time; the former French colony had won independence in a bloody yet heroic revolution.
“I’m trying to look at how these histories can be much more intervolved,” says Gordon, who is speaking to me from the town Jaqmel. “Out in the countryside near here there’s this old machinery that was shipped over from Liverpool in 1818.” In post-revolutionary Haiti, a wealthy British family called the Haighs wanted to start a new plantation; they were “looking towards this concept of modernisation, of industrialisation, of mechanisation.” This piece of the industrial north, long fallen into disuse, is “all embedded now, overgrown by Haitian tropical vegetation.”
Incidentally, what is arguably the most important document in Haitian history can be tracked down at the UK National Archives at Kew, London: the only known printed copy of the Declaration of Independence (1804). In 2010 the copy turned up in a batch of documents brought back from Jamaica. “So I also liked this idea that there’s this snippet of Haitian history embedded in the colonial archives of the UK,” says Gordon, who has shot the juxtapositions of the British machinery in Haiti and the Haitian declaration in Britain on 16mm film.
The resulting two films can be seen in Gordon’s “Caste / Cast” project at Brighton’s HOUSE Festival this month. Included there is a video made during a trip on the Manchester Ship Canal. Gordon has enlivened the slow progress of a narrowboat with a wealth of texts relating to the creation of the British working class, the links between the abolition of slavery and industrialisation, and Haiti and the slave trade. You could almost believe the Liverpool-bound boat is setting sail for the Caribbean.
Accompanying that video is a series of photographic portraits in which Gordon draws a line between Renaissance Europe and her adopted second home. The series explores the grading of skin color in colonial Haiti through photographic re-creations of iconic paintings by Giovanni Bellini, Piero della Francesca, and Jan Van Eyck, among others. The twist is that she uses locals of varying skin tones to map these statements of mercantile power and wealth onto the descendants of slave owners and their chattel.
Gordon tells me about a French colonialist who became obsessed with the mixing of races. “He started this quite surreal classification system, which is pretending to be based on science,” she explains. Staged with the help of a local carpenter and tailor, the Caste Portraits make visible “the questions you ask yourself as a white photographer working in Haiti.”
In the original classification, the skin tones began at white and ended in black, getting darker by fractions. The artist, however, has switched directions and put her Haitian partner, Andre Eugene, at the start, herself at the end. ”Ironically, this quite racist classification system was the one thing that put me in some kind of trajectory of Haitian history,” says Gordon. “In a sense at least I’m there.”
The final element in her show in Brighton is a re-creation of Willliam Blake’s “Europe Supported by Africa and America.” In this iconic print, a nude white woman is supported by two dark-skinned handmaidens; in Gordon’s treatment, Europe becomes an elderly woman. “This is a sort of prophecy,” she says of the original. But after raping and pillaging our two neighboring continents, a “dystopian look at the future” is all that remains for us.
Asked what industries remain in Haiti today, Gordon is blunt: “there aren’t any.” She doesn’t count the textile factories on the border with the Dominican Republic, which pay minimum wage and employ the peasants who once lived in the designated free trade zone. “It’s the Enclosure Act all over again,” says the artist, who is equally cautious to welcome a return of tourism to the island.
In her present location, Jacmel, they’ve built a new wharf for passing cruise ships, and “we wait to see what effect that will have on Haitian art.” Yet, Gordon notes that already, “most of the artisanal crafts that are sold around the whole of the Caribbean are made in Haiti.” How long will it last? Can the local art market survive a glut of second-rate derivative works? You’d think these were questions for Haitians, but as Gordon demonstrates, they implicate us all.
Leah Gordon’s “Caste / Cast” continues at the Regency Town House (13 Brunswick Square, Brighton, England) as part of the HOUSE Festival through May 25.
Subscribe to the Hyperallergic newsletter!