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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — In 2011, for the second Ghetto Biennale, artist Jason Metcalf hired a Haitian translator to translate the chapter on creolization from Nicholas Bourriaud’s The Radicant into Creole and distributed it throughout Port-au-Prince, the location of the biennale. When I read about that, after the fact, I became interested in visiting. Then I read that Bill Drummond, of 1980s avant-garde pop group The KLF, was involved in the Ghetto Biennales of 2009 and 2011, and I knew I was definitely going in 2013.
This year, Tom Bogaert, an artist who’s currently one of my favorites, was participating. Also for this edition, the band Arcade Fire commissioned a work by Haitian sculptor André Eugène, which became part of a procession that kickstarted the biennale. It consists of a coffin decorated with old CDs, from which a double-headed, skulled metal snake emerges. The procession took off from the Oloffson Hotel, which is featured prominently in The Comedians by Graham Greene. That’s where I stayed during my visit.
Everything about the 2013 Ghetto Biennale seemed a contradiction, from its name to its history, its art, its production, and its progress; all of that is, most certainly, a good thing.
To most Haitian artists, the word “biennale” conjures up images of worldly grandeur, of sophistication, wealth, and luxury they cannot afford. Whereas people who organize, attend, or take part in better-known biennales often critique the conglomeration of global art power, most Haitian artists desperately want to be part of that. Quite unfashionably, they want to sell their objects. In contrast, for the visiting artists of this biennale, the word “ghetto” has connotations of poverty, inequality, crime, slums — everything an art exhibition is not. They rightly explore noncommercial, indistinctly authored, dematerialized works. Together these two parts create the Ghetto Biennale.
The first edition opened in December 2009, shortly before the devastating earthquake of 2010, in a slum district of Grand Rue in Port-au-Prince, where a collective of Haitian sculptors, Atis Rezistans, work. The concept was born from a conversation between Haitian artist André Eugène and British artist Leah Gordon, who had been coming to Haiti since 1991; they discussed the extreme difficulty that Haitian artists face in obtaining travel visas to almost anywhere in the world, whether they’re invited or not. The pair came up with the idea of a biennale as a kind of Trojan Horse, the idea being that if the art and artists could not be taken out of the slums, then other art and artists would be taken into the slums, and networks established regardless of visa politics.
Eugène and Gordon invited non-Haitian artists whom they selected after an open call to make work and interact with the Atis Rezistans sculptors. Visitors were not to bring any materials with them, meaning they had to apply the tactics Haitian artists generally use, scavenging in the vicinity. In the end, Eugène and Gordon succeeded in creating an event through collaboration between artists from radically different backgrounds. But many questions arose: Could the biennale function as an exit strategy from the ghetto, through networking and the establishment of a market for Haitian artists? Contrarily, was this perhaps a form of poverty tourism? After all, what drives the visiting artists to participate and foreigners to visit?
The second Ghetto Biennale took place in December 2011, with many original visiting artists invited to return. On top of the issues from the previous edition, by now it also became apparent that the non-Haitian artists had a tendency to judge themselves and their work by measuring what they were doing for the Haitian population, which is not what the founders wanted. As curator Leah Gordon explained, “the Ghetto Biennale is not an NGO exploiting a community.” Yet the inequality between local and visiting artists became painfully clear. Haitians sometimes plainly preferred to work for somebody instead of collaborating with another artist.
To tackle some of these problems, for the 2013 edition, the organizers — Eugène and Gordon, along with Celeur Jean Herard and David Frohnapfel — decided to work with a theme: “Decentering the Market and Other Tales of Progress.” It would investigate or respond to the art market as we understand it from both a local and global perspective. Very limited funding came through, so the organizers also determined that visiting artists would fund their own projects, with all the money raised going toward logistics on the ground and fees for the Haitians who worked as guides, drivers, translators, troubadours, magicians, cleaners, art handlers, and whoever else was needed to run the show.
I flew in at the tail end of the biennale, on the day of the congress that featured all the participants, plus an audience, reflecting in groups on the event. One of the Haitian collaborators took me around the site of the Atis Rezistans, an impossible labyrinth of artists’ studios and minuscule living quarters made largely of recycled materials and described by my guide book as “a Caribbean junkyard gone cyberpunk.” There was wonderfully bizarre, sculptural work by Gheto Jean Baptiste, decorative portraits of participants by Racine Polycarpe, and a minimalist but Haitian-inspired wall sculpture by Emilie Boone. I saw beautiful photographs by Leah Gordon and a colorful hammock on a wall by Diedrick Brackens. Tom Bogaert took local beer bottles and changed the brand names on the labels to words like “lonely,” “papa,” or “unique.” A minimalist sculpture made of steel cable and charcoal by Joseph Winter sat beside an open sewer. He had also made a high chair, or throne, on a rooftop in the ghetto that you could climb onto. On-site and throughout Port-au-Prince I kept seeing painted texts on walls — not unusual in Haiti, but these were odd, short sentences (“Man makes bed”) in black and white or red and white. It turned out they were leftovers from the last edition, done by Bill Drummond, another of my favorite artists.
The day of the congress ended with an impromptu party. No international art stars here or fancy drinks, but it was an amazing party. Kids danced on rooftops and a drunken magician performed, while conversations and heated discussions continued over bottles of Prestige beer sold from an icebox in one of the makeshift alleyways. Local artists tried to peddle their work, in an odd contrast to the growing concern in the mainstream art world over art as commodity. To not have art as commodity in Haiti is simply out of the question. And to make art that is not materially based, even though they don’t even have much in the way of materials, is an impossibility.
As the visiting artists were creating and installing their work, pieces by Haitian artists would spontaneously appear nearby. At times this seemed too close for comfort for the foreigners, yet it created an unwitting collaboration that resulted in meaningful dialogue. The surroundings were difficult but incredibly rewarding; a minimalist sculpture that has a developing nation’s chaotic capital city as background is experienced in a completely different way than if it were in a white cube.
To me, international biennales and the art world in general still seem incredibly homogenous. As Leah Gordon said to me, Documenta 11, curated by Okwui Enwezor in 2002, was a pivotal moment in recent art history, yet it still seems to have changed little in terms of moving away from this sameness. Perhaps things will change a little more when Enwezor curates the Venice Biennale in 2015. In the meantime, there is Haiti.
The Ghetto Biennale 2013 took place from November 26 to December 16 throughout Port-au-Prince, Haiti.