PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Haiti’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities have long kept a low profile because of a strong social stigma that sparks fear of physical violence or social isolation. This past April the 7th Forum Transculturel d’Art Contemporain (Transcultural Forum of Contemporary Art) discussed the theme “Creation & Counter-power” in Port-au-Prince. The forum, a biennial founded in 2000, is intended to strengthen transnational bonds between contemporary artists from Haiti and art professionals from the wider Caribbean, Africa, and the Americas. In response to this year’s conceptual framework, and by invitation of Fondation AfricAmericA, I curated the exhibition NOCTAMBULES: the hidden transcripts, in collaboration with local photographer Josué Azor and other artists, including Mario Benjamin, Maksaens Denis, and Tessa Mars. The idea was to discuss how homosexuality can manifest itself as a counter-culture in the artistic landscape in Port-au-Prince and position itself against a hostile and heteronormative society. Which are the communal bonds the LGBT in Port-au-Prince create to resist marginalization and heal the wounds of discrimination? Can art challenge this heteronormative matrix of power by developing queer aesthetic sensibilities?
While such academic considerations were important for conceptualizing the exhibition, our main point of departure for this exhibition was an emotional one. It took the artists a lot of courage and strength to participate in this exhibition and accept a framework that virtually reduces the complexities of their artistic praxis to a single term — ‘queerness’ — in order to arouse attention to a socio-political problem. I met with Josué Azor at his house in Port-au-Prince to discuss his artistic praxis and photographic series Noctambules. The series became the centerpiece for our exhibition, as his photographs present a counter-narrative to a homophobic incident that happened in Port-au-Prince and therefore spoke very directly to the forum’s theme.
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David Frohnapfel: Let’s start by discussing your individual point of departure for Noctambules: the hidden transcripts.
Josué Azor: About two years ago I decided to start exploring life at night in Port-au-Prince as a subject for my photographic work. I live in a country where it is believed that life stops with sunset. The night in Port-au-Prince is generally presented to be full of mysteries and dangers. These preconceptions intrigued me and made me want to gain my own experiences after sunset. And as a young photographer I felt the necessity to face these ideas and show my own experience to a public that is not really used to seeing this kind of nocturnal life. Because of the limit of the medium photography and the rules I gave to myself, I would only go to places where there was a small amount of light, mostly ambient light. It was a way to experiment with different photographic techniques, while exploring at the same time different milieus and their different places. My exploration is based mainly on random encounters. When I heard that there were “private” gay parties taking place in Port-au-Prince, I was very surprised and particularly thrilled to explore and see what these parties were about. I doubted the possibility to be able to photograph at those parties since I was told on many occasions that there exists no gay community in Haiti. I was amazed to see in contrast how people at these parties were able to express themselves, to show a side of them that the pressure of society forces them usually to hide. They showed affection and love to each other publicly, in a society where it’s even complicated for straight people to do so. On top of it, most of them were comfortable enough to let me take their photograph. This experience changed my conception of the possibility of a gay community in Haiti. The ambition of my work here is to show this milieu as an existing part of our society. I want to bring those “hidden,” underground scenes to a public awareness.
DF: Although during my research for the forum I met a high percentage of “queer” artists working in Port-au-Prince, the subject matter hasn’t been discussed within any exhibition or academic platform so far. I think it’s interesting to think of a particular queer sensitivity within the Haitian artistic scene that rubs against or even works against a hetero-centric visual culture.
JA: I agree, but we have to be careful with this conceptual framing for the exhibition because we risk the danger of queer ghettoization if we succumb to generalizing queer experiences under a singular term. Are we falling into a hetero-centric trap with our exhibition because it could suggest that all artists are considered to be straight and male as long as they haven’t been labeled or otherwise proven to be queer, to be different? I do not know if I am a “queer artist.” What really defines to be a “queer artist”?
DF: I just recently started to understand that my own research questions are often influenced, directly and indirectly, by my experience as a homosexual man. I often end up discussing the artistic praxis of subordinate groups, their particular forms of creative resistance, and also processes of capitalizing on marginalization in the artistic scene. Does this make me a queer scholar? Don’t you think that “Queer Visualities” in general and your own photographs in particular can constitute a form of counter-power against a dominant hetero-patriarchy?
JA: Definitely. Every queer expression is a form of counter-power in a society dominated by a hetero-patriarchy. While working on my photographic project, I was participating in an engagement party of two men in the neighborhood of Petion-Ville in 2013. Everything was going fine until a group of people on the street decided to attack the house where the celebration was taking place. They threw stones at the house and the cars of the guests were put on fire. The violence was very intense and frightening. Thanks to the police, we were able to come out of the situation safely, after hours of dealing with the attacks of the angry people outside. In one of my images from the series we presented in our exhibition we can see a man inside a car looking into the broken glass of a mirror. Presenting this image is, for me, a way to confront people with the disturbing violence that exists against homosexuals in my country. The scenography you developed for our exhibition created a confrontation between freedom and oppression and violence and release. The intent was not only to discuss discrimination but also to reveal these spaces people create in order to live and express their identity, their love and their desire openly.
DF: I worked in the last year with the artist community Atis Rezistans and with the inhabitants of an urban slum neighborhood in Port-au-Prince for my dissertation project, which compares how Atis Rezistans exhibit their art objects in their local neighborhood with the ways in which curators present the same objects in more institutionalized settings abroad. Although I know from personal experiences the feeling of discrimination by a hetero-patriarchy, I am in a brutal position of white privilege and power as soon as I work in this particular milieu. Even though I try to reflect on the hierarchical position I hold with respect to my interlocutors, I am afraid I cannot leave this hierarchical position behind. You are as well — through education and financial resources — in a relatively privileged position compared to many Haitians who are the subjects of your photography. You visualize and at the same time commodify intimate scenes from the lives of queer Haitian youth into portable objects for global consumption in exhibition spaces. Can you tell me a little bit about how you address this power dynamic yourself — that is, the relationship between the one taking the picture and the one being photographed, and the consequences of using that source material for your artistic production?
JA: When I am working on social/documentary photography this problem is always in the back of my mind. Being aware of what I am photographing is imperative. Being respectful of the subject of my photos is an obligation. Focusing on a queer milieu in Haiti is of course something very delicate and needs to be handled sensitively. I am aware that I am dealing with people and take their portrait in a way that keeps their identity secret. Sometimes I face barriers and I respect that and do not shoot the photo. Other times, I take the portraits with the intention of keeping their identity secret. My main goal is to recreate situations, atmospheres, and ambiances through people, but not to expose them. The people I photograph are also aware that I am taking their picture and allow me to do so. In this way, a mutual understanding is granted.
DF: Are you particularly influenced by other artists from the Caribbean region or artists of Caribbean decent who could also be discussed in the context of “Queer Visualities”? Or who often deconstruct fixed notions of gender, race, and sexuality?
JA: I wouldn’t say in particular, no. The sexuality of an artist or their place of birth is not the first aspect that I consider. But of course it happened that some of the artists I admire are from the region and/or could be queer. I can name here the works of Nelson Gonzalez, David Damoison, Nadia Huggins, Ebony Patterson, and of course contemporary Haitian artists Maksaens Denis and Mario Benjamin.
DF: There are many photographers working in Port-au-Prince and Haitian curators like Barbara Prezeau-Stephenson who are supporting the medium. But photography still does not seem to have the same status of recognition as painting or sculpture. At the survey show Haiti: Two Centuries of Artistic Creation at the Grand Palais in Paris this year there was not one single photograph integrated into the selection of the exhibition. Photography is still a highly underrepresented medium in Port-au-Prince.
JA: There are hardly any exhibition spaces or educational facilities for the visual arts in Haiti and the situation for photography is even more difficult. Contrary to other countries, most of the Haitians have a different image of the medium of photography. If you mention photography to them, what generally comes to their mind is studio photography, commercial photography, and event photography. The only artistic value of photography for them lies in a touristic postcard. Nowadays more and more young photographers are emerging who are often interested in the medium of documentary photography. This development was mainly provoked by cultural institutions such as Fondation Connaissance et Liberté (FOKAL), which started to support photography as an artistic medium by organizing several workshops. Although it is still very rare there are more and more efforts happening in Port-au-Prince at the moment to create exhibitions. Earlier this year for instance, young photographers started an initiative to organize a collective called Kolektif 2D. Like you said before, the curator Barbara Prezeau-Stephenson played an important role in the emergence of photography as an artistic medium in the art world in Haiti. Since the 1st Forum Transculturel d’Art Contemporain in 2000, photography has become a significant component of Barbara Prezeau-Stephenson’s curatorial praxis. More recently we can also notice the significant efforts of curator Giscard Bouchotte to promote the medium in Haiti and beyond its borders.
DF: Queerness is often expressed in very subtle ways in the art world in Port-au-Prince. When I’m looking at your photographs and subjects I wouldn’t say that you are very subtle about it. Aren’t you afraid of social marginalization by choosing this allegedly “provocative” and taboo topic for your art works openly?
JA: I am aware that there are certain risks to show this aspect of society to a public that is not used to seeing this milieu in Haiti but I deeply believe that visibility is a central mechanism to achieve acceptance and make people see that the scenes I photograph can be casual and are not offensive. Contrary to what some people might think, there are men and women who are openly gay in Port-au-Prince, in all layers of society. There also has been work done about this topic before. In 2002 Anne Lescot and Laurence Magloire shot the documentary Des Hommes et Dieux (Of Men and Gods) about the relationship of homosexuals with Vodou. The movie was screened at public places and none of the filmmakers suffered any social repercussions. The only real concern I have is not to put the people I photograph at risk. And in the end I hope that my images will help to overcome misunderstanding and help people to question their own intolerance.
NOCTAMBULES: the hidden transcripts took place on occasion of the Fondation AfricAmericA’s biennial project 7th Forum Transculturel d’Art Contemporain 2015 (Villa Kalewès, 99 Rue Grégoire, Port-au-Prince), April 2–12.