The Biennial Questionnaire: Leah Gordon

One of the founding curators of Haiti's Ghetto Biennale talks class, globalism and Harald Szeemann

A screening at the 2nd Ghetto Biennale, 2011. Photo: Jason Metcalf

You are one of the four curators of Ghetto Biennale. Two of your colleagues, André Eugène and Celeur Jean Herard, are Haitian artists, the third, David Frohnapfel, is a German art historian. How did you get involved in the project?

In 2006 I was employed as a freelance curator by the International Museum of Slavery in Liverpool to commission a large-scale sculptural work to be a permanent exhibit in the museum (which was due to open in 2007). It was during the first research trip that I met Atis Rezistans, a collective of Haitian artists based in Grand Rue, Port-au-Prince, and commissioned André Eugène, Celeur Jean Herard and Guyodo, under the art direction of Mario Benjamin, to create a monumental work for the museum. They were producing art that reflected a heightened, dystopian view of their society, culture and religion. Celeur & André were at the core of the movement, which contained eleven or twelve other younger artists, all producing powerful sculptural works. Their work opened entirely new vistas into the creative possibilities of the Vodou-inspired arts of Haiti. Their muscular sculptural collages of engine manifolds, computer entrails, TV sets, medical debris, skulls and discarded lumber transforms the detritus of a failing economy into deranged, post-apocalyptic totems with a Cyberpunk aesthetic.

After that I returned and started to make a film about their work. In May 2008 we all met up again in Geneva whilst the artists created a site-specific work at the Museum of Ethnography to accompany the exhibition Le Vodou: Un Art de Vivre. It was after this trip, whilst reading the transcripts of the film interviews and through conversations with André, that the name and concept of the Ghetto Biennale was conceived.

Haitian art is getting some recognition in the traditional contemporary art sphere now, but Haiti itself is not a place, perhaps shamefully, that is much visited by the art world.

In the past, André and Celeur have not been able to attend private views of their own work in major museums in the USA due to visa refusal. They have had to nominate a bourgeois Haitian artist to represent them. And this is still happening. After being granted and never defaulting on a UK artists visa four times previous, André’s visit to the opening of the show Kafou: Haiti, Art and Vodou, curated by Alex Farquharson and myself at the Nottingham Contemporary, where his work was exhibited, was prohibited due to visa refusal because he did not have enough money in a bank in Haiti. The artists wanted to find a way of having greater control over their means of distribution. And distribution in the art world is partly the ability to travel and create networks. So the first impulse for the Ghetto Biennale was to bring international artists, academics and curators to Haiti in order to build up international networks.

The first impulse for the Ghetto Biennale was to bring international artists, academics and curators to Haiti in order to build up international networks

Nonetheless, for better or worst, there seems to be a growing traction towards countries and cities that have been previously overlooked by - Western at least - contemporary art institutions, magazines or the market even, right?

For myself, another point of departure was ‘The Radicant’ by Nicolas Bourriaud and his concept of the global artist as ‘homo viator’. The Ghetto Biennale feels like some kind of a response to his text. In fact for the 2nd Ghetto Biennale, one of the participating artists, Jason Metcalf, had the chapter on Creolisation from ‘The Radicant’ translated into Kreyol and distributed throughout the neighborhood. Travel, for the majority of the global community, usually takes the form of forced migration or illegal immigration. The Ghetto Biennale was an attempt to open a dialogue about this within the international art world. Atis Rezistans had noticed how class, rather than race or nationality, seemed to be a barrier of entry to the so-called 'globalised' international art circuit. The two or three Haitian artists that seem to repeatedly represent Haiti in Venice, Johannesburg and São Paulo biennales were all from the middle to upper class of Haitian society. The Ghetto Biennale was firstly conceived as a kind of reverse mechanism of the mobility that most international artists enjoy and a way for the Haitian artists to plug themselves into art networks, to experiment with collaborative practice and to publicise their artwork. You could say that the Ghetto Biennale was primarily created as a Trojan Horse, with an agenda to publicising Atis Rezistans work.

Class, rather than race or nationality, seemed to be a barrier of entry to the so-called 'globalised' international art circuit

There seems to be a pointed juxtaposition between the word ‘ghetto’ and the refined, politeness, of a biennale – to where, it might be argued, art world people go to hobnob as much as they go to see art.

Yes, but this is also about reappropriation. Atis Rezistans use recycled materials for their works. But their work is not just dealing with Haitian culture and the reappropriation of junk. Another important part of their practice is the reappropriation of bourgeois art world institutions. André has named his yard ‘a Musee d'Arte’, declaring that not only the bourgeois can have galleries and museums.

In 1804, after the slaves revolt, Haiti was the first black republic in the Western hemisphere and the first post-colonial nation in the world. Afro-Haitian religious practices have developed a popular imaginary that has led to a vibrant subaltern art production organised through numerous popular neighbourhoods, both within and outside of Port-au-Prince. Until recently the art has been distributed and sold through a gallery system in the middle class suburb of Petionville above Port-au-Prince; so whilst much of the production is by the lower classes, the distribution has traditionally been via the middle classes and foreign dealers, predominantly North American. Atis Rezistans’ work had rarely been promoted by the Petionville galleries in the same way as the earlier so-called ‘naïve/primitive’ artists have enjoyed.

The way in which Atis Rezistans make work, learn and share their skills is very different than the typical Western art school model. They use an apprenticeship system to disseminate skills. This difference, and lack of conventional art historical knowledge, has often forced them into the unwelcome category of 'outsider' or 'primitive' artists. By holding the Ghetto Biennale and inviting contemporary artists, Atis Rezistans were refusing this positioning. Harald Szeemann spoke about wanting ‘to abolish the barrier between high art and outsider art.’ The Ghetto Biennale wants aims to be a point on that particular historical trajectory: a platform which will bring a new level of visibility to non-Western, self-taught art.

The unwelcome category of 'outsider' or 'primitive' artists

One of the stated aims of the biennale is an investigation of the 'globalised art market'. It’s unusual for a biennale to outwardly address the commercial side of art (although its always there bubbling underneath of course). What do you mean by an investigation, and what form will this take?

Many of the visiting artists attracted to the Ghetto Biennale have quite anarchistic, anti-authorial, non-material practices. This is what led to the challenging paradox at the heart of the 1st Ghetto Biennale. There was a very wide gap between the projections of the visiting artists and the expectations of the Haitian artists. The Haitians were at first a little disappointed with these Western artists who arrived wanting to “dismantle global power systems, centres of art production, and cultural transmission” and such like. Many of the visiting artists critiqued the current locus of global art power that most of the Haitian artists were desperate to plug themselves right into. So whilst many of the visiting artists were exploring non-commercial, indistinctly authored, dematerialised works, the Haitian artists were making art objects that they, unfashionably, wanted to sell. This dynamic tension at the heart of the Ghetto Biennale was illuminating for both the visiting and hosting artists.

There's a lot of talk about linking the 'global south' in art (and in wider culture and economics) – how does the biennale fit within this?

I’m not convinced that the Ghetto Biennale is exactly about the global south as much as it is about class. I am from a generation, born in the late 1950s, when there was the opportunity for working class youth to take the, often still radical, leap to follow an art education which led to an extremely rich art, culture and music scene in the UK. With the new fee structure and reduction of core funding for the humanities that small window has closed again. In Haiti there is an uncommon cultural outpouring from the lower classes, a phenomenon that in Europe, for example, has been increasingly silenced through a restrictive wage system, consumerism and an increasingly hegemonic control of culture. When discussing Rara bands in Haiti, Liza McAlister notes how your ability to ‘play’ can be an important marker of your social status. “Play is associated with the crossroads or the street… and with establishing one’s reputation through performance… In a country with low “professional” employment and a low literacy rate, this sort of reputation is a major form of social capital.” If this observation can be extrapolated from performance to include the plastic arts, one can begin to comprehend the social importance of art and creativity in Haiti.

The 3rd Ghetto Biennale 2013: Decentering the Market and Other Tales of Progress, opens 26 November – 16 December, in Haiti.