Chantal Regnault

 

What happens when 30 foreign artists crash a  Port-au-Prince slum which is also the home and workshop of a group of local sculptors known as « Atist Resistans ’? It completely blows their mind !!!

From Dec 1 to Dec 16 2009, they arrived from the US, Mexico, England, Italy, Jamaica, Tasmania to be part of the first Ghetto Biennale ever. They came with various art projects to be shared and confronted with the art and reality of their Haitian self-taught counterparts at 622 Boulevard Jean-Jacques Dessalines more often referred as « Grand’ rue ».

Conceived and organized by British photographer Leah Gordon the Biennale materialized with barely any funding and the artists had to pay for their air fare, lodging and food. The Foundation for Freedom and Knowledge (FOKAL, a local branch of Georges Soros’ Open Society) had provided for a rented car, a driver and two interpreters.

The old and famous Oloffson Hotel, which has over the last 70 years hosted an impressive array of characters, from writers to rockers, from scholars to jet set celebrities, from missionaries to mercenaries and misfits, had yet to shelter a bunch of  (mostly) conceptual artists all new comers to Haiti. Within 24 hours as they had taken their first trip to the labyrinth of narrow corridors, outdoor bath facilities, garbage piles and open sewers that residents call home, reality had taken over concept and they all went into deep reshuffling of ideas, artistic vision, and even personal identity. What the writer of this note calls “the Haiti effect” was still as powerful as it had been for her 30 years ago!!!

They all seemed affected, like stricken by some mysterious virus. We are not talking about diarrhea, stomachache, heat exhaustion, even though it is truly part of it. It has more to do with an affection of the soul and mind. A re-evaluation of where one stands in the world, a full realization that in spite of dire deprivation of basics, the human spirit refuses to die in the rubbles of poverty. Not only refuses to die but produces art out of rejects, music and dance out of pain, laughs out of tears, and makes the wheel of life keep on turning. Not to mention the soft sensuality emanating from the smiles and shining eyes of both men and women when the sun finally sets on this unique island. A small breeze comes to soothe the harsh reality of daily life, both resident and visiting artists can finally lay back, enjoy a cold “Prestige” beer or a stiffer “Barbancourt” rhum on ice and talk endlessly about life, love, suffering and why to make art out of it.

By the end it is what the Ghetto Biennale was all about, not so much what was produced while it lasted, but what was discovered, shared, the links it created and the vital enthusiasm it aroused in both the visited and the visiting. Parting was quite emotional but everybody understood it was only the beginning of a lasting relationship. They’ll be back for more mind storming and soul searching, not doubt about that! 

Chantal Regnault

Port-au-Prince