Polly Savage, The Germ of the Future, Ghetto Biennale, Port au Prince, Third Text: Critical Perspectives on Contemporary Art and Culture, (Vol 24, issue 4, July 2010)
Glass Magazine: Haiti's Triumph. How to set up an art biennale in a ghetto
Global Voices in Haiti: The Grand Rue Artists, After the Earthquake
Photos from the Wallstreet Journal website
Richard Fleming’s photos
Podcast of Richard Fleming’s report on The World
Biennale coverage with Le Temps, one of Switzerland's leading daily newspapers (Please click here for a pdf download. Article starts on page one and continues on page 22.)
Haiti Ghetto Biennale: One Month Before the Earthquake,
The Ghetto Biennale, Port au Prince, Haiti by Richard Fleming (The Port au Prince Ghetto Biennale in the Suddeutsche Zeitung ENGLISH version)
In Port au Prince, Haiti, the poorest of the city's many poor neighborhoods are those closest to the water. They are linked together by the Boulevard Jean Jacques Dessalines, simply referred to as "Grand Rue," the big street, clogged with cars and trucks winding around potholes and through rivulets of gray-water. The air is full of dust and the sound of honking “tap-taps;” these ornate, battered minibuses, serving as public transportation, are beautifully painted in tropical hues and decorated with images of sports heroes, religious iconography and pop stars, but they cough black diesel smoke as they lurch, overcrowded and tail-heavy, through the slums. On the sidewalks, a different kind of chaos reigns: vendors hawking every conceivable scrap of merchandise, from used clothes, bike seats and car parts, to fried plantains; welders, some in sunglasses, others without any eye protection whatsoever, sizzling bits of metal together as pedestrians and pushcarts brush past the flying sparks; women, dipping buckets into dubious open cisterns.
It is the last place one might expect to find an international art event, but here on a narrow vacant lot just off the street a group of Haitian artists are hosting a three-week spectacle they call the “Ghetto Biennale.” Known as the sculptors of the Grand Rue, they make astonishing post-apocalyptic constructions out of the cast-off refuse of western civilization, mixing chunks of carved wood and human skulls with abandoned car parts, circuit boards, television housings and whatever other bits of mechanical detritus they can get their hands on. André Eugene’s statue of Legba, the vodou guardian of entryways and crossroads, dominates the front of the lot. Some eight meters tall, with a torso made from an abandoned truck chassis and a head crafted from a punctured oil drum, this rusty behemoth towers over the neighborhood’s primary source of fresh water, shading local residents who gather here with buckets, or come to take an outdoor shower.
A core group of four artists, including Eugene, Céleur Jean Herard, Ronald “Cheby” Bazile and Destima Pierre Isnel, share an aesthetic forged in part out of a shared childhood in this slum, in part out of the Haitian cultural heritage of vodou, and in part out of necessity. Their art, constructed with the materials and simple tools of the auto scrapyard, is deeply connected to the ghetto. The paint-spattered patina of the cinderblock walls, and the rusty tones of the cheap zinc roofs are echoed in the surfaces of their work, while the dense gargoyle armies of humanoid sculptures filling their modest homes to bursting reflect the claustrophobia of hot, Caribbean neighborhood lives lived crammed together in poverty.
Several of these artists have been exhibited internationally, in Paris and London, Chicago, Miami and elsewhere. By remaining rooted in this neighborhood they have merged as important figures in the local community, but whatever economic successes they have had have not lifted them above its harsh realities. Plumbing is scarce, electricity is intermittent and haphazard in installation, public health infrastructure is virtually nonexistent and security is tenuous, reliant on the presence of United Nations peacekeepers, who rarely visit such quartiers populaires.
The diffusion, exhibition and selling of Haitian fine art has traditionally been dominated by the tiny elite here, the super-wealthy at the very top of the economic pyramid, that class known generically in Haiti as the boujwazi. But above the entrance to André Eugene’s humble three-room shack is an illuminated sign reading “E. Pluri Bus Unum Museum.” The slogan appears on various denominations of US currency, although Eugene stresses its original meaning, ‘out of many, one,’ or, as he defines it, “unity in diversity: one for all and all for one,” underlining the sense of community struggle and mutual aid that unites the Grand Rue artists. “I had the idea of making a museum here in my own area, with my own hands, because the artists you see here never had their own thing, they always let the ‘Big Man’ exploit them.”
The Ghetto Biennale takes this notion to the world stage. The idea of hosting a group of international artists in a kind of shantytown residency first arose a few years ago when some of the Grand Rue artists, invited to exhibit in a show of Haitian sculpture at Miami’s Frost Art Museum, were denied the US visas they needed to attend the opening. As co-curator Leah Gordon, a London based photographer with decades of experience working in Haiti, puts it, “if these guys weren’t going to be able to go to the Biennales, they thought they had better bring the biennale to them.” (André Eugene, Céleur and Guyodo, another Grand Rue artist who is not participating in the Ghetto Biennale, have since traveled widely to numerous exhibitions). With limited financial support and using only the internet to publicize the concept, the Ghetto Biennale was born. Some thirty-five projects were selected from more than one hundred proposals, always with the idea that rather than bringing completed artworks to show, the invited artists would develop work at the Grand Rue site.
London-based artist Jesse Darling intended to build a church out of found trash, but when she got to the site her first thought was “what is waste, here? It simply doesn’t mean the same thing. Every little fan grate, every little bit of nothing has been reincorporated into the structure of someone’s home, the structure of somebody’s life, reused, welded, made to work again. There’s very little that is genuinely wasted.” She imagined for a moment that she would have to find some way to build her structure from the fetid piles of organic garbage piled here and there along Dessalines, but finally settled on fabricating the building from the collected plastic baggies in which small servings of fresh water are sold.
A number of artists have experienced similar moments of crisis. “Some of them are really struggling,” says Gordon co-curator Myron Beasley, “when they get here they really see the realities of what’s happening in Haiti, the whole dynamic and effects of globalism, and they are wrestling with ideas of ‘what does it mean as an artist to come here and do work?’ And ‘what does it mean to have the privilege of having everything at my disposal versus doing art and making things only with what you have?’”
Before arriving in Haiti, Carole Frances Lung, an “artist, activist and nomadic textile worker” who calls herself Frau Fiber, wrote in an email that “there have been moments when I thought I should back out, as I feel very conflicted about making art in a place which can’t seem to meet its basic needs of clean water, jobs, etc.” Nonetheless, she has now installed two foot-treadle operated sewing machines on the Dessalines lot for a project almost perfectly attuned to the recycling aesthetic of the Grand Rue sculptors. In a dusty patch of shade under an awning made from sewn together t-shirts, jeans and other “Pepe,” as the ubiquitous American castoffs are known here, she and Jonas Labaze, her local tailor-collaborator, are cutting up and repurposing second-hand clothes that are dumped here by the container-load. This is not just a conceptual project; she intends to maintain a long-term business partnership with Labaze, helping him market these renewed creations back in the United States.
While the delicious irony of this may be lost on the Grand Rue sculptors, who originally made their art from castoff junk out of necessity rather than choice, Céleur Jean Herard is clear about the importance of the Biennale. “It’s not just for the Grand Rue,” he says, “it’s for Haiti herself, because these days, as soon as you hear the word Haiti, the first thought is violence, kidnapping, coup d’etat, and instability, but now there’s a chance to see another face. This is a place with lots of artistic force, lots of creativity.”