To visit the 2nd Ghetto Biennale in the Grand Rue area of Port-au-Prince was to dive into a fray of hectic activity. People were trading, installing, painting signs, filming, cooking and celebrating the opening following a performance by a Rara band. As with the first edition in 2009, which opened a month before the earthquake that killed 300,000 people and destroyed the homes of a further one million people, around 50 international artists had been selected from an open call for ‘A Salon des Refusés for the 21st century’. All participants were required to fund their own projects, while the direct financial support provided by international NGOs and cultural institutes was put towards a basic infrastructure, such as drivers and translators, creating a slightly disorientating but refreshing atmosphere of improvised communication. Despite an official site plan, successful navigation of the area’s narrow alleyways depended upon on the help and guidance of the local residents.
In order to establish long-term relationships between local and visiting artists, the organizers and founders of the event – Celeur Jean Hérard and André Eugene from the Grand Rue-based collective Atis Rezistans, together with British artist and curator Leah Gordon – placed an emphasis on re-inviting former participants. These included Los Angeles artist Carole Frances Lung, who co-founded the fashion label ‘Made in Haiti’ with local tailor Jonas Labaze. Now with four employees, they rework US-sourced second-hand clothing and sell it back to the US market. The few site-specific interventions, photographs and (sometimes depressingly) faux-indigenous works produced by visiting artists blended into the post-earthquake ruins and the organic aesthetics of the local art scene.
The majority of participating artists undertook collaborative and process-based practices. For example, a video and accompanying blog by British artist and writer John Cussans traced his commissioning of a bus painting from Grand Rue sign-painters. But the Ghetto Biennale’s main focus is on art as social practice, providing residents and the local communities with different models of self-representation and self-organization. For example, three London- and Paris-based architects, Vivian Chan, Maccha Kasparian and Yuk Yee Phang, have designed a community centre and art gallery, in collaboration with Grand Rue residents, local contractors and NGO architects, and using mostly recycled materials. Fundraising for the project is currently underway and it is hoped that the building will be inaugurated in 2013 at the third edition of the Biennale. Disappointingly, the work of several artists working with Ti Moun Rezistans (a children’s workshop run by local artists) was informed by a well-meaning but rather misconceived charitable agenda, providing colourful one-off events rather than a longer-term engagement.
In contrast, Robert Gomez’s film and web-based marketing workshop, produced in cooperation with the guerrilla media project Tele Geto, and an interview and poster project (titled Okipasyon) by Joyce Ip, Jason Metcalf and Roberto N Peyre, managed to create heated discussions about patronizing support structures and the distribution of power. While Renzo Martens’ controversial film Enjoy Poverty (2008), which was screened here, dramatizes the West’s macabre assertion of its difference, some of the Biennale’s long-term collaborations seem to slowly corrode the ideological and existential gap between periphery and metropolis.
A surprising addition to the second edition of the Biennale was the ‘Nouvo Rezistans’ exhibition at the French Institute, which presented sculptures by emerging artists from the Grand Rue neighbourhood. Neatly staged around a fountain in a minimalist courtyard, the sculptures included the more traditional Atis Rezistans works: assemblages composed of wood, recycled plastic, rubber, skulls and metal, featuring representations of Vodou spirits. There were also more distinct positions, such as that of Gétho Jean Babtiste, whose sculptures Comedian and The False Pastor (both 2011) – made from broken electronic devices and found objects – address institutional and political corruption in Haiti. As the antithesis of the social and relational activities in the Grand Rue, the magical objects ready for sale at ‘Nouvo Rezistans’ also underscored the reality that the Grand Rue artists first of all have to make a living, and that the Ghetto Biennale is also a grassroots attempt to enter the global art world.
The opening image by Andre Eugene Badgi Pom Louko (Altar for Louko) (2011) was wrongly attributed to John Cussan. Amended 28/02/2012.
Jason Metcalf's name was incorrectly spelled in the print edition. Our apologies to him for this error. Amended 05/03/2012.
First published in Issue 145