In the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince two men rhythmically issue lines from the scripts they're holding, reacting to their opposite number in time with a drum. It's a slam battle, and they swerve seamlessly between Haitian Creole and French. The camera retreats, revealing an old mural behind them of a black man in Napoleonic military uniform, daubed across a wall.
The two men, Haitian actors Rossi Casimir and Léonard Jean Baptiste, are rapping lines from Martiniquan writer Édouard Glissant's 1961 play Monsieur Toussaint, the story of the final days of François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, one of the best known leaders of the Haitian Revolution, the 1791 slave rebellion that led to the nation's independence. The man depicted on the mural is Toussaint Louverture's lieutenant, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and the picture marks the spot in Pont Rouge, Port-au-Prince, where he was assassinated in 1806.
This scene in the play sees Dessalines arguing with Granville, Toussaint Louverture's secretary – who is accusing Dessalines of betraying his boss to their French enemies. ‘Don't push me Granville,’ spits Dessalines. ‘Anyone else would have been dead halfway through that sentence.’ While preparing this performance, the two actors were perplexed that Dessalines, a former slave, was portrayed by Glissant as speaking in French – the language of the country's colonial overlords – so infused his part with Creole. And by reissuing these words in the most commonly spoken Haitian language, the two men have made this famous historical work understandable to most locals – the vast majority of whom speak only Creole, though the country's state apparatus favours French – for the first time.
‘Most people in Haiti are illiterate and the country's history is in a language that doesn't speak to people,’ Casimir told me. ‘It's more than a barrier, it's a zombification’.
The duo, along with six other Haitian actors, translated the rest of Monsieur Toussaint at Port-au-Prince's Centre d'Art this summer for a performance at this year’s Ghetto Biennale (24 November – 18 December 2017), a Haitian art event founded and run by British curator Leah Gordon and Atis Rezistanz, a sculpture collective in Grand Rue, one of Port-au-Prince's poorest neighbourhoods. British artist Louis Henderson, who conceived the performance with producing partner Olivier Marboeuf, intercut filmed footage of it, its rehearsals, along with shots of locations in Haiti where the revolution took place, for ‘research material’ video works shown at the Akademie der Künste, Berlin in September. Henderson will begin shooting for a complete film in January, to be shown at HOME Manchester in April 2018, with the same actors around the same material. Within an overall basic structure defined by Henderson, decisions over the film's contents will be made as a group. The work's use of Creole emphasizes language's role in excluding Haiti's people from their own history.
‘It was interesting how the history of Haiti had been written in French across the whole of the Caribbean and what that meant in terms of who had access to that story,’ said Henderson when we met in London. ‘It's this question of who has decided to construct the narratives around the revolution. It was key for me to work with a group of young Haitian artists who can speak Creole and are setting up what the future politics is going to be there.’
Henderson's artworks frequently blend contemporary footage shot on location with archival textual material on postcolonial themes, with a degree of critical reflectivity on his own status as a European filmmaker. His 2012 film The Day Before the Fires, for instance, is shot in the present day from the back of a motorcycle tracing the path of the Cairo Fire of January 1952, a series of anti-colonial riots against the killing of 50 Egyptian auxiliary policemen by British forces. Henderson's voice-over, relaying a historical account of the event, blends with the traffic noise. Meanwhile 2014's All That Is Solid considered industrialized nations' dumping of old computer equipment in Accra, Ghana. By layering his raw footage in a cascade of windows, clearly visible on a desktop computer screen, he emphasized his own complicity as a Western interrogator in maintaining postcolonial power structures.
The impetus for his Haiti work came from his reading of Afro-Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James's story of the revolution, 1938's The Black Jacobins, which tells of the famous uprising of the country's slaves against their overseers. ‘The individual leadership responsible for this unique achievement was almost entirely the work of a single man,’ writes James of Toussaint Louverture. However when Henderson began researching his project he discovered it was Dessalines – who took control of the revolution when the French imprisoned Toussaint Louverture – who was more popular among contemporary Haitians.
‘It's Dessalines who is the national hero,’ said Casimir. ‘Many people think it was Louverture who had given us our independence, but without Dessalines our past would have been different, our present modified and our future unsure.’
The reason for this difference in status lies at the heart of Henderson's project. Jeremy Popkin's 2012 book A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution suggests that while Toussaint Louverture was lionized in the white world – ‘There's not a breathing of the common wind / That will forget thee,’ wrote Wordsworth of him in 1803 – in Haiti, he is seen as someone who never abandoned hope of coexisting with colonial rulers. Toussaint Louverture loved the French language, sending his two sons to be educated in France in 1796, and saw it as a means of upward mobility. Dessalines, however, who oversaw a brutal massacre of whites as leader and probably only spoke Creole, is seen a symbol of black liberation. Haiti's national anthem is ‘La Dessalinienne’ and statues of him litter the island.
Henderson's film hopes to unpick this complex relationship between Haiti's national heroes, their language, and the country's history. French is seen as the mother tongue of an educated minority, and will forever be linked to pre-revolutionary colonial rule and historical power inequalities that still persist. The artist's rehearsals already challenge who gets to understand, discuss and subsequently form that history.
‘French represents the colonial master's language,’ added Henderson. ‘We're trying to decompose and recompose the play, to Creolize the language it's written in. We're trying to reposition people's roles in that power dynamic, via the comprehension delivered by the power of language.’
Baptiste agreed. ‘The story recounted in Haiti is already different from the written story,’ he concluded. ‘It's the winner who writes the story, so he praises himself, writes to his taste, and not the truth. So few people have access to the research archives; we have to find a way of making it accessible to the people.’
The Ghetto Biennale runs until 18 December 2017, Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Main image: Louis Henderson and Olivier Marboeuf, Research material for a film on Monsieur Toussaint, film still, 2017. Courtesy: Louis Henderson
Rob Sharp is a freelance writer based in London, UK. He is the former arts correspondent of The Independent and the Observer, and has written for The New York Times, the Guardian and Prospect.