Word of mouth (November/December 2015)

The fourth Ghetto Biennale opens in Haiti, Trinidad Carnival prep moves into high gear, and a family tradition puts wanderlust into Christmas

  • Sutichak Yachiangkham/Shutterstock.com
  • Photo courtesy the Ghetto Biennale
  • Photo by Marlon Rouse

Traveller’s tree

What’s a miniature butterfly-winged skeleton doing on a Christmas tree? Philip Sander explains the origins of a curious family tradition

December 2006, a chilly evening in Delhi. The conference that brought me to India wrapped up a few days ago, and I’m playing the tourist, visiting historic sites, zooming from one end of the city to another by auto-rickshaw. Now I’ve found my way to an immense outdoor market, where artisans from across the expanse of India offer a bewildering array of traditional crafts.

It occurs to me there’ll be no time for Christmas shopping when I return to Trinidad on the twenty-third. Scroogishly, I’ve enjoyed escaping from the onslaught of Christmas cheer on this trip. But to avoid the reproachful glances of relatives, I’d better pick up a few presents while I’m here. Strolling among the hundreds of stalls, I notice a display of papier-mâché baubles, hand-painted with elaborate filigree patterns and stylised flowers. They’d make perfect decorations for a Christmas tree, I think, and that’s one present scratched off the list. So a week later, on Christmas morning, thousands of miles away, my Delhi ornaments find themselves nestling among the plastic pine-needles of the family Christmas tree.

Now, the idea of Christmas decorations normally makes my heart sink. All that plastic holly, those yards of red velvet, garlands of scratchy tinsel, with their dusty mothball scent after being packed away for eleven months: in a word, ugh. But despite myself, the Yuletide ritual I’ve come to tolerate — maybe even enjoy — is decorating the family Christmas tree. Because those baubles bought for a few rupees on a whim in Delhi somehow set off a curious tradition: a Christmas tree that records the family’s far-and-wide travels.

How exactly it became a habit, none of us can remember. But over the years, whenever one of us visits a new country, it’s become obligatory to bring back some small object — the more unlikely the better — that will help us remember, at year’s end, where our travels have taken us.

Thus, a few months after that trip to India, now trekking in the savannahs of Venezuela, I came across a little shop selling tiny animal figurines made of forest seeds. That’s where the jumbie-bead armadillo came from. I found the balsa-wood steamboat in Manaus, in the Brazilian Amazon, and the felt pheasant in Budapest. That small pewter cross? From the highlands of Ethiopia. The porcelain lion? From the Russian Museum in Minneapolis. The little disc of stained glass? From Notre Dame de Paris.

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The more outlandish examples do puzzle visitors. I suppose most people, when they think of Christmas, don’t imagine a papier-mâché skeleton with butterfly wings like the one I brought back from Mexico City, or the pink blob with a mischievous grin that’s actually a creature from one of the phantasmagoric Renaissance paintings of Hieronymus Bosch — that one came from the National Gallery in London. They all perch or hang alongside sixty-year-old decorations from my grandparents, handmade creations from childhood art classes, and more conventional glass balls and grinning Santas.

But if one of the meanings of Christmas is to celebrate and be thankful for life’s gifts, our unconventional family Christmas tree certainly helps me do that. The odd little trinkets that festoon the plastic pine branches remind me how lucky I’ve been to travel to so many fascinating places. Also, how many countries are still on my to-visit list — because what’s the season without a few Christmas wishes?


Art of resistance

Nixon Nelson finds out how Port-au-Prince’s Ghetto Biennale — in its fourth edition this year — is changing the dynamics between Haitian artists and their counterparts elsewhere

It all began, as sculptor André Eugène tells it, with the denial of a visa application. Invited to Britain for the opening of a show featuring his work, Eugène found himself unable to travel when his visa was turned down — not for the first time, and not an uncommon experience for artists from Haiti. Despite the longstanding international reputation of Haitian art, shown at museums around the world and even at the Venice Biennale, the inequalities of immigration policy still prevent artists from travelling to present their work, meet their peers, network with curators, and the like.

Co-founder of the Atis Rezistans movement in Port-au-Prince — a collective of artists living in and around the Grand Rue in the city’s downtown slums — Eugène decided that if he and his fellows couldn’t go to meet the international art world, then the international art world should come to meet them. Thus was born the improbable-sounding Ghetto Biennale, a major programme of artists’ projects and performances held every other December in Port-au-Prince, which manages to subvert both the art world’s centre-periphery power dynamics and Haiti’s local art scene, dominated by a handful of commercial galleries in upscale neighbourhoods far from the heat and dust of the Grand Rue.

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Eugène and his Ghetto Biennale co-founder Leah Gordon — a British photographer and curator who began working in Haiti in 2006 — imagined an event that would force visiting artists to reckon with the realities of contemporary Haiti, testing their pre-conceived ideas against the facts of everyday life. International and Haitian artists have equal standing, and collaboration is almost inevitable, given that visitors are required to use only materials that can be sourced on the ground in Port-au-Prince.

Premiering in December 2009, the first Ghetto Biennale confounded expectations and raised heated questions about the implications of using a name like “ghetto,” which — depending on the perspective of circumstances — may seem either derogatory or a bold assertion of fact. When the city and surrounding countryside were devastated by a major earthquake barely a month later, in January 2010, the Grand Rue was hit hard. That only reinforced Eugène and Gordon’s resolve to keep the Biennale going — now it was needed more than before. Participants in the second Ghetto Biennale in 2011 arrived to find the scars of the earthquake still painfully visible across the city, and the Grand Rue artists working harder than ever.

This year, the fourth Ghetto Biennale runs from the end of November to mid-December. For a theme, Eugène and Gordon chose three crucial elements of Haitian life: Kreyòl, the language of the majority; the Vodou religion; and the Lakou system of collective land management that still underpins rural life. For Haitian artists, the challenge will be to freshly consider these ubiquitous institutions, find new questions to ask. Meanwhile, the several dozen visiting artists will be compelled to grapple with “a triumvirate of linguistic, territorial, and cultural resistance” that has helped Haitians survive two centuries of pressure from globalising forces. It may be fraught and uncomfortable. That’s exactly the point.


Bacchanal time

It’s November! Have you started your prep for Trinidad Carnival in February? According to Laura Dowrich, it’s already almost too late

There are exactly three months between Carnivals in Trinidad. Yes, you read correctly, three months. I know, Carnival is officially two days, Carnival Monday and Tuesday, usually falling in February, but true Carnivalistas know that Carnival is a season, one which begins unofficially in June or July, depending on the date of the first band launch.

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And since Carnival is a season, there is a timeline by which you must get things done in preparation for the Greatest Show on Earth. One does not just wake up and decide to play mas or go to a fete. One needs to prepare.

Band launch season marks the beginning of the Carnival countdown. By the end of August, the big, really popular bands will have launched their themes for the following year, masqueraders have registered and made their down-payments for their costumes, and diets begin in earnest. If you have not yet registered for a costume with one of these bands for 2016, be warned: your window of opportunity is pretty much closed, unless you know someone who knows someone on a band committee.

Luckily, there are some smaller as well as regional bands (i.e. outside Port of Spain) that only launched in September, and may still be willing to accommodate stragglers. Closer to Carnival, you may even be fortunate enough to squeeze into a band via one of the sites dedicated to reselling costumes.

So say you managed to find a costume — that just takes care of Tuesday. What will you wear on Carnival Monday? Here you are right on time, since November is usually the season for Monday wear launches — though some designers started unveiling their designs as early as September.

Monday wear has become a serious thing in Trinidad Carnival, where — in an effort to preserve the beauty of the official costume for Carnival Tuesday — masqueraders prefer to wear specially designed, less fussy bodysuits and swimsuits on Carnival Monday. Some bands provide Monday wear options, but if you want something that will allow you to stand out, you can either follow one of the many designers on social media to see when they are launching, or find a seamstress to make your own custom design.

Now that you have your costumes organised, it’s time to think about booking your makeup artist — that is, if you can find one at this stage who isn’t already completely booked — and your hair and beauty appointments.

Other to-do items for your checklist: buy and customise footwear, purchase accessories, and organise fete tickets. Promoters started advertising their fetes since September, and some really popular ones have been sold out since just after Carnival 2015, so good luck.

It’s November — are you ready for Carnival?