The Ghetto Biennale: when art is defiance | Backstory

Ten years ago, a group of artists in Haiti launched an audacious, even provocative, project: the Ghetto Biennale, drawing international attention to the creative community in Port-au-Prince’s Grand Rue. The event’s tensions and discomforts are at the heart of its mission, writes Nixon Nelson, as the Ghetto Biennale prepares to stage its sixth edition

  • 1st Ghetto Biennale, 2009: detail of Jessada, by Jamaican artist Ebony G. Patterson, a series of portraits of young black men in the style of traditional vodou flags. Photo by Ebony G. Patterson, courtesy Ghetto Biennale
  • 2nd Ghetto Biennale, 2011: Holding It All Together, an architectural intervention by the Fungus Arts Collective (Bermudan artists James Cooper, Russell de Moura, and Roger Simmons), using coloured masking tape on an earthquake-damaged building. Photo by M
  • 3rd Ghetto Biennale, 2013: street procession with sculpture by André Eugène. Photo by Lazaros, courtesy Ghetto Biennale
  • 4th Ghetto Biennale, 2015: a film screening in Rue Carbone, downtown Port-au-Prince. Photo by Multiversal Services, courtesy Ghetto Biennale
  • 5th Ghetto Biennale, 2017: works from Potre, a collaborative printmaking workshop with artist and curator Sabrina Greig and members of Ti Moun Rezistans, the youth arm of Atis Rezistans, exploring “self-portraiture and printmaking as a method of emancip

“What happens when First World art rubs up against Third World art? Does it bleed?” Ten years ago, with that arresting provocation, curators André Eugène, Céleur Jean Hérard, Evel Romain, and Leah Gordon announced the first Ghetto Biennale in Port-au-Prince. As astonishing as the very idea of a biennale — a kind of art world extravaganza more usually associated with wealthy metropolitan centres — in Haiti, of all places, was the matter-of-fact claiming of the title ghetto for the crowded, disadvantaged Grand Rue neighbourhood of downtown Port-au-Prince which was to be the event’s epicentre.

In her afterword to the 2017 catalogue documenting the Ghetto Biennale’s first four editions, Gordon recalls the moment when the phrase and the idea took shape. “I called André Eugène immediately, who understood, perhaps not the exact form, but the potential of the fusing of these two unlikely words. The acknowledgment of the powerful wrongness of these two words being placed together was the starting point for the Ghetto Biennale.”

To some outside observers, the first Ghetto Biennale, opening in December 2009, may have seemed a foolhardy if not outright mistaken idea. But anyone acquainted with the determination and resourcefulness of Grand Rue’s community of artists, established since the 1980s, should have been unsurprised by the biennale’s sheer ambition. Its roots are in the workshop of Eugène, who began as a wood-worker and furniture-maker before experimenting with sculptural works incorporating scrap metal, rubber, and other discarded materials collected from the vicinity of Grand Rue, alongside other artists like Hérard. With an aesthetic radically different to the colourful paintings for which Haitian art is far better known, the Grand Rue artists soon attracted curiosity and critical scrutiny, and adopted the name Atis Rezistans to describe their work’s defiance of stereotypes — shared by foreigners and many middle-class Haitians alike — of the everyday lives, aspirations, and prospects of urban communities like Grand Rue.

Even as the Atis Rezistans enjoyed growing critical attention — complete with exhibition invitations and commissions — individual artists were frustrated by practical obstacles like denied travel visas, and subtle yet insidious attempts to co-opt their work into misguided critical frameworks. The solution, they decided, was to “reclaim the mechanisms of exhibition practice on their own terms,” in the words of art historian Polly Savage, “and hold an international event in their own space.”

Announcing this intention, the Ghetto Biennale team invited — indeed, challenged — artists around the world to respond. In her essay on the inaugural event, Savage recounts the results. “The group received over one hundred applications, and selected thirty-five, on the basis of their practical and conceptual sensitivity to the conditions of Grand Rue, with preference given to works produced in situ. Funding was secured for a rental car and two interpreters, but participants otherwise covered their own expenses. On 28 November, 2009, artists began arriving from the US, Jamaica, Australia, Sweden, France, Italy, and the UK, commencing three weeks of collaboration, before a final day of exhibition and performance in a specially cleared, open-air lot in Grand Rue.” Conversation and negotiation among the visiting artists, their local counterparts, and the broader Grand Rue was integral to the enterprise. And for participating artists visiting from elsewhere in the Caribbean, the biennale was an opportunity to look past regional prejudices and expand a pan-Caribbean dialogue. The results were rich, chaotic, unexpected, and perhaps for the first time ever, the people of Grand Rue found themselves the centre of positive and eager attention.

Barely a month later, when the catastrophic January 2010 earthquake devasted Port-au-Prince — including Grand Rue — the question of whether there would be a second (never mind third or fourth) biennale may have seemed doubtful. In fact, the impact of the earthquake only made it more imperative for the Ghetto Biennale to continue, as it has done, despite the odds, and on schedule, with editions in 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2017. And even as its international reputation — or notoriety — has grown, the core curatorial team have stuck to their vision with admirable tenacity. As Leah Gordon writes, “Quieter simpler projects are often privileged over louder, more spectacular works, not particularly for ideological reasons, but out of knowledge of the space, resources, and economics of the neighbourhood. We have also tended to privilege projects that attempt to engage with Haitian history and culture, with the inherent structural inequalities of the Ghetto Biennale, or with the material dilapidation of the site.”

The process, Gordon writes, has not been without tensions. Inevitably, visiting artists, even just in their ability to purchase international plane tickets, arrive in Port-au-Prince with a degree of economic privilege they may be reluctant to completely acknowledge. “The concept of collaboration has at times been misused and misunderstood,” she notes. “Sometimes collaborations have become, paradoxically, an unconscious device to avoid confronting the divisive power structures within the working conditions of the site.” To the credit of the curatorial team, they have never elided these fraught dynamics. And despite the contretemps and confrontations, the biennale remains a source of pride for the Grand Rue artists, an opportunity to be seen and heard and known — not just for the genuine problems and deprivations of their community, but for the ingenuity and wit and rezistans by which they survive. 

The 9th Ghetto Biennale opens on 29 November, 2019, with performances, workshops, and screenings starting on 11 December, and the final presentation of the artists’ works running from 18 to 20 December. For more information, visit ghettobiennale.org

Published in 2017, Ghetto Biennale/Geto Byenal, 2009–2015 (No Eraser Publishing), compiled by Leah Gordon, documents the first four biennales, drawing on a rich archive of images, interviews, and texts by both critics and former participants