Leah Gordon and the Ghetto Biennale
Curated by Daniela Veneri
“The Ghetto Biennale is attempting to momentarily transform spaces, dialogues and relationships considered unthinkable, un-navigable and unworkable into complex, transcultural, creative platforms. The Ghetto Biennale in Port-au-Prince creates a 'amorphous, chaotic, de-institutionalised space' for artistic production that attempts to offer, artists from wide socioeconomic classes, a vibrant creative platform. The Ghetto Biennale is about challenging and hopefully transcending ghettoization in all its forms.” - Leah Gordon
What are your most important objectives as curator of the Ghetto Biennale?
On one level we try not to have objectives as they can be subject to and conceal our own conscious and unconscious neo-colonial agendas. They can also mislead and betray as agents in neo-liberal funding criteria. Finally objectives can block the unexpected so perhaps then the ‘unexpected’ might be considered an objective.
The Ghetto Biennale has had many shifting and evolving agendas, many of them contradictory, which makes it difficult to locate, articulate or historicise a sole foundational discourse. Artists in the contemporary Caribbean art world, especially but not exclusively, are obliged to become organisers as well as producers due to the lack of viable institutions to support education, networks, visibility and distribution. Hence, André Eugène's practice, besides producing sculptural art objects for exhibition and sale, also corresponds to traditions of social art practices of North America and Europe. After conversations with him and other Atis Rezistans on issues on mobility and exclusion, the term Ghetto Biennale emerged.
The concept of the Ghetto Biennale has its roots in strategies of material and symbolic appropriation. Atis-Rezistans use recycled materials but it has never just been a re-appropriation of imported junk. They also appropriate figures and symbols from Haitian culture and history. Moreover, Eugène sees the appropriation of bourgeois art world institutions as central to his practice. In 2001 he named his yard and atelier, a Musée d'Art. “Usually it’s the bourgeoisie that make the galleries, the museums. I organised myself in the ghetto…We made a sort of gallery, a kind of museum…usually it’s always the bourgeoisie who make the galleries. I want to have a gallery and a museum…This is the reason why I have given my studio the name, E. Pluribus Unum: Musée d’Art.” This already established tradition of appropriating the designations and formats of Western art institutions and queering them with specificities of the locality was also key to the establishment of the Ghetto Biennale.
The Ghetto Biennale is attempting to momentarily transform spaces, dialogues and relationships considered unthinkable, un-navigable and unworkable into complex, transcultural, creative platforms. The Ghetto Biennale in Port-au-Prince creates a 'amorphous, chaotic, de-institutionalised space' for artistic production that attempts to offer, artists from wide socioeconomic classes, a vibrant creative platform. The Ghetto Biennale is about challenging and hopefully transcending ghettoization in all its forms.
One of my personal starting points for thinking about what shape and meaning a Ghetto Biennale might embody was one of the original strap lines of the first Ghetto Biennale: “What happens when first world art rubs up against third world art? Does it bleed?” The line is a transmutation of a quote from a book about the maquiladoras in Juárez, Mexico. The original quote, by Gloria Anzaldúa, states, “The U.S.- Mexican border es una herida abierta (is an open wound) where the Third World grates against the First and bleeds.” (Anzaldúa 1987, 3). I was interested in the Ghetto Biennale to see what new practices, processes and relationships could emerge from these, often uncomfortable, entanglements.
A second point of departure was a quote in an essay by John Kieffer about art and political engagement. He discusses the possible political dynamics of a “'third space'...an event or moment created through a collaboration between artists from radically different backgrounds” (Kieffer 2008, 5). This quote proposed a positive perspective on a difficult and daunting prospect of bringing together people from widely disparate economic, cultural and gendered backgrounds. Whilst the Ghetto Biennale potentially had all the dangers and pitfalls of creating neo-colonial and neo-liberal power relations and avowing various forms of exploitation, it was important to see that there could also be the possibility of a third position of relationships which were neither exploitative nor paternalistic, and perhaps even a space for art which was neither institutional or commercial in the narrowest sense.
Another inceptive strapline for the Ghetto Biennale has been ‘A Salon des Refusés for the 21st century’. Due to visa restrictions, the Haitian artists feel that they are denied access to the globalised art scene that they both see on the Internet and had heard about from their contemporary collaborations with Haitian artists from the more prosperous classes. The way in which they make work, and learn and share their skills is very different than the contemporary Western art school model as they use a local neighbourhood-based apprenticeship system to disseminate skills. This difference to what is considered a conventional European and North American centred art historical education, has often forced them into the unwelcome category of 'outsider' or 'naïve' artist, attributed to them by Western audiences. By holding the Ghetto Biennale and inviting international contemporary artists, Atis Rezistans were refusing this positioning and embracing a repositioning by their association with contemporary international artists.
Inviting international artists to visit Haiti was a way for the Haitian artists to plug themselves into global art networks and to experiment with multi-cultural and multi-disciplinary collaborative practice. As the Haitian artists’ agenda was more far reaching than the actual event itself, the Ghetto Biennale could almost be described as a Trojan horse in that it also functioned as mechanism for creating the networks necessary to gain access to major Western arts institutions.
How has the vision for the Ghetto Biennale evolved over the years?
The vision, to a certain sense remains the same. Our process has evolved and the team has ossified and strengthened. Also many of the visiting artists have now returned for the third, fourth or fifth times so there is more of a sense of a global community…some more privileged than others of course. Since its inception in 2009 the Ghetto Biennale has welcomed and hosted over 300 visiting artists from over 25 countries including Australia, Barbados, Belgium, Bermuda, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Denmark, the Dominican Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Lithuania, Malaysia, Mexico, Sweden, Trinidad, the UK, the USA and Zimbabwe. The open call to artists has been translated from English into Chinese, French, Kreyol, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish to further widen the potential demographic of the visiting artists.
How and why did you choose the theme of the 2019 edition?
The question should be why didn’t we choose it earlier! We are always searching for a theme that would evoke local and global interest. The, often marginalized and overlooked, Haitian Revolution has become more globally recognized within academia, philosophy, political studies and the art world. Most Haitians are adept and intimate historians of their former revolution and already produce works of art and culture that relates, however obliquely, to the revolution.
On what parameters do you base your evaluation of the impact of the Ghetto Biennale?
The networks created through the Ghetto Biennales have enabled over 20 members of Atis Rezistans to take part in residencies in Brooklyn, Vermont, Los Angeles, Kingston, Venice, Goteberg and Copenhagen, and gain visibility for their work at exhibitions in both commercial galleries and institutional museums, based in London, Stockholm, Berlin, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Nottingham, Milan, New York, Miami and the 54th Venice Biennale. But in the last few years global mobility for the majority classes in Haiti has considerably decreased so for the younger artists travel possibilities are becoming far more limited.
How do you choose which projects to work on?
Interestingly we had no pre-established admission criteria before we started working our way through the proposals. It was a instinctual process whereby organically the criteria became clearer the more projects we both rejected and accepted. Mostly we choose what was physically and materially possible in the neighbourhood. Quieter simpler projects were privileged over louder more spectacular works. I wasn't sure how much disruption could be stomached in the neighbourhood, which has a local historic tradition of crafts, wood carving, furniture making and car repairs. Work that needed to carry on regardless of the Ghetto Biennale. 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. From its inception, there have been many artists proposing relational projects. This has sometimes created tension as the often-unequal social contracts between the stakeholders often unraveled the utopic aspirations of some social practice projects. The concept of collaboration has at times been misused and misunderstood. Sometimes collaborations have become, paradoxically, an unconscious device to avoid confronting the divisive power structures within the working conditions of the site. But there have been many relational projects which have been very successful such as the XKLUB catwalk project, Lee Lee’s Sacred Soil project and Tom Bogaert’s ‘Sun Ra Ra’ which have usually listened more deeply or embraced Haitian cultural practices.
What is exciting you most about your work, and why?
Getting the chance to make my own work as an artist.
What are the most important values and qualities you look for when working in team?
I don’t look for anything in particular. It just coalesces in a most magical way what it’s right. A good sense of humour is very important.
Where do you see current shifts in the evolution/transformation of the role of curators, art managers, cultural institutions and artists? Where do you see risks and challenges and where do you see opportunities?
I was in a folk punk band in the 1980s and the ethos was that you didn’t have to be skilled at music, or even able to actually play an instrument, to be in a band. This is the same ethos that Atis Rezistans and myself, bring to the Ghetto Biennale. The punk rock and punk folk movements were reactions to the slightly bloated, at times pompous, self-satisfied, overblown progressive rock and folk scenes of the late 1970s. Whilst the first wave of Punk was very quickly commercialised, it did spawn a second wave which generated a dynamic movement of independent and alternative music market models which took control of the production, distribution and venues. This would be extremely exciting to discover in the art world. I now feel that the art world is becoming increasingly professionalized and is excluding the majority classes from all parts of the globe.
If you were able to change two things in the area of responsibility of arts curators, cultural producers, cultural institutions, what two things you think would create the most value and benefit for all?
To stop feeling as if you are addressing immigration, migration, forced mobility and enforced immobility by commissioning art works that merely address these issues and fight to increase class mobility within the art world itself.
What is one successful cross-sector collaboration that you find inspiring or interesting and why?
Works that have either acknowledged, critiqued or embraced the materiality of the art works in the Grand Rue have also felt extremely appropriate. Wooloo’s project, iGHETTO, creating a face-off between the wealth of MAC hardware brought to the Grand Rue by visiting artists against the sculptures in Kombatan’s space, dually critiqued the economic inequalities of the event and the poor materials of the zone. Hiroki Yamamoto held everyone’s attention during a lecture about Arte Povera and his explanation of a Modernist approach to impoverished materials. Also many artists arrive in Haiti with a desire to engage with the religious culture and has led to an aesthetic of the altar. Some could consider this impulse as prurient or a form of neo-colonial ‘othering’, but on the whole I have found that the artists that wish to engage with the religious aspects of Haitian culture to have grounded their work with deep research and a critical approach such as Ebony Patterson’s Jesada, Alberto Danelli’s, Concrete Art Militia # 1 and the project based on US magical traditions by Lazaros.
Can you think of three or five keywords that express your impressions and feelings about the topics we just talked about?
Class, mobility, chance.
Leah Gordon (born 1959 Ellesmere Port) is a photographer, film-maker, curator, collector and writer. In the 1980's she wrote lyrics, sang and played for the feminist folk punk band, 'The Doonicans'. Leah makes work on Modernism and architecture; the slave trade and industrialisation; and grassroots religious, class and folk histories. Gordon’s film and photographic work has been exhibited internationally including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; the Dak’art Biennale; the National Portrait Gallery, UK and NSU Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale. Her photography book 'Kanaval: Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haiti' was published in June 2010. She is the co-director of the Ghetto Biennale in Port-au-Prince, Haiti; was a curator for the Haitian Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale; was the co-curator of ‘Kafou: Haiti, History & Art’ at Nottingham Contemporary, UK; on the curatorial team for ‘In Extremis: Death and Life in 21st Century Haitian Art’ at the Fowler Museum, UCLA and was the co-curator of 'PÒTOPRENS: The Urban Artists of Port-au-Prince' at Pioneer Works, NYC in 2018 and MOCA, Miami in 2019. In 2015 Leah Gordon was the recipient of the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Travel Award for Central America and the Caribbean.