Biennials have been a widely valued mode of artistic display in contemporary exhibition practices since the first Venice Biennale in the 19th century. Despite their ability to showcase artwork from many cultures on a large scale, they have also bred an institutionalized—and often exclusionary—exhibition archetype that marginalizes the artists who challenge the status quo of the art historical canon. In recent years, the traditional biennial structure has sparked polarizing discussions concerning agency, stereotyping, and the globalization of art, most notably with Dana Schutz’s Emmett Till painting in last year’s Whitney Biennial.
The Ghetto Biennale, a cross-cultural art fair in Port-au-Prince, Haiti which took place this past December, aimed to problematize the elitism of global, institutionalized art fairs. The name itself, “Ghetto Biennale,” brings attention to the tangential role artists of color tend to occupy when they are ghettoized on the periphery of artistic cultural capital. The informal structure of the art fair presented an alternative model for biennials, offering a more organic process of artistic exchange between local and global audiences.
The Biennale’s 2009 inaugural theme, “What happens when first world art rubs up against third world art? Does it bleed?” sought to explore an innovative mode of exhibition-making that united artistic circles at various levels of agency in global art markets. By providing a platform for Haitian-born artists to collaborate with visiting artists, curators, and academics, the Biennale aims to give the artistic community of Grand Rue the opportunity to “reach a far wider audience, make important contacts and integrate with wider arts networks.” Grand Rue, the neighborhood hosting the Biennale, is a close-knit community that was once the commercial heart of Port-au-Prince before the devastating earthquake in 2010. Today, it is a makeshift car repair district where practicing artists engage in painting, mixed-media arts, and metalwork that incorporates ready-made detritus from surrounding areas.
With this year’s theme, “Cartography of Port-au-Prince,” the biennial asked artists to propose projects that mapped the intersecting phenomena affecting the city’s legacy: art, architecture, history, politics, religion, street life, and cultural production. Exhibited artists included prominent practitioners like Haitian-born artist Lionel St. Eloi and young people part of Ti Moun Rezistans, “Children of the Resistance” — the youth affiliate of the artists’ collective Atiz Rezistans, “Artists of the Resistance,” who host the Ghetto Biennale every two years.
A key programmatic element of the fair is for the international artists to collaborate with local Haitian art collectives during the three-week duration of the Biennale, and for all of the projects to be produced on-site in Grand Rue. As a Haitian-American artist traveling to my mother’s place of origin for the first time, I had the pleasure of serving as a teaching artist in the Biennale program where I conducted a collaborative printmaking project with members of Ti Moun Rezistans. I appreciated that the collaboration ensured a sustained engagement between the visiting artists and the local artistic culture of Grand Rue as someone part of the Haitian Diaspora.
Artist Leonce Love, the head of Ti Moun Rezistans, gave me a tour of the art and exhibition spaces tucked away in the self-built residences of Grand Rue. The labyrinth of architecture comprising the neighborhood contained intimate alcoves of acrylic paintings on display salon style and sculptures made of natural materials like metal and wood. Many of these sculptures were meant to personify lwas, “spirits,” in the form of repurposed electronic devices and found objects from the surrounding industrial areas. The formal tendency for artists to join together anachronistic structures was reminiscent of the healing devices made by Chicago artists like Rhonda Wheatley or Viktor le Givens, who use Afrofuturist and Afrosurreal modalities to interrogate Diasporic memory and trauma. These sculptures when considered in the context of Haiti–the first Black Republic and the first country to produce a successful slave revolt– served as auspicious totems of ancestral debris for foreign viewers to ruminate on and respect.
The community of Haitian-born artists active in the neighborhood of Grand Rue influenced the artistic output of participating artists in the Biennale. For instance, for her project, An Tande Timoun yo, Chicago-based painter Alexandra Antoine created a series of individualized portraits of Grand Rue inhabitants. The undulating colors of her figures capture the vibrancy of the Grand Rue artistic community through contrasting hues and realistically rendered facial features. Whit Forrester, a Chicago-based photographer and resident in the Chicago Artist Coalition’s HATCH Projects residency, along with Cameron McKee, a Ph.D. Candidate at Northwestern, experimented with the medium of cyanotype to investigate health and herbal healing in Haiti. They collaborated with members of Atis Rezistans to commission individual sculptures that spoke to Haiti’s relationship to healing and care. Engagement with local Haitian residents was therefore fundamental for projects to take place and by centering the artists of Grand Rue in the Biennale, visiting artists do in fact experience an unconventional program that places inclusivity at the center of a mainstream biennial.
While the Biennale attempted to disrupt the systemic power imbalances within Western exhibition practices by placing Haitian artists at the center of the conversation, its nontraditional structure could not erase the historical memory of various international communities exploiting their relationship to Haiti. The impact of global forces historically in Haiti — from the nation’s colonial beginnings with the French, Spanish, and British, to America’s occupation of Haiti during the 20th century — required the visiting Ghetto Biennale artists to remain conscientious of their power in a previously colonized country. The ability for international artists to gain access to a neighborhood as outsiders was an immense privilege and invaluable experience. In order for the artistic exchange between a visiting artist and a Grand Rue resident to be authentic, then, non-Haitian born creatives have to intentionally avoid reproducing the history of power imbalances between global influences and Haitian culture.
At a time when Haiti has been a scapegoat for oppressive immigration politics in the global arena, the Biennale has the potential to serve as a radical conduit to join cultures of multiple diasporas. Before this can happen, however, producers and participants of the Ghetto Biennale must pay close attention to the way that oppressive historical patterns and narratives can still seep into the ways in which international art events are executed. While the privileges of international artists were palpable when collaborating with Haitian-born artists during the Biennial, it was successful at challenging models for institutional biennials and unapologetically engaging with the complexity of culture and class stratification in Haiti.