The Ghetto Biennale on PRI's "The World"

I'm assured that tomorrow, on Christmas day, my report on Port-au-Prince's recent Ghetto Biennale will air on PRI's The World. If in the United States check your local NPR affiliate station for showtimes HERE. For all you international listeners, the story will post to the PRI website on Monday, the 28th. I'll put a link up then.


In the meanwhile, they've already posted a Flickr set of my photographs from the trip, along with the almost oppressive suggestion that you visit this very same blog to "see more about the Biennale." Why oppressive? In addition to working on the piece for The World, I spent much of the last ten days writing stories about the event for the Suddeutsche Zeitung, the Times of London, the Miami Herald and the BBC's From our own Correspondent. Keeping all of these stories fresh and different has been enough of a challenge without more blogging on top of it.

Nonetheless, for those of you visiting from The World's link, antarcticiana refuses to disappoint, so here are a few more images from my recent trip to Haiti, where I was hanging out on the Grand Rue with a group of sculptors who make amazing vodou-assemblage art out of the discarded refuse of western civilization.

A detail from an André Eugene sculpture of a "Gede," installed right on the curb of the Grand Rue, along the Boulevard Jean-Jacques Dessalines. The entire figure is about seven feet tall, with a ribcage welded together out of rebar. As I understand it, Gedes are a tribe of spirits representing the ancestors. One of the foremost among them is Bawon Samedi, literally "Baron Saturday," who is feted at the beginning of November with a vodou ceremony clearly correspondent with the Christian All Saints Day. I've blogged about the annual Gede festivity at Tap-Tap in Miami, before. The Gedes manifest a beguiling combination of sexuality and death, which Eugene explained to me in terms of a yin-yang duality he says permeates vodou. The Baron's voracious sexual appetite, he said, represents life, through procreation; but wherever life is present, so too is its opposite, death. The head of this sculpture is an actual human skull. Eugene says these occasionally wash out of the cemetery up the hill, appearing in the streets during violent storms, but they are so prevalent in the work of the Grand Rue artists that something more than hurricanes must be at work. I suspect locals now collect them and pass them along for a finder's fee.

A "Tap-tap," or public bus, sporting a mural of "Sweet Mickey," a popular konpa band based out of Petionville, the rich suburb in the hills above Port-au-Prince. Konpa (compas) is the dominant dance music of Haiti, a slow lilting groove something like a francophone version of salsa, danced "kole-kole," meaning "stuck together." Religious imagery is at least as popular a motif as pop-culture, with a special fondness for the "Jesus is my shepherd" theme as in this image on the back of the Tap-tap, below.


As part of a film crew I once made the long and kidney-churning drive to Canje, in Haiti's remote Central Plateau, to interview Paul Farmer, secular saint and subject of the Tracy Kidder biography Mountains Beyond Mountains. Farmer explained Haiti as "9,000,000 Africans kidnapped and dumped in the middle of the Caribbean with no way to get home." In the traditions of vodou and even in iconography such as that on this Tap-tap, which reads simply "Black Africa," that heritage is still very much alive, evident and celebrated. A visitor arriving to Haiti after being blindfolded and put on a plane could easily imagine that they had been transported to Senegal or Côte D'Ivoire, rather than to one of the Antilles.

But the old connections of the colonial Caribbean are equally strong. One evening, hearing a brass band playing, I wandered out of the gates of the famous and fabulous Oloffsson Hotel, which fifty years ago served as the setting for Graham Greene's The Comedians. I followed the sound to an outdoor basketball court down the road, where these musicians were practicing for carnival. The ensemble included only drums, an array of horns, and voices. Robert Peterson, the sound artist mentioned in the radio piece I did for PRI's "The World," joined me. Originally from Louisiana, he was bowled over by the similarity between this Haitian carnival music and the brass bands of New Orleans. Before the Haitian revolution and the Louisiana purchase, Port-au-Prince and New Orleans were of course sister cities in the French colonial enterprise.

On another occasion, sitting on the veranda, we heard more passing musicians. After just the very first few notes, Robert blurted out "that's funeral music." He told me that before coming to the Ghetto Biennale the farthest he had been from home was a trip to the Canadian side of the Niagara falls, but he took to Haiti immediately, wandering about with his digital recorder in a kind of exploratory ecstasy.

In the age of jet-travel and US hegemony the old trade routes that linked the great ports of the Caribbean basin have faded in our collective memory. Uncovering evidence of them is always exciting.

Much as this looks like another assemblage by the sculptors of the Grand Rue, this is a ritual space, the vodou equivalent of a shrine or altar, outside in the yard at the home of the local vodou priest. There are likely cauldrons, repositories of spirits called by the priest to do "work" on behalf of practitioners, buried in the ground beneath this installation. In Cuba I saw bundles almost identical to this thread-wrapped ball, in similar environments. The bundle most probably contains symbolic objects collected together by the client at the behest of the spirit, speaking through the priest. If the client wishes to ensure the faithfulness of his lover, for instance, the bundle might contain a lock of her hair, a photograph, or a stolen swatch of fabric from her clothing. The Hollywood stereotype of the "voodoo doll" probably originates from a mis-characterization of this sort of symbolic substitution of part for whole.

All kinds of cast-off material are incorporated into the work being made on the Grand Rue. These stick figures, with heads taken from the discarded dolls of North America, are wound around and around and around with lengths of cassette tape, mummified in music.

Another Grand Rue creation, a sort of Haitian Carmen Miranda, with a headdress made from 7up, Guiness and Prestige Beer bottle caps.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

the whole idea of these sculptures now being appropriated by some quick acting dealer/gallerist