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The Book of Promises: Experiencing the third Haiti Ghetto Biennale

A Biennale is an international art fair- an art marketplace involving the highest-level players, with a global history, beginning with the Venice Biennale. The Haiti Ghetto Biennale is in some ways a contradiction of this format that simultaneously capitalizes on it- it takes place at ground level in a ghetto in Haiti, where non-academically trained artists ply their crafts opening them to a global market in an attempt to by-pass the exploitative intermediary and other systemic oppressions.

Take aim, shoot.  Little hands motioned, sculpting the artifice of their game. All smiles across the small courtyard. Then, back to drawing. This was how the little boys understood each other.  Gestures signaled an appreciation of cultural difference and similarity. They could find no common spoken language so games would have to suffice, drawing would do, dancing together would be their language of friendship.  Often several of the Haitian children gathered around the Danish boy of Japanese and Caucasian descent, as he played on an Ipad. Straight haired and dark eyed, he was the child of a couple who were participating for the second time in the Biennale.  His toy was fascinating. They consumed its colored moving objects with their eyes while he played. It was not surprising that the games of the Haitian kids were simpler but notably, no less engaging. Carving the rubber from old tires using razor blades into strange forms, they worked together, sitting on low stools or edges of houses. The forms  they carved often provoked considerations too serious or too vulgar for their ages. Too often, the gaze of the outsider was distracted by images of poverty just set off from these sculptors-in-the-making. Formations- kids carving  adult images, kids playing with razor blades, dust, dusty waters were often of the kind that would disturb middle-class sensibilities. Is this really game playing or working? Are their images provocations, commodifications, repetitions or replications of Haitian visual culture or a more considered art? More than likely their art/craft works are a mixture, as how could their creations not be products of their environment? And what of their physical environment, should it be changed? By who? How? Why? Witnessing the enterprising nature of this community begins to bring real rather than simply theoretical answers to these questions. Solutions and answers that are  so often missed because of distance by students, teachers and policy makers alike.

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photo by Marielle Barrow. Making paper and prints with the students of the Art college.

The third Haiti Ghetto Biennale that took place in November- December 2013, as well as my exploration of community artistic practice in Haiti is my most recent, most extreme and perhaps most exhilarating cultural immersion proving an apt site of and for multi-cultural learning and exploration, where I  began to imagine dynamic possibilities of a shared development. Moments of laughter and sharing with peoples of the ghetto were punctuated by moments of concern and fascination. During these moments and in my reflections on them, the snapshots brought to mind issues of production and consumption, labor, center versus periphery and approaches to these issues in this particular cultural context.

Dynamics of race, place, education and origin performed some surprising gymnastics during my time at the Biennale at the Grand Rue in Haiti. My discombobulation stirred by this sporting led me to further consider the notion of ‘institution’ but also propelled a desire to push those boundaries by my own actions (to some extent in the form of writing but perhaps even further). How might we begin to think differently about institutions- of the market, education, institutionalized understandings of race and class and habits of or opportunities for participation- on account of the Ghetto Biennale? How might we begin to question the notion of community and networks (also institutions or productive of institutions), how they are formed, maintained, developed, perpetuated? How does the idea of cultural peculiarities producing differences in understandings and meanings from the same text- written or practical- figure into my experience of this event? We are getting here to the interesting question of multi-cultural education and methods of education(Paulo Friere’s “Pedagogies of the Opressed” would be a good read here) and even issues of class and inclusion as an institutional practice (Pierre Bourdieu’s “Distinction” is no doubt relevant).  In this predominantly black space and country, I was one of four ostensibly black participants.  I use the term black non-pejoratively, as in Caribbean culture, this self-reference is completely acceptable. Of the four of us, two were of Haitian parentage and identified as “Haitian-American”, one was African-American and I was one of two persons from the wider Caribbean. (There was one other from the Caribbean who was in Southern Caribbean terms ‘mixed” or even ‘creole’. In the US she may have been considered black but would not be identified similarly in the Caribbean). What is at stake in the dearth of participants from other Caribbean islands and the small percentage of participation of foreign artists who are black?  What is at stake in terms of multi-cultural environments and multi-cultural learning within the context of an unbalanced composition of participants? Is the market being ‘de-centered’ or is there a re-centering of the market through a politics of participation? I am certain that there are many more questions to be asked of this and I invite you to join in the asking. Of course this is simply the composition of the cast of actors that I have introduced in one of many subplots of the Biennale.

My intention is to raise more questions than answers, more provocations than concrete solutions in an effort to displace one-size-fits-all tendencies or the sensibility of knowing the ‘other’ through media images, policy frameworks or simply written texts. I invite you to immerse yourself in difference, and attempt to defamiliarize your own cultural lens for understanding a new context. Edouard Said in “Orientalism’ bemoans this penchant/skill for constructing the ‘other’ through writing, which develops into systems of knowledge that self-replicate in service of larger malfeasant agendas. The ‘other’ exists as  separate yet connected, as being, with whom we can experience shared humanity and new ways of knowing, being  and understanding ourselves. Let’s not deprive ourselves of this richness.

Marielle Barrow is a Fulbright Scholar, Visiting Scholar at Columbia University and PhD candidate pursuing Cultural Studies at George Mason University. She runs a non-profit enterprise, Caribbean InTransit, that uses the arts toward social transformation.

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