Ghetto Biennale 2009. Image by  Chantal Regnault.

Ghetto Biennale 2009. Image by Chantal Regnault.


The Ghetto Biennale | Port-au-Prince, Haiti

The Ghetto Biennale in Port-au-Prince, Haiti is proving that friction can produce a creative explosion, and the intensity of that explosion can still take you by surprise.

“What happens when first world art rubs up against third world art? Does it bleed?” 

This is the challenge that Andre Eugène, Leah Gordon and Myron Beasley, founders of the Ghetto Biennale, wanted to pick up. For the last ten years Eugène has been at the heart of a creative community of artists in the Grand Rue slum in downtown Port au Prince, and in 2009 the Grand Rue hosted the inaugural Ghetto Biennale. An inspired juxtaposition of first and third world art, the Ghetto Biennale arose as an inclusive and democratic antidote to what Beasley describes as the “exclusionary practices and class issues that are prevalent in the art world”. Gordon is a photographer, filmmaker and curator and has been going to Haiti since 1991. Beasley is an international curator, and visited Haiti while researching the culture of the African diaspora. The idea for the Biennale grew from Eugène’s own experience of being denied visas to attend exhibitions of his work in Miami. With no access to government financial support to attend art fairs, most Haitian artists have little opportunity to communicate with an international community of artists. Gordon and Eugène, long-time collaborators discussed this exclusion, and decided to bring the international community to Haiti. Eugène says “it is so important for Haitian artists to meet and share ideas with other international artists, to see the type of work people make around the globe”.

Eugène is part of Atis Rezistans, a group of sculptors living and working in the Grand Rue. The artists recycle material in a transformative process, and their sculptures are visceral collections of found objects – debris, discarded automobile parts, stereos, television equipment, skulls, timber – and present what Gordon describes as “a dystopian sci-fi view for the future”. This powerful aesthetic is coupled with potent symbolism, as artists are inspired by the practice of Vodou, as well as the realities of political oppression and poverty, and Haiti’s unforgettable revolutionary role in the abolition of slavery. An important part of Eugène’s work is an apprentice system for young people in the Grand Rue community, a structure that he says “we all depend upon, because there are no art schools for the poor in Haiti”.

Twenty-seven artists, five academics and six film screenings featured at the Biennale. The event was conceived as a ‘salon des refusés for the 21st century’, referring to Haitian artists’ exclusion from the international art world, but which also turned out to represent the visiting artists. Gordon explains that many of the participants had“quite anarchistic, anti-authorial, non-material practices”. Works had to be realised using limited available materials and in many cases this involved, in Gordon’s words, artists having to “re-conceive their project – screw it in a ball and throw it away and start again when faced with the circumstances in Haiti”.  The visiting artists walked into an exceptionally creative community, but also an incredibly poor one, and Gordon felt a certain concern for them, “but the re-adjustments they made, with such a sense of grace and generosity of spirit, created some of the most powerful, moving art works and performances I have ever seen.”

Invoking Michel de Certeau, Beasley articulated the art of the Ghetto Biennale as “the art of making do” and describes how the Biennale “became a projection of possibilities – of projects that could or might happen”. With the Ghetto Biennale subverting that most traditional of art world formats, was there a sense that this tension, having something to react against, was a key element in the creative explosion? Beasley describes how the “rubbing against” of the first and third world arts created “an inbetween-ness. Such spaces, which are often overlooked and even avoided, are liberatory spaces of great possibilities, but individuals must be willing to make themselves vulnerable and engage in an honest and sincere dialogue”.

The biennale didn’t just come to Haiti – it came specifically to the ghetto. Even in Port au Prince the art world is set apart from everyday life. Involving the local community was one of Eugène’s key motives for staging the event, as was the desire to challenge negative preconceptions about the Grand Rue social context. He explains “the Ghetto Biennale represents positive change and gives us a chance to show another face of life in the ghettos of Port-au-Prince.” The Ghetto Biennale made a point of keeping everything, from the printing of invitations to the press conference in the ghetto. “For the first time we saw a very different audience for an art show in Haiti. People from our neighbourhood, and other poor neighbourhoods came to see the work. Normally these types of people never visit an art show.”

The response from the Grand Rue community surprised even the Biennale organisers. “I don’t think anyone could have predicted the tremendous reaction that took place - it was testament to the beauty and power of art and its ability to transform community” explains Beasley. The most memorable moments for the organisers were examples of the joy and passion that reverberated through the neighbourhood. For Beasley, an unforgettable experience was “arriving at the site on the morning of the opening only to see hordes of people already there, celebrating”. Gordon describes “the visiting artists vibing with the local teenagers, kids and artists” and “the impromptu ‘tele ghetto’ two local kids with a video camera made from a plastic motor oil container and a mike made from a stick and tape attached to cheap headphones - they kept up the ghost filming for three days, even interviewing the minister of culture”.

So where does the Ghetto Biennale itself go from here? In another unusual subversion of the biennale format, Gordon and Eugène want to continue working with the same artists that attended the inaugural event. Selection for the first biennale intentionally cast its net far and wide with an open call, but Gordon explains “we feel it is more important to strengthen pre-existing relationships.” The organisers are also keen to establish links with like-minded organisations, who aim to democratise art and bring together in an international community those artists who have to date been marginalised. Future partnerships are being struck with Palestine’s Riwaq Biennale and the Africa Creative Network, with the aim of bringing artists from different cultures together in different locations. The reaction to the Ghetto Biennale was so positive, so spontaneous, so full of good energy, Gordon explains that “the Ghetto Biennale as a concept should be open to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Dissemination of the idea is the most important aspect.”

NB. This article first appeared on in May 2010 and is currently offline due to archiving.