When she visited Haiti for the first time, Leah Gordon stayed in a 19th century gingerbread mansion in Port-au-Prince.
The residence, previously owned by the esteemed Sam family, had been converted into a hotel by Swedish sea captain Werner Gustav Oloffson in 1935.
He said he bought the hotel from a Vodou
priest in the back of a taxi
After passing through several owners – and visited by the likes of Truman Capote, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Mick Jagger – Hotel Oloffson then came into the hands of New York musician Richard A Morse in 1987. Four years later, Morse welcomed Gordon on her arrival into the capital.
“You’ve come to Haiti and you’re wearing a leather jacket,” he observed. “You’re either from New York or London.”
Having just split from folk punk band the Doonicans – who played their first gig with the Pogues – Gordon’s attire was apparently a bit of a giveaway.
“I went, oh I’m from London,” she recalls. “Then it turned out that he used to be in a band that supported the Talking Heads ... once he heard I used to be in a punk band, he dropped the price of the room.”
“I’m sure it’s a made up story,” adds Gordon, “but he said he bought the hotel from a Vodou priest in the back of a taxi.”
Before she set off for Haiti in 1991, her only attempt at planning her trip was booking a room at the Oloffson. The inspiration for that came after reading Graham Greene’s 1966 novel The Comedians. Set during the rule of Haitian dictator Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, the plot revolves around a hotel based on the Oloffson – visited by Greene before writing the book.
Gordon’s desire to go to Haiti itself arose after watching BBC One’s Holiday programme – presented by Jill Dando.
Do not go there by mistake, this is Haiti
“I was watching the programme and it was snowing outside,” she says. “Jill Dando was in the Dominican Republic and was saying it was the perfect family holiday. I remember, on this snowy evening, that I really wanted to go somewhere hot.
“Right at the end of the show she said, oh by the way I really have to warn you that it shares this island with another country. Do not go there by mistake, this is Haiti. It has military dictatorships, coups, deaths, black magic and voodoo.”
In 1999, Dando’s caution for danger would later gain irony after an unknown attacker gunned her down on her doorstep in Fulham. But to Gordon, watching the programme on that snowy night, her holiday destination had been sold. So four weeks later she quit her job and was on a flight to Haiti.
Little did she know at the time but this would be the first in many trips she would make to a country that still fascinates her today. One where she has produced an immense body of work as a filmmaker, photographer, artist and curator.
Gordon’s first visit in 1991 was during a promising time for Haiti – preceded by a long and tumultuous period of military dictatorship, backed by the US.
On 7 February 1991, Haitian Catholic priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide became the country’s first democratically elected president. Born into poverty, Aristide was a man of the people.
Colour is an obstacle in that there is
a huge economic disparity
As a politician, he was a tireless advocate of the poor and criticised the domination of Haiti by the military and international community – past and present.
“We’re asking you to acknowledge what you have stolen, that your countrymen have stolen during the process of colonisation,” said Aristide in one his publicised sermons. “If you truly want to call yourselves developed countries, you need to acknowledge what you’ve done to us.
“Then you wouldn’t dare call a people you’ve exploited underdeveloped when you are responsible for their lack of development.”
Seven months after he was elected, Aristide was deposed by a military coup led by Army General Raoul Cédras. CIA agents were reported to have been in Cédras’s headquarters during this time.
This seizure of power had happened a few months after Gordon returned to the UK from her first trip. Throughout the duration of the coup, which lasted till the latter half of 1994, she returned to Haiti on a couple of occasions – as a photographer for Amnesty International and for The Guardian.
Having done a degree in photography and a postgrad course in photojournalism, it was perhaps natural for her to pursue a career as a photojournalist.
But while documenting the hardships of the Haitian people from a press perspective, she began to notice an internal struggle within herself.
She explains how in Haiti, “Colour is an obstacle in that there is a huge economic disparity. You have quite a lot of power; economically ... you become very aware of your position.
“And in the end, I gave up. I became really blown out at the idea of being a photojournalist. It ceased to interest me.
“I think it was one trip to Rwanda that put me off. It was the idea of losing my legs to take a photograph that someone had taken a week before and someone else would take a week later. It didn’t make much sense.”
As Haiti appeared to be entering a new chapter in its history, Gordon too was experiencing a change in her trajectory.
In 1995, Leah Gordon began documenting Haiti’s pre-Lenten Kanaval celebrations in the town of Jacmel.
For the project, later named Kanaval: Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haiti, Gordon set about capturing the carnival's intricate rituals, masks and costumes, as well as the stories behind them. The series would take 16 years to complete.
It's an interesting carnival because they don't
have a parade; it's more like street theatre
Influenced by the religious traditions of Haitian Vodou, the carnival is immersed with an array of characters. Such as Papa Jwif (a wandering Jew, inspired by the biblical figure of Moses), Lasndsetkod (horned devils), Mo (the dead), Zombi (the lingering dead), and an array of prostitutes, transvestites and mythical creatures.
“It's an interesting carnival because they don't have a parade,” says Gordon. “Everybody's everywhere. It's funny because when the tourism industry tries to organise it, they make them parade. But it's more like street theatre and every group has really complex stories.”
Aside from the subjects’ costumes and celebrations, another unique factor to Gordon’s photography project was its approach.
Shooting on a 50-year-old Rolleicord medium format camera – not so different to the Rolleiflex model used by Vivian Maier – Gordon had to carefully consider each image, making sure her subjects posed for their portraits. Her technique was a move away from that of a typical photojournalist.
“I think there’s something quite aggressive when you’re holding a camera [at head height],” she says. “With my camera, you hold it here [by the waist] and you look down.
“And you cannot take a picture without someone’s permission with my camera – it’s not quick enough; you have to do a light reading. So it’s about relationships. It’s not so much about the image that you come up with. Technology changes our relationships with other people. With my camera, I have to go up and speak to people.”
While on a different path, Gordon was still conscious of her position as an observer.
“I’m totally aware that I’m a white woman in the poorest country in the western hemisphere and representing their culture – and what a tenuous footing or ground I’m on there.
“It will never be an equal relationship but I think it [her process] makes it more balanced. Anyone can refuse.”
Shortly after starting her Kanaval project, Gordon began working on a documentary for Channel 4.
The film A Pig’s Tale focuses on the after-effects of a US-backed program in Haiti to eradicate the Creole pig during the dictatorship of Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier – son of the previous dictator Papa Doc Duvalier – in the 1970s and 1980s.
It’s a story about pigs but it’s not really
about pigs it’s about American imperialism
Led by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Haitian government, the campaign was initiated after the emergence of African Swine Fever (ASF) in Haiti and on its borders with the Dominican Republic.
Fearing that the fever would spread to the US and cause billions of dollars worth of damage, the two entities set about wiping out the entire swine population in Haiti.
For the Haitian peasant population the campaign was devastating. The value of their Creole pig had been manifold – acting as a method of payment for marriages, medical emergencies and schooling; as well as playing an important role in Vodou ceremony.
After the pig was practically wiped out, the US compensated the peasants with American pigs, which were overweight and unsuitable for the Haitian environment – thus more of an expense than a valued animal.
“When we were pitching the film [to Channel 4] we were like, well it’s a story about pigs but it’s not really about pigs it’s about American imperialism,” recalls Gordon.
To explore these ideas, the film follows two characters – each holding a different perspective. Juste, a US-born Haitian rasta, travels through Haiti to hear about the effects of the eradication programme from the peasants. Edgar, a Vodou priest, attempts to track down a Creole pig to sacrifice to his Iwa (spirit) Ezili Dantor, the mother of Haitian liberty.
While Gordon explained how funding had allowed for the film’s research to go deep, she emphasised that, “We didn’t know where we were going to find the pig.”
Near the end of Edgar’s journey, it seemed that his search for the pig was futile. Gordon remembers waiting to film Edgar’s ceremony.
“We were balancing all this stuff, like hiring a Delco generator to light the Vodou temple. So you have that booked but then you’re like, what do you do if you don’t find the pig?
“But Vodou works out very well obviously. We just got the pig in time.”
Sculptors of the Grand Rue
As Gordon continued to immerse herself in Haitian culture, visiting every year, she eventually came across a group of sculptors in 2006.
Located at the southern end of Port-au-Prince’s Grand Rue, artists Jean Hérard Celeur, Jean Claude Saintilus, Guyodo and André Eugène live and create in the same ghetto they grew up in.
It’s kind of odd that some British punk artists
from the 1980s were doing the same thing
Collectively, they call themselves Atis Rezistans. In steel shacks, they house their sculptures – built from recycled junkyard materials.
“The minute I met these I guys I was like, oh my god,” says Gordon. “It was very Mad Max or cyberpunk in a way.
“I remember when we were in the band, we played at Edinburgh festival with this organisation called the Mutoid Waste Company ... It’s kind of odd that some British punk artists from the 1980s were doing the same thing. There’s definitely this kind of punk aesthetic [in contemporary Haitian sculpture] but I’m not sure where it comes from.”
In 2007, the Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool opened the International Slavery Museum during the bicentennial of the abolition of the British slave trade.
For the opening, Gordon was hired as a freelance curator to commission a large Haitian sculpture to use for a permanent exhibit. She chose to commission the Sculptors of the Grand Rue – the name for a film she made on them shortly after.
Five months after securing the artwork, Gordon returned to the Grand Rue and found herself enamoured with the sculptor Eugène.
“I guess I have to reveal that I actually then started going out with one of them,” she says. “I went back and some weird stuff was happening, it was like he was a big magnet.”
During her discussions with Eugène about the art world, Gordon became impressed by a question that he often raised.
“Why shouldn't I have a museum? Don't just let the rich people have a museum.”
I was aware that we were putting two
quite charged, symbolic words together
Indeed in their neighbourhood in Port-au-Prince, the Atis Rezistans would compile their works in their studios, turning them into galleries of their own. But Gordon thought of an idea to expand their reach.
“They knew that there were these things called biennales. They were like, why are we not going to them?
“I phoned Eugène and told him that I had this idea, Ghetto Biennale. He just got it in one. He was like, yeah definitely. That's what we do.
“I was aware that we were putting two quite charged, symbolic words together ... that a lot of people see the word 'ghetto' as very derogatory – it usually means a racial enclosure. Whereas the ghetto in Haiti actually refers to a class – a geographical demarcation.”
So with just this name, Eugène and Gordon sat down and began planning the biennale. First they created a website ghettobiennale.org. Then they put out a call.
“I had sleepless nights, thinking I'd done something crazy,” she recalls. “As it was, over 100 people applied. We chose about 50.”
In December 2009, Gordon and the Atis Rezistans held the first Ghetto Biennale, inviting the selected artists, filmmakers, academics, photographers, musicians, architects and writers to the Grand Rue. The idea was for them to create and witness works produced in that neighbourhood.
Among the selected artists was Bill Drummond, from the K Foundation, who on 23 August 1994 famously burned £1m on a Scottish island.
“When he came, it was funny because – I'm sure he won't mind me saying this – when we were driving for the first time he was like, you didn't tell anyone over there that I burned £1m did you? I was like, yeah of course I did. You burnt it; you've got to live with it.
“He thought that would make them either angry with him or just ask him for money. But in fact, they all respected him. They kind of loved it. It was amazing that they understood the symbolic charge of that piece.”
Two and a half weeks after the first biennale finished, a magnitude 7.0 Mw hit Haiti. Killing around 160,000 people and causing major damage to areas such as Port-au-Prince and Jacmel – the location for Gordon’s Kanaval project.
Does it Bleed?
Since 2009, the Ghetto Biennale has been held three times. The fourth will open this November. As the event has continued to grow, Gordon began to notice an interesting effect that it had on its applicants.
Haiti deconstructs an awful lot
of things we take for granted
“I remember this Cuban artist who looked at the area and was like, oh my god I was going to do something on French linen. Then he was like, what's she doing, why don't I just help her?”
Gordon recalls how another artist had sent her a proposal for a conceptual piece that critiqued NGOs through tattooing oranges – which she thought was "great". But, after arriving in Port-au-Prince, he transformed his idea into something completely different – setting up in a shack and tattooing locals.
“The piece then became about the process of finding all the things he needed to do this,” she says. “It was magical watching ideas having to change to suit the environment. And then see how smart artists are when they do that.”
For Gordon, during the US-backed coup in the early 1990s, Haiti had had a similar effect. Moving her away from her path as a photojournalist.
“Haiti deconstructs an awful lot of things we take for granted. Not that I would like to see it as a tourist deconstruction zone but there is that element of poverty tourism in the Ghetto Biennale. Of course people take a part in it because they are, in a way, seduced by abject poverty.
“But I would question whether or not seduction is always a negative thing. And whether or not experiencing and finding out about it is.
“A lot of people, myself too, worry about the power imbalance between the visiting artists and the Haitian artists there. While you can never disappear it, I think you can also surprise yourself at the fact that relationships can also cross those barriers.
“I kind of try and see the Ghetto Biennale as a borderland. Our bi-line was: What happens when first world art rubs up against third world art? Does it bleed?”