Hot Links 07: Leah Gordon

Brian Fee interviewed Leah Gordon, curator and co-director of the Ghetto Biennale, which just opened its sixth iteration in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

– Tell us about yourself?

I was born in 1959 in Ellesmere Port which is equidistant between Liverpool, a city built upon the slave trade and Manchester, built upon the industrial revolution.I am a photographer, film-maker, curator and writer. In the 1980’s I wrote lyrics, sang and played for the feminist folk punk band, ‘The Doonicans’. I make work on Modernism and architecture; links between the slave trade and industrialisation; and grassroots religious, class and folk histories. My film and photographic work has been exhibited internationally including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, and the Dak’art Biennale. My photography book ‘Kanaval: Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haiti’ was published in June 2010. I am the co-director of the Ghetto Biennale in Port-au-Prince, Haiti; was a curator for the Haitian Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale; was the co-curator of ‘Kafou: Haiti, History & Art’ at Nottingham Contemporary, UK; on the curatorial team for ‘In Extremis: Death and Life in 21st Century Haitian Art’ at the Fowler Museum, UCLA and am co-curator of ‘PÒTOPRENS: The Urban Artists of Port-au-Prince’ at Pioneer Works, NYC in 2018 and MOCA, Miami in 2019.

– What is your connection to the Caribbean Art Initiative?

I first met with some of the organisers of the Caribbean Art Initiative in 2015 whilst travelling in the Dominican Republic as a recipient of the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Travel Award for Central America and the Caribbean. Then I collaborated with Davidoff Arts to enable a research trip of curators to visit Haiti and meet with local artists.

– What does “cultural exchange” mean to you?

One of my personal starting points for thinking about what shape and meaning a Ghetto Biennale might embody was one of the original strap lines of the first Ghetto Biennale: “What happens when first world art rubs up against third world art? Does it bleed?” The line is a transmutation of a quote from a book about the maquiladoras in Juárez, Mexico. The original quote, by Gloria Anzaldúa, states, “The U.S.- Mexican border es una herida abierta (is an open wound) where the Third World grates against the First and bleeds.” (Anzaldúa 1987, 3). I was interested in the Ghetto Biennale to see what new practices, processes and relationships could emerge from these, often uncomfortable, entanglements. 

A second point of departure was a quote in an essay by John Kieffer about art and political engagement. He discusses the possible political dynamics of a “’third space’…an event or moment created through a collaboration between artists from radically different backgrounds”. This quote proposed a positive perspective on a difficult and daunting prospect of bringing together people from widely disparate economic, cultural and gendered backgrounds. Whilst the Ghetto Biennale potentially had all the dangers and pitfalls of creating neo-colonial and neo-liberal power relations and avowing various forms of exploitation, it was important to see that there could also be the possibility of a third position of relationships which were neither exploitative nor paternalistic, and perhaps even a space for art which was neither institutional or commercial in the narrowest sense. 

Another inceptive strapline for the Ghetto Biennale has been ‘A Salon des Refusés for the 21st century’. Due to visa restrictions, the Haitian artists feel that they are denied access to the globalised art scene that they both see on the Internet and had heard about from their contemporary collaborations with Haitian artists from the more prosperous classes. The way in which they make work, and learn and share their skills is very different than the contemporary Western art school model as they use a local neighbourhood-based apprenticeship system to disseminate skills. This difference to what is considered a conventional European and North American centred art historical education, has often forced them into the unwelcome category of ‘outsider’ or ‘naïve’ artist, attributed to them by Western audiences. By holding the Ghetto Biennale and inviting international contemporary artists, Atis Rezistans were refusing this positioning and embracing a repositioning by their association with contemporary international artists.

Inviting international artists to visit Haiti was a way for the Haitian artists to plug themselves into global art networks and to experiment with multi-cultural and multi-disciplinary collaborative practice. As the Haitian artists’ agenda was more far reaching than the actual event itself, the Ghetto Biennale could almost be described as a Trojan horse in that it also functioned as mechanism for creating the networks necessary to gain access to major Western arts institutions.…

– What is one unique perspective or element about the Caribbean that you would like the global community to know better?

Haitian majority class art production. Ha ha…it would be hypocritical of me to say anything else in light of much of my curatorial work.

– And finally, describe something that is “hot” to you.

I turn to Marx as a poet, rather than an economist, to give me any hope for the past. The turbulences of the epochal capitalist accumulations of the 18th and 19th centuries help me to gather an internationalist understanding of where we find ourselves in the 21st century. I research the intervolved histories of the slave trade and the industrial revolution; celebrate grassroots religious, class and folk histories; and extol the proliferation of informal economies. I scour back through time to unearth quasi-utopic pasts and depend on proxy histories from pre-grain societies, esoteric rituals, alchemical processes, collective bargaining and socialist narratives to garner scraps of salvation. 

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