GB IV ZEN 19/12/15

December 23, 2015


Final Wall (cropped))

Ho ho ka ka sa santi – Oh oh, this shit stinks
Pou ki Haïti mouri? – Why is Haiti dead?
Gerald, Nou pap bliyem – Gerald, we will never forget you

The final message on the gossip wall is a reference to the death of a young man from Grand Rue, Gerard Masalen, who died after a knife attack during the final celebrations of the Ghetto Biennale IV on Saturday night. I will blogging about the circumstances of his death, its meaning and implications for the GB, and my general reflections on the overall event in the coming weeks. 

Many thanks to Henrike Naumann from the Museum of Trance crew and Willmond Guillaume for ensuring that the gossip wall canvas was returned from the Grand Rue in safe hands.


GB IV ZEN 18/12/15

December 21, 2015


Men bon zen! Gen yon nèg ki ap dòmi – This is a good  bit of gossip! There is a man sleeping
Connais tu toi même? – Do you know yourself?
Gen moun ki pwan pen patat plizyè twa – Some people take the potato-bread many times
Pa okipe saf yo non – Don’t worry about them being greedy

Chinese (untranslated)

GB IV ZEN 17/12/15

December 19, 2015


Vive est obligatoir, mais grandir est un choix – Living is obligatory, but growing up is a choice

Pa bliyè onè ak respé – Don’t forget honour and respect
Gen moun ki sou tròp tablo nan Ghetto Biennale la! – Too many people in the Ghetto Biennale write that on their paintings
Ou tripotay vre kisa map chèche la? – Why are you looking for gossip here?
Se yon zen m’ap chèche menn wi saw di anko – Of course I’m looking for gossip, what about it?
Nan kasse pwa fen veye cheni – When you shell the beans watch out for the caterpillars.
La jounen an vwayaj penitans make jou – A bad journey marks your day.

GB IV ZEN 16/12/15

December 17, 2015


Here’s yesterday’s installment:

Fok ou ta la pou’w ta wè 3 blan ki al nan mache jis Petyonvil sak pi bel la ki saw panse yo al achte? Yo al acchte plim poul – You had to be there to see three white people going all the way to the market in Petionville just to buy chicken feathers
Gen yon ti moun ki di yon blan li grangou epi blan an di li tann li pral dèyè manje. Lè li tounen li tounen ak yon grenn Marinad…(lol!!!!) – A little child says to a white person “I’m hungry” and the white person says “wait for me, I’m going to get you some food”. The man comes back with one little patee…(lol!!!)


GB IV ZEN (15/12/15)

December 16, 2015


I am currently making some work at Ghetto Biennale IV that I will be keeping a record of here. I had originally intended to produce a fanzine for the Ghetto Biennale that would document stories about the event as told by the local community and visitors. This would be written primarily in Kreyol, one of the three curatorial themes of this year’s event (along with “Lakou” – a particular form of Haitian communal organization – and “Vodou”) which would be translated, in-situ, into French and English. The project was to be called Zin after the Kreyol word for unfounded rumour, or gossip, playing on the Zin/Zine connection.

After asking several Haitians what they understood by the word “Zin” they seemed unsure. Eventually I was told that the correct spelling should be “Zen”, and that it did indeed mean “gossip” (or “badmouthing”). Kreyol is a phonetic language, so the subtle auditory difference between different pronunciations of words can be the cause of much misunderstanding. As I was informed by a very learned Haitian scholar at the bar of the Oloffson on my second night here – the journalist, writer and historian Georges Michel – the root of the word “Zen” came from the French word ain (fishhook), hence les ains (the fishhooks). The relationship between fishhooks and gossip however remains a mystery for now.

 It has become something of a truism about the GB that whatever project one comes here with will have to change once the visiting artists arrive in Grand Rue. And this project is no exception. The logistics of making a fanzine here would mean a lot of negotiations between different parties, the languages of Kreyol, English and French, and between three currencies: the Haitian Gourd, the (virtual) Haitian dollar and the US dollar. Moreover it would require the dedicated assistance of a Kreyol speaker who could set up these negotiations. Having been to two GB’s before, and knowing how complex and frustrating these things can become, I decided to simplify the project. So, using a blackboard painted canvas that I brought with me, I have set up a temporary “gossip wall” in Lakou Cheri where local people and visiting artists can write anything they want about the GB. At the end of each day I will be photographing the messages before cleaning the canvas off for the following day.

Above is the first iteration of the GB IV “Gossip Wall”, shortly before it was hung in the lakou. The tag-line “KI  TRIPOTAY OU GENYEN” means “What Gossip do you have?” (thanks to Georges Michel for that formulation).  Here are the translations:

Samson ka’p lave Enoz – Samson is washing Enoz
Ti Mari kap souse yon zo san mewl – Little Mary is sucking a chicken drumstick without a brain
Tout to krab pa fé legim – Not all small crabs make a vegetable stew
Tripotay pa dyòb – Gossip is not a job
Kote ki gen kou pa gen chenn! – Those who wears chains don’t have necks
Mayi a griye pus a sa ki gem dam – The corn is cooked for those who have teeth
Bondye ka change la viw – God can change your life

x=y=Nul ne’st méchant voluntairement – No one is bad voluntarily
Les gens qui vote ne decide rien, ce sont ceux qui comptent les vots qui decides tout – The people who vote decide nothing, those who count the votes decide everything

Ghetto Biennale Catalogue

November 23, 2015

The curators of the Ghetto Biennale just launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a catalogue of the first four events.

Ayiti Foto Konbit

November 22, 2015

I was made aware of this project to create a refreshingly positive collection of images of Haiti made by young Haitians via a recent article by Alexandra Fuller on the National Geographic website:  ‘Showing Haiti on its Own Terms‘. The article itself gives a very clear “nutshell” overview Haitian history that is unusually free of outrage, sentimentalism or sensationalism. And many of the images are great too!


I just received a link to this Kickstarter documentary project via the Corbett Haiti list. It would be great to see the project completed:



Fete Sèn Jak Ogou

July 26, 2014

In honour of Saint Jacques Ogou, whose feast day is today, July 26th, here is a beautiful document of the Sèn Jak Ogou festival in Plaine Du Nord made by Jean-François Chalut in 1985.

Here is an article by Terry Rey that discusses the festival of Saint Jacques and other Christian pilgrimage traditions in Haiti. Significantly, and in relation to the last post, it seems that the cult of Santiago was brought to Haiti by Congolese slaves and that the cult of Sèn Jak Ogou therefore pre-dated the Haitian revolution. 


1990  Andre Normil  Ceremonie du Bois-Caiman  Andre Normil  Ceremonie du Bois-Caiman (1990)

‘With only slight exaggeration, one can say that the reputation of vodou as a unifying and revolutionary force begins with the ceremony of Bois Caiman.’ David Geggus

There is a scene in the 1967 film adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians that, somewhat unexpectedly, touches upon  the conclusion of the talk I recently gave at the October Gallery. In the scene Philipot, the artist nephew of the murdered Minister for Social Welfare whose body was found at the beginning of the story in the empty swimming pool at the Hotel Trianon, explains to the morose and faithless-realist hotel-owner Brown that he is going to a Vodou ceremony that night to summon the African gods who will help him fight the Tonton Macoutes and overthrow the Duvalier dictatorship. The particular loa to be summoned will be Ogoun Ferraille, a Dahomean warrior and metalworker spirit who has been syncretized in Haitian vodou with Saint Jacques Majeur (or Saint James the Moor Slayer).  “My grandmother came from Africa” Philipot tells Brown proudly, “and her gods are the only ones that can help me now. I’ve pretended to be western for too long”. During the ceremony, in which a black cock is sacrificed by an unlikely looking (though reputedly authentic) houngan, Joseph, the bartender at the Trianon, is possessed by the spirit of Ogoun Ferraille, spraying the terrified Philipot with rum and tapping his palms and soles with a flat of a machete before the young painter is initiated into the warrior cult. Ogoun Ferraille, along with Erzulie Dantor, Mambo Marinette and Ti Jean Petro are the four loa most commonly associated with the legendary Bois Caïman ceremony that reputedly ignited the first uprisings of the Haitian revolution in August 1791.

Despite the general acceptance of the myth in most popular accounts of the revolution, some Haiti scholars have disputed whether the ceremony actually took place, and one in particular, Léon-François Hoffmann, proposed in 1991 that the story was fabricated by a “malevolent” French colonist and plantation physician, Antoine Dalmas, whose intention was to denigrate the slaves and distance the French elites from the African insurgents. Hoffmann’s claims were tendentious within the Haitian studies community at the time and the debate was rekindled by the publication of David Geggus’ Haitian Revolutionary Studies in 2002. After taking a thorough look at Hoffmann’s claims, sources and alternative accounts, Geggus concludes that a ritual ceremony probably did take place sometime around August 21st, but that the facts pertaining to it, which are thin on the ground, have been significantly embellished by subsequent historians seeking to emphasize the African and slave-led currents within the revolution (and therefore at the foundation of the Haitian nation).

Dalmas’ account is based on the testimony of three slaves captured after an initial, well-documented public gathering of the “slave elites” (coach-drivers and slave-drivers) from 100 different plantations at the Lenormand De Mézy estate on Sunday August 14th.  An alleged smaller gathering took place a few days later in a wooded area called La Caïman (the Alligator) at which a pig was sacrificed, its blood drunk and its hairs taken to make protective amulets. According to Dalmas the captives said that the pig was “surrounded by fetishes” and sacrificed “to the all-powerful spirit of the black race”. And that was it.

By 1953 the Haitian historian and diplomat Dantès Bellegarde would described the Bois Caîman ceremony in ways that had by then become familiar to all elite-educated school children in Haiti:

‘During the night of 14 August 1791 in the midst of a forest called Bois Caïman, on the Morne Rouge in the northern plain, the slaves held a large meeting to draw up a final plan for a general revolt. They consisted of about two hundred slave drivers, sent from various plantations in the region. Presiding over the assembly was a black man named Boukman, whose fiery words exalted the conspirators. Before they separated, they held amidst a violent rainstorm an impressive ceremony, so as to solemnize the undertakings they made. While the storm raged and lightning shot across the sky, a tall black woman appeared suddenly in the center of the gathering. Armed with a long, pointed knife that she waved above her head, she performed a sinister dance singing an African song, which the others, face down against the ground, repeated as a chorus. A black pig was then dragged in front of her and she split it open with her knife. The animal’s blood was collected in a wooden bowl and served still foaming to each delegate. At a signal from the priestess, they all threw themselves on their knees and swore blindly to obey the orders of Boukman, who had been proclaimed the supreme chief of the rebellion. He announced as his choice of principal lieutenants Jean Francois Papillon, Georges Biassou, and Jeannot’.  (From Histoire du Peuple Haïtien, 1953)

So how did the story of Bois Caïman develop from such a basic schematic account to the established myth we know today? And more specifically how did the characters Dutty Boukman, houngan, rebel leader and author of the legendary Boukman Prayer, the mambo Cécile Fatiman, the old priestess and the loa Erzulie Dantor, Ogoun Ferraille, Marinette, Ti Jean Petro, all find themselves cast into this “operetta sanguinaire” of Haitian independence?

That’s what I tried to account for at the October gallery talk. It goes something like this: Read the rest of this entry »