In conversation with activist and visual artist Ismael Ogando, on counter narratives and historical re-enactments at the 4th Ghetto Biennale.
The last 30 years have brought African and Caribbean art to the global market, where the art system has functioned as a leverage between developing countries and the global economy. Yet in the few biennales across Africa, there is a tangible indifference from the local communities towards such international exhibitions. It is in responding to such vacuums of engagement in the local that the Ghetto Biennale, started in 2009 at Port–au–Prince, Haiti.
© Joe Winter. Big Chair, 2013. 3rd Ghetto Biennale Haiti, 2013. Courtesy of Ghetto Biennale. Photo | Multiversal Services.
The press release of its 3rd season stated: “Are we institutional critique or a season ticket to the institution? Are we poverty tourism or an exit strategy from the ghetto? What was the effect of the earthquake and the ensuing NGO culture on cross-cultural relations in Haiti?” In a global art landscape in which biennales offer seasonal tickets for collectors to visit developing countries in search of exoticised art, the Ghetto Biennale stands out for its institutional self-criticism.
The 4th Ghetto Biennale scheduled for December 2015 seeks to highlight three aspects of Haitian culture that evoke the historical episode of the Haitian Revolution of 1791 to 1804. These are Vodou religion, Kreyòl language, and the Lakou system of land ownership. In response to this call out, Hispaniola-born artists Ismael Ogando, and David Etienne, came up with a Vodou-inspired piece titled, ‘Altar’. According to the biennale website the piece critically engages the historical Haitian Revolution by re-activating submerged narratives in the birth of the nation of Haiti.
Serubiri Moses (SM) | Perhaps, we can start not from social art but from the reality of Haiti. What are your thoughts on Haiti and its political and social relations inside the Caribbean and with the U.S and France?
Ismael Ogando (IO) | My thoughts on Haiti were at the early stages of my development as an individual covered with a layer of prejudice. You see, this is because I was raised in the Dominican Republic–a place where you are taught to hate yourself; where Blackness and Africa are concepts to be disregarded. The Haiti constructed through legitimised accounts in history books used in Dominican schools, was a psychological phenomenon. A kind of Chimera materialised in the Dominican conscious. Subsequently, I have interpreted this as a fallacy of dignity on the part of the Dominican Republic, while denying our own reality as a cohabitant of the Hispaniola island. My indoctrinated tenebris about Haiti, and in particular Haitian people, has shifted after realising that these colonial and geographical differences do not limit my identity. Whether born on the Spanish or the French side of the Hispaniola, I am myself Haitian.
A map of the island of Hispaniola or St. Domingo. Drawn from the best authorities by T. Kitchin, geo.
[London : Printed for R. Baldwin, 1758]. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
SM | What is your position as having the Dominican background in relation to Haiti’s cultural landscape?
IO | I am curious myself. As part of the artists for the 4th Ghetto Biennale, I am sure, there is no significant difference with the Dominican scenario. I worked as journalist for several years in the Dominican Republic, mostly in the cultural section and as an art critic. What I had to critique in the Dominican Republic, was the lack of space for young unprivileged artists and the institutional corruption that runs internally at the culture ministry, the unconstitutional re-structure of the Bienal de Artes Visuales de Santo domingo, for instance.
I got the chance to engage in press-trips organised by the USAID to the Dominican-Haitian border and beyond for cultural exchange programs. But these were all layered with the usual accounts. I have since gotten to know and make connections with David Frohnapfel, curator of the 3rd Ghetto Biennale, whose work focusses on Haitian queer representations. Similarly, I’ve made connections with Alanna Lockward, a Dominican researcher and curator working on themes of decolonization and ‘Caribbeanness’.
But I must admit, I lack an accurate factual basis to make judgements about the cultural landscape of Haiti. For about 3 years I developed an archive project with SAVVY Contemporary–an art space in Berlin–where I struggled to contextualize art from Dominican Republic or Haiti.
For the 4th Ghetto Biennale, I got to meet virtually with Leah Gordon, curator of the event based in Port-Au-Prince. I can not say anything except that I have a good feeling about the biennale.
SM | What is your reflection on the recent news coming out of Haiti that involved the expelling of Haitian people out of the Dominican Republic?
IO | The xenophobia in the Dominican Republic, is the aftermath of a bleaching agenda initiated in the 1920s by the administration of Gral. Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. It is the outcome of violence as a didactical method, a colonial legacy. But let’s look at the facts. You see, history is a Chimera too. That is, history in the Dominican Republic is a fictional monster. In Dominican schools, the history books do not mention the ‘Great Slave Revolt’, a revolt otherwise called the Haitian Revolution; nor do they mention ‘The Glorious Birth of the First Free Black Nation of the World’ which is the national state of Haiti.
No. Dominican accounts of this period of history refer to ‘The Haitian Invasion of the Dominican Republic’. The dates are often wrongly misquoted due to the lack of coherence in the Dominican account of history. This re-narrativization has legitimised Anti-Haitianism in the Dominican Republic.
SM | My first impression gathering from your own views and this article by Edwidge Danticat and Junot Diaz, is that the perceptions, imaginations of race are multifaceted. My second impression is that this phenomenon of Haiti and the Dominican Republic is not only a national struggle of establishing the identity of two nation states, but it is a bi-polar colonialism of the Hispaniola Island. These are, according to Fanon, violent experiences.
IO | In the context of the island, there is no sophisticated discourse about race at all. The racial issues are so rooted that they have to be approached as socio-cultural phenomena, at least speaking from the perspective of a Dominican. Blackness is a taboo, but also, although it is denied as a term it is also celebrated. The intersectionality of class and skin colour, as well as gender are there to be analysed.
While there is constant performed aversion towards Blackness, there is also a claim to its consumption. It comes precisely in contexts of sexuality and economy: sex as a commodity–a good to trade. Sexual tourism in the Dominican Republic validated most of my quest to understand what, in this sense, is called “blanquismo” roughly translated as “caucasianism.” As the fatal other of Haitian Blackness, I see it as an affective-cognitive disorder at the very core of the Dominican psyche: a badly generalised Stockholm syndrome, I’ll dare to say.
© Ismael Ogando. Self-portrait, Berlin, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.
SM | Finally, how do you intend to incorporate this analysis in your performance at the 4th Ghetto Biennale in December?
The performance piece, Altar is my latest research-based installation. The set up for this piece at the Ghetto Biennale works as a site-specific installation. Additionally, the pre-production of Altar included all these narratives I have mentioned above, as my main intention with such work is to generate dialogue.
The piece is composed of four lamp posts installed in open air, each holds a passive speaker on its top, and is connected to a data player, that will loop on repeat 24/7 for a period of a month. The audio playing over the public address speakers will be the traditional ceremonial chant for the Vodou goddess Erzulie Dantor. Often depicted as a black woman protecting a child in her arms, the deity is associated with love and passion, but also with children, lesbian women, and homosexual men.
Not only is Erzulie Dantor a symbol of blackness and same-gender love, but her myth has been politicised in Haitian national history. According to the national mythology, Erzulie Dantor was the god invoked during the Vodou ceremony that began the slave revolt.
This ceremonial song for Erzulie Dantor has been arranged into a orchestral form by Dominican composer Sunil Mejía Camilo, and its solo performed by a Haitian émigré in Dominican Republic, David Etienne, who is a trained countertenor. The ceremonial song, through ethnomusicological research was transcribed from traditional Vodou instruments and re-arranged for a classical operatic Aria. I have worked with David before and duly recommend his vocal work.
The agency for this piece is to evoke the historical and cultural linkages on the Hispaniola island. As an example of unity it advocates the reconciliation of Haiti and Dominican Republic. It will be a unique Haiti/DR collaboration in honor of Erzulie Dantor.
The 4th edition of the Ghetto Biennale runs from 14th – 20th Dec 2015.
Ismael Ogando ( b. Dominican Republic) studied Visual Arts at ICA, and Social Psychology at Universidad Autonoma de Santo Domingo. From a very young age engaged as activist, developing public interventions at the urban space of Dominican Republic related to institutional corruption, racialisation, homophobia and gender violence.
In 2010, he created and produced the band Las Acevedo, touring Europe, North and South America and the Caribbean as well. In the Dominican Republic, he worked in media as a TV producer and journalist. And also as cultural developer, organizing from 2010 until 2012 the independent art event Festival de Arte de Santiago.
Written by Serubiri Moses.
The following interview was done via email with Ogando who currently lives in Berlin, Germany.