Global Doc: The Ghetto Biennale

Author: Dr. Vincent DeGennaro Jr. ’02

At any other time, our presence in this part of town would be difficult. The streets of the downtown market in Port-au-Prince are always tightly packed with people and cars and covered in a dark brown muck that is equal parts dirt, stagnant water and trash.

While most people come here to conduct business or buy food for their homes, a tiny portion are unemployed youths associated with local gangs, looking to make — or take — a quick buck. Two foreigners promenading the streets like Grace and me could be a target, especially if we had cash, like we do today. And police protection does not exist. The police do not patrol here; their presence is unwelcome and many officers have been shot at for daring to enter the neighborhoods.

Why have we decided to spend a lazy Saturday afternoon here?

Photo by Grace Tillyard

The Ghetto Biennale is a biannual street art festival in Port-au-Prince that attracts artists, craftspeople and musicians from all over the world. Rather than set up in a gallery or even on one street, the art is haphazardly exhibited along the walls of several alleys, houses and art studios. At the entrance to the artists’ neighborhood, a map shows the locations of the two dozen participants. Once you’re in, however, you’re on your own to navigate.

Wending our way down the tiny, irregular alleys, though, an overwhelming sensation of welcome and warmth emanates from the shacks and workshops. Not only do I feel safe, there’s almost a spell protecting us, a warmth enveloping us, as if we’re at an old friend’s for the holidays.

Mostly voodoo-inspired art, the pieces are anything but typical. Paintings, sculptures, metal works, wooden housewares and jewelry adorn the maze of flimsily-constructed buildings. The pieces are constructed of recycled materials or, simply put, trash: metal scraps, old tires, tools and household objects that have outlived their use anywhere, even among the urban poor of Haiti. Through the day, we visit with local and international artists, many of whom have so many finished pieces that the rooms have barely enough space for us to enter and spin in place.

Down one alley, a portly man offers me a bottle of rum decorated with cloth horns that jut out in three directions. Grace has disappeared, but I don’t give it a second thought. The man explains that the bottle represents the three-horned lwa, or spirit, named Bossou, an aggressive and sometimes violent force, though usually an agent of protection. Grace returns, and the man invites us into the shrine. He knocks three times before entering, not wanting to intrude on any lwa without politely announcing his presence. He points out some alcoholic drinks infused with herbs and gourdes filled with powders for all manner of problems: looking for a life partner, seeking sexual potency, asking a wife for forgiveness, blessing a business or cursing an enemy.

Later that day, we’re lost and unsure how to continue our journey when a little girl walks beneath my hand and gently directs us to follow her. More than offering a kind gesture, she’s showing us to her father’s wood shop, where he expertly crafts a shape out of a block of wood using a searing band saw. Either way, the community continues to look out for us.

We enter the gallery and house of Celeur, an internationally-renowned artist, as darkness descends outside. No feelings other than belonging come with the dusk. After speaking with his children at length we climb the steps of his modest concrete home to the second floor where the giant sculptures are packed into dirty corners. Grace and I had seen Celeur’s Three Birds metal sculpture at the Grand Palais in Paris in February and his work has shown at the Venice Biennale as well, yet he lives and works in a house with no running water and two light bulbs. We purchase a small statue of discarded metal, pieces of tire and an old watch that sits on our mantle.

Back on the street an hour later, we are negotiating the price of a painting on clay tile of Legba, the lwa that wards off evil spirits, when a young man accidentally bumps into Grace. She barely notices, but the artists let him have it: shouting, criticizing him and making a scene. It would be almost frightening if we didn’t speak Creole and understand that they’re scolding him for bumping their customer. In this way, the community protects its patrons and ensures its collective livelihood. Without the police, the community maintains order. Their vigilance toward even the smallest infractions against visitors protects them from larger sins like theft or violence. Having never heard of the broken windows theory of crime, the artists live it by instinct and protect their businesses by its principles.

At night, Legba again greets us, this time as a chalk symbol on the sidewalk entrance to an empty lot surrounded by fallen buildings. On this night of the Ghetto Biennale, the post-apocalyptic scene is warmly lit by a series of fires. Music wafts over the buildings, created by a drum and acoustic guitar and the haunting wailings of a middle-aged man with few teeth. The darkness fades away, along with any preconceptions I had about life in the urban slums of Port-au-Prince.

Vincent DeGennaro is an internal medicine doctor and global public health specialist in the University of Florida’s Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Medicine and works half time in Haiti with the nonprofit Project Medishare. See his An American Doctor in Haiti blog.