In an earlier post (23/12/15) I mentioned an incident that occurred during the penultimate night of the Ghetto Biennale in which a young man from Lakou Cheri, Gerard Masalen, died after a fight with another man. I think it is important to write something here about the circumstances surrounding Gerard’s death within the broader context of GB IV, the political tensions in the streets of Port-au-Prince at the time of the biennale and the experiences of some of the participants and guests that have not been widely discussed or publicly shared. The main issue I’m trying to tease out here has to do with the complex relationship between the actual and perceived risks for artists participating in the biennale, the implicitly economic and often fraught nature of inter-personal relations between visitors and locals, and how the perceptions and realities of such are understood, represented and managed by the GB organization.
My own contribution to this year’s biennale was a “gossip wall” hung within Lakou Cheri, the main site of the biennale, on which local people and visitors were invited to write anonymous stories about what was going on “off-screen” as it were. I would collect any gossip at the end of each day, then wipe the canvas clean ready for the following one. The idea was to create a kind of local gossip column that would potentially give voice to dissenting or critical opinions about the biennale. This was part of a broader project conceived as a means to gather material for an essay in the forthcoming Ghetto Biennale catalogue that would be based, in part, on the opinions of people outside the biennale’s inner circle. I mention this to frame my comments here in terms of the broader project I was involved in during the biennale. That being said, my account of the circumstances leading up to and following the events that night is primarily a personal one, supported by details gleaned from conversations with biennale guests during and after the event, witnesses, members of the organizational team and people who knew Gerard personally.
For the last public event of the GB IV the curatorial team had organised a street party in Grand Rue at which the famous Haitian mizik razin band RAM would play. The event had been planned earlier in the week with the support of the Haitian Ministry of Culture who had proposed building a stage for the concert opposite the Lakou Cheri site. They would supply lighting, close the street off to local traffic and ensure that the event was properly policed. RAM – whose name derives from the initials of its lead singer Richard A. Morse, owner of the Oloffson Hotel – is well known in Port-au-Prince for its regular Thursday night performances there. It is also famous for its support of popular political struggles, and especially for Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the early Lavalas movement. Given Morse and the Oloffson’s continuous support for the Ghetto Biennale and Atis Rezistants, it seemed like a good idea for RAM to play at the closing party, “down in the Rue” as they say.
As is so often the case in Haiti however, one always needs to test the temperature of the changing political waters there. And if a measure of the political pulse in Port-au-Prince is ever needed, Richard is as good a person to ask as any. Until recently he had been the Special Envoy for Foreign Affairs for the government of Michel Martelly, an unlikely liaison (or so it seemed to me) for a popular democracy and anti-corruption campaigner and a (former) night-club owner, popular singer and reputed Duvalierist, who had performed at a protest against the US-sponsored return of President Aristide from political exile in 1992. Perhaps because the two musicians were cousins they thought they could put aside their political differences in the interests of building a better Haiti. But in December 2012, after 18 months in the job, Morse resigned the post because of alleged corruption in the national palace and accusations of “infrastructure sabotage”. Since then further accusations of corruption have led to more high-profile resignations and, with elections two years overdue, violent protests against the Martelly government have been occurring intermittently since November 2013.
When I arrived in Port-au-Prince on Sunday December 13th the country was in tense political limbo, the first round of presidential elections in October having been won without a deciding majority by Jovenal Moïse, the relatively unknown presidential candidate from Martelly’s PHTK party (Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale or Haiti Bald-Headed Party named after Martelly’s signature bald-head). A second round run-off election between the two leading candidates had initially been scheduled for December 27th, but opposition party candidates, led by the runner-up Jude Célestin, did not recognise the first-round results, accusing the government of vote-fixing. Speaking to Richard in the hotel shortly after arriving, I asked him about the current political situation and the mood on the streets. He said that he had expected large-scale demonstrations against the election results on Saturday, but the torrential rain seemed to have dampened popular enthusiasm. He did however expect protests to happen in the next few days, before the decision was made whether or not to cancel the second round of elections.
Although few of the visiting artists I spoke to seemed aware of the political situation in Haiti at the time of the biennale, many of them had felt a certain tension in air on the streets of the capital, especially after one of them was robbed at gun point during the early hours of the morning, after escorting two colleagues back to the Park Hotel, a twenty minute walk from the Oloffson. Those who have visited Port-au-Prince before would probably not have recommended them to walk the streets at that time of night unless they were accompanied by local Haitians. But to my knowledge there have been few, if any, incidents of this kind during the previous three biennales. Perhaps this had made people more relaxed than they should have been. The increased number of artists participating this year however, some 60 visiting and 41 Haitian artists, up from 41 and 27 respectively in 2013, inevitably put strain on the event’s already rather loose organizational structure and its capacity for overseeing its guest’s movements and general safety. That said, the risk of walking between the Oloffson and Park hotel is probably no more dangerous than walking through many parts of London at the same time of night. But personally I don’t do that either, and in Haiti I only walk to the Park Hotel, or to and from the Grand Rue site, during the day. At night I might walk, but only with a group. If I happened to have the hard-to-come-by, requisite amount of Haitian gourdes (or a $1 bill) for the fare – and ideally a Kreyol speaker to negotiate it – I would take a taxi. Suffice to say, getting around Port-au-Prince is a difficult thing for any visitor unfamiliar with the language, culture and economy of Haiti. That many visitors choose to walk rather than take taxis is totally understandable for anyone who has tried to negotiate the fare system or is reluctant to take a “moto”, the now popular motorcycle taxis driven unflinchingly, and with great gusto, by enterprising young men in the capital. It’s also important to remember that most of the participating artists are self-funding, and that many of the younger artists are working on very limited budgets. So even though taxis are comparatively cheap compared to other countries, they are still expensive for most Haitians, and as such visitors can feel that their extravagance is unwarranted, drawing attention, as it does, to their relative affluence in comparison to their Haitian hosts.
My friend Alex Louis, a former member of Ti Moun Rezistans and Tele Geto, had also intimated to me earlier in the week that he expected there to be some kind of trouble on the streets. But it was impossible to predict where and when this would happen. To be safe, he suggested, I should avoid walking home alone if possible and stay away from any demonstrations. “Haitian’s don’t know how to protest” he said, “and when they do you never know what will happen. Things will be destroyed, cars and tires burned, the police may open fire on the protesters”. And this is precisely what happened later in the week, when students protested in the university district. Alex’s warnings also echoed those published on the US State Department’s 2015 Overseas Security Advisory for Haiti:
“While most people are friendly and peaceful, travellers are reminded of the potential for spontaneous protests and public demonstrations that can occur at any time and may result in violence. Any demonstration is capable of turning violent, and innocent bystanders or travellers can easily be caught up in a clash between demonstrators and the HNP, rock throwing, tire burning, or roadblocks. Travellers are advised to avoid all demonstrations and be prepared to seek alternate routes should one be encouraged. American citizens are advised to take common sense precautions and avoid any event where crowds may congregate.”
Such warnings didn’t seem to have gotten through to the people involved in the festivities planned down in the rue however, even though the star turn seemed to have as good a grasp on the situation as anyone. And the organizational team was already too overworked to concern themselves with rumours about “potential trouble” in the capital. Besides, there’s always something to worry about in Port-au-Prince. And in reality the Ghetto Biennale can only function and survive if the people participating in it are willing to overcome the perceived risks involved in doing so. Of course, that’s not the sort of thing you put on a ‘Call for Proposals’ or an e-Flux flyer. On a Burning Man ticket maybe, but not a Ghetto Biennale invite.
The night of the concert I arrived back at the Oloffson around 9 pm after a long and unexpectedly grueling trip from Arcahaie, a coastal town about 40 km north of Port-au-Prince, where Alex’s family lives. Alex’s cousin Yves had driven us the longer route back to the centre of town in order to avoid the Cité Soleil road, which they felt would be too dangerous to drive after dark. The alternative route was jammed for several miles, and the levels of choking smog in the air surpassed anything I’d yet experienced in Haiti. I was already unsure about attending the RAM concert, mainly because I hadn’t formed a clique of buddies to team up with when making the journey to and from the Rue. This meant that getting back was a much trickier affair, dependent on the movements and plans of the other artists staying at the Oloffson, who may or may not be around when you wanted to leave. Although the concert was scheduled to start at 10 pm I knew from experience that things would be running late. There wasn’t much to do down at the rue at that time of night except drink beer, and I’d done enough of that already. So I asked Alex if he would be interested in going down there with me. We could share a cab there and back. He agreed and said he would meet me back at the hotel at 10.
When I came back to the terrace an hour later Richard was still sitting in the lobby in his day-wear chatting to one of the biennale guests, a VIP from New York associated with Clocktower Radio. “Aren’t you supposed to be in Grand Rue?” I asked. “I’ll be there”, he said. “Everyone knows RAM don’t come on until late”. Richard left the hotel with his elderly mother and their entourage around 11.00. Alex still hadn’t shown, but I was in no rush. The hotel was pretty much deserted by then except for one or two stragglers planning to go down to the rue later on. One of these was Emilie Boone, a doctoral scholar from Northwestern University and a Ghetto Biennale regular, who had come to give a lecture about photography and Haiti in the context of the “lens ban” imposed by the biennale’s organisers. She was taking a late dinner at a local restaurant just outside the gates of the Oloffson (so close, in fact, that it seemed to be built into the hotel’s very walls). She was still waiting for her meal when I met her there at 11.30. We eventually arrived at the concert site by taxi, having travelled the brief five minute journey through the usually congested and suffocating streets of Port-au-Prince – now eerily empty and quiet – at midnight.
A portion of the Grand Rue in front of the GB site was barricaded off by tires and a police car, the street illuminated by a massive floodlight, fixed upon a 30ft mount, that bathed the crowd in an unforgiving brilliance, giving the whole scene the feel of a film set. In the crowd towards the front of the stage many of the visiting artists had gathered, already quite merry, giving each other congratulatory hugs, dancing playfully and obviously looking forward to the upcoming concert. Others hovered off to the sides, where the street faded into the ordinary darkness of the unlit Rue at night, conversing in broken French and English, while back in Lakou Cheri locals and visitors drank the last of the Prestige from the impromptu beer stall that Junior and Mabelle Williams had set up for the event. Alex had come down to the rue after his friend Jeff, another young Grand Rue local, had called him to say I was there. He explained that he hadn’t come to the hotel because he had bad feelings about the concert. “But now we’re here, let’s find a beer”. The beer, it turned out, was in short supply. With two hours of waiting, and such a large crowd, the lakou stocks had dried up and purchases had to be negotiated with local vendors selling them alongside quarter bottles of rum, soft-drinks and a local red beverage in unmarked bottles (reputedly a concoction made from cough medicine). Among the familiar local faces in the crowd were many others, some looking vaguely perplexed as to what all this was about, and others, younger men mainly, looking rather more edgy.
I positioned myself a good viewing distance from the stage and frugally sipped my beer. By the time I’d finished it RAM had still not taken the stage. So, reluctantly, I started looking around for somewhere to buy another. Beside me was a woman with a wheelbarrow loaded with drinks. I knew already I didn’t have the right change to buy anything without a complicated monetary negotiation and, as I reflected on whether or not it was worth the effort, a young man standing next to me asked in Kreyol what I was looking at? I explained as best I could, in very bad French, that I was thinking of buying a drink but that I didn’t have any change. The exchange was tense and unfriendly, his attitude challenging, at least for anyone familiar with confrontational encounters. He pointed to a bottle of red liquid buried in the ice and said something in Kreyol that I didn’t understand. I apologised for not understanding, explaining that when one of my Haitian friends came back I would ask them to explain to me what he was asking. I turned back to watch the band. It was just taking the stage. A few moments later Evel Romain, one of the long-term members of Atis Rezistans, who had presumably seen the exchange from a distance, came over to see how I was doing. I explained that the guy beside me was trying to say something to me and asked Evel to explain to him that I didn’t understand what he was saying. Evel said a few words to the young man in Kreyol and then suggested that I step forward in front of the wheelbarrows and join the group of dancing visitors deeper in the crowd. So I did.
By then the band had just begun to play and Richard Morse, now dressed in top hat, coat tails and purple scarf, his face painted white – the sartorial signs and appearance of Papa Guede, Vodou loa of death and fertility – was taking the stage. I thought for a moment how odd it was that a blan Papa Guede would be singing towards a site largely dedicated to the Guede cult, one filled wall-to wall-with sculptures of the family’s most illustrious members – Gran Brigit, Baron Samedi, Baron Kriminel, Maitre Carrefour – many made with skulls gathered directly from the local cemetery, created by Haitians much poorer than Richard, but who, like him, were also serviteurs of the loa of death. I wondered why this particular alliance of spirits is so particular to Lakou Cheri, and, by extension, to the Ghetto Biennale as a whole? Somehow the configuration seemed chiasmic on an occult level, like a Red and Black Death arriving simultaneously at the same masque.
The band had been playing for about a minute when Richard stepped up and took the microphone. He could not have sung more than a few words before screams, shouts and the sound of an altercation rang out from the arches behind me. I turned to see what was going on as more cries followed and people began rushing hastily from the scene. There were the telltale signs of a physical struggle, the sound of things breaking, bodies impacting surfaces, some people rushing forward, some running away. A fight of some sort had broken out. And judging by the way people were reacting, it was a serious one. The traders closest-by, clearly alarmed, were hurriedly packing up their wares and looking for the best route to leave the scene. My immediate thought was that a fight had broken out between Evel and the man I had just been talking to, so I began walking worriedly towards the scene, compelled by a deepening sense of dread.
The panic had spread remarkably quickly through the crowd which was now scattering in all directions. Members of the local community were spontaneously shepherding the visiting artists off the street and back into Andre Eugene’s yard, deeper in the lakou, while the band, seemingly oblivious, played on. Unlike most of the houses in the lakou, Eugene’s yard is protected by a solid iron door. So it seemed like the obvious place to seek sanctuary. But my instincts told me to find Alex, grab a taxi and get off the Rue as soon as possible. Alex, however, was nowhere to be seen. And it would have been too risky for a non-local, non-Kreyol speaker to try and get back alone. So, given the general pandemonium, Eugene’s yard seemed like the best place to ride out the storm.
One by one the visiting artists were rounded up by locals and stewarded into the yard. All appeared somewhat stunned and some of them were crying. One was fighting with a local man who was trying to stop her going back into the street to find her sister. Many of the local men were shouting and struggling with each other. Someone had been stabbed, they said. There was a lot of blood. Some of the young men were running back out into the street, others were rushing inside. Was it a local, one of Atis Rezistans? A visiting artist? None of the visitors seemed to know. At one point it appeared that a supine body was being carried into the yard, but instead one of the younger men from the rue community, who had been working with some of the visiting artists, burst through the door sobbing uncontrollably, his white t-shirt covered in blood. He fell into the arms of Anna Sebastian, a visiting artist, who held him in her arms while he cried inconsolably. Through the fog of panic and distress I gleaned that someone had been attacked, a local boy, who may have been killed. But we didn’t know by who or why, and what, if anything, was happening as a consequence. Standing by the open door I could see that the street, still illuminated by the spotlight, had emptied quickly. Then, as the last of the visiting artists were being rounded up by the Ghetto Biennale team, gunshots began ringing out in the almost deserted streets. One, four, six rounds, more panicked screams, and the iron door was slammed shut. The visitors were now told to move deeper into the unlit backspace of Eugene’s yard, where much of his art is housed. At the same time fights continued to break out in the mid yard between local men, some of whom I recognized, others not. Someone intimated that one of them had a gun. Then a man I didn’t recognize was physically thrown out of the yard, and the iron door slammed shut again.
Most of the visiting artists were now huddled in the dark of Eugene’s yard, palpably terrified. Eugene himself, who had disappeared into his private space for several minutes, returned carrying a bottle of fragrant liquid with which he carefully drew a line on the ground from the entrance of his space to the metal gate and then into the back yard. The liquid gave off a pleasant and oddly calming fragrance that seemed to ease the tension, at least for a few moments. During the entire episode, while everyone around him was either fighting, crying, shouting or hiding, Eugene lost none of his relaxed and measured composure. The pouring of the fragrant liquid was a typically reassuring gesture on his part. “Are you OK?” I asked him after he’d finished pouring. “I think so”, he said.
Some time later – it is hard to tell how long the “siege” went on for, it could have been 20 minutes but may have been an hour – Leah and Eugene left the yard to see what was happening on the street. Almost immediately another altercation broke out between the locals, and another man, again one I didn’t recognize, bolted the door shut and stood in front of it menacingly. No one seemed keen to approach him.** Outside we could hear others banging on the door trying to get in. At that point I must admit I started to feel my own composure waning and began looking for an alternative exit. I figured my chances were probably as good outside the yard as in it. At least I’d be able to move and hide on my own terms. There was indeed a ladder up against the left-hand wall of the compound. Over the wall perhaps? But what one would drop into on the other side was anyone’s guess. So I put the thought out of my mind and struck up a conversation with the man standing next to me. He was obviously a visitor too, and, like me, seemingly on his own. “Do you speak English?” I asked. “I am English” he replied. It turned out we had mutual friends and had even studied at the same polytechnic in the 1980’s. So, in the midst of the turmoil, we had a somewhat surreal conversation about our preferred parts of Newcastle: Fenham, Jesmond, Chillingham Road…
Eventually Leah and Eugene were allowed back into the yard and, to my great relief, they were with Evel. Not only was he in one piece, he was also ready to ferry all the artists staying at the Oloffson back to the hotel. (I assume those staying at the Park went in a later convoy). We were directed to gather in the front yard and then, like good school children, to walk, calmly and in single file, out to the street and into the two waiting vehicles. Standing at the iron gate, a Prestige in both hands, Evel asked if anyone would like a beer before they went out. “To calm them down” he said. “No, that’s OK Evel” I said. “Thanks though. I think we’re good without the beer. Let’s just get to the car.”
The next morning we learned that the person who had been attacked was a young man called Gerard Mesalen, a Lakou Cheri local and a friend of the boys who had been working with the visiting artists. He had either died in the Rue or on the way to the hospital after a fight in which his throat had been cut. Over breakfast Alex told me that he and Gerard had grown up together in the lakou. His mom had been coming to Port-au-Prince the following weekend to take him back to the States for the Christmas holiday. The person who attacked him was not from Grand Rue and there had been a history of animosity between the two men that pre-dated the event last night. It may have had something to do with a girl.** The other guy had been caught by the police and was now in custody. Gerard’s jugular had been severed and in the struggle that ensued – a struggle as much by others to stop the bleeding as to stop the fighting – he had died. A number of visitors had been close to the attack when it happened and were reputedly very shaken up by what they had seen. When I asked Richard Morse what he thought had occurred he said simply, “They didn’t want it to happen”. I wasn’t sure if he meant the gods, the crowd or Martelly’s “people”. But I left it at that.
Later that day the Ghetto Biennale team sent an email about the incident to the participants:
“It is with regret that we inform you that there was a fatality that occurred during the start of the RAM gig last night. The man that died was called Gerard Masalen aka Jery. He was not a member of Atis Rezistans but I have heard that he was extended family of some people in the neighbourhood. We have heard that this killing was neither a political act or anything that directly concerns the Ghetto Biennale but was an act of jealously that was fueled by drink and the intensity of the moment. For that reason alone we feel that we share some responsibility for his death.”
Like the mugging at gunpoint of one of the visiting artists, the murder of Gerard Masalen had nothing directly to do with either the Ghetto Biennale or the contested run-offs for the presidential elections. But the tensions that both situations brought to Port-au-Prince in general, and the Grand Rue in particular, must have added to the levels of risk that were present for both Haitian citizens and visitors alike. This is something that the GB team now acknowledge. But, by the time the ball was rolling towards midnight, it would have been even more risky to call things off rather than let them run their course.
Violence doesn’t fall cleanly into the categories of the purely political, economic or personal in Haiti or anywhere else, for that matter. And as many people commented after the event, it could have happen anywhere. It was just an unfortunate and sad coincidence that it happened to occur there and then. Of course this is factually incontestable. But as the team suggested in their formal response “jealousy” may also have had a role to play in the tensions between the two men. Such jealousy is something one hears a lot about in Haiti. It is often used to identify a powerful and distinctive motivating factor in inter-personal and community dynamics there. Why jealousy should be more pronounced in Haiti than anywhere else I’m not sure. But that’s what people I know often say. Meanwhile everyone who participates in the Ghetto Biennale is aware that the event creates a certain amount of tension between local “insiders” and “outsiders”, and those from other parts of town. It is a tension about who is making money, from who, for what, and where the sudden influx of dollars into the area ends up. And such tensions do touch, however indirectly, upon the real politics of Haiti, both historically, and in the present situation. Although these “local jealousy issues” rarely spill-over into relations between visitors and locals within the official Ghetto Biennale arena, they do effect relationships outside that relatively tight scene.
Speaking with a member of the curatorial team after the events of Saturday night I suggested that there had been some tension in the air all week, and that several people had noted an increased sense of danger at this year’s events. “What danger?” they asked, “the energy down at the Rue has been totally positive all week”. I didn’t disagree, knowing that for many of the participants, that’s how it had been. But I had also been speaking to people who had far less positive and more troubling experiences during their visits to the Rue, and in their forays into other parts of Port-au-Prince, experiences that they were dealing with quietly and on their own terms. I mention this to underline a marked difference of perceived threat, risk and inter-personal hostility levels between those who have been coming to Haiti for several years – like members of the GB team, those with friends in the community, who are able to speak some Kreyol and French and are familiar with the cultural and inter-personal terrain – and those who are visiting for the first time, who don’t have any insider knowledge or experience, and whose perception of the risks, threats and dangers were of a very different order. Some of us who have been attending the GB for several years probably feel this tension less palpably because our skins have thickened and our ways of dealing with challenging encounters become more habituated. But just because some of us have more experience handling difficult encounters that doesn’t make them any less disturbing for the others, especially those experiencing them for the first time.
There is an unspoken understanding for those who have attended the biennale before, that a certain bloody mindedness about one’s health and overall well-being needs to be embraced if you are going to make the most of your time there. And partly because of that, distinguishing between perceived and actual risks can become a very fuzzy thing. A certain blue-eyed, inter-cultural idealism plays a part in this too. And when such idealism rubs up against a difficult-to-acknowledge sense of dread, that one inevitably feels sometimes, it effects a kind of cognitive dissonance that makes it difficult to trust one’s own instincts. Sometimes it is just easier to put yourself in the lap of the gods.
I think that a certain sense of barely acknowledged First World guilt might be at the core of the peculiar moral-economic dissonance some people feel in Haiti, and especially at the Ghetto Biennale where, it is assumed, they are all artists, and as such, despite their undeniable economic and cultural differences, on some transcendent, utopian playing field. A particular existential confusion consequently tends to distort one’s emotional, economic and inter-personal perceptions in ways that effect the way we relate to and communicate with others. For me this is caused most obviously by the visible and tangible consequences of poverty contrasted to ones own, suddenly undeniable, relative affluence (even if one is on a “limited budget”). The disparity between the wealth of the visitors and the needs of many people in the local community – including many of the artists – can lead one to question whether one’s personal instincts for self-preservation and risk-avoidance – like taking a cab – are simply the consequence of some cosetted, First-World privilege, that one should simply “get over”. I think this might explain why some visitors to the Ghetto Biennale are willing to accept levels of personal risk that, under ordinary circumstances, they would do their utmost to avoid. Those of us who have attended the GB before have learned that without overcoming one’s natural trepidation and taking some risks, the “existential rewards” of the Ghetto Biennale – surely one of its main attractions for reality-hungry visiting artists – would be far less tangible. But how such risks, whether real or perceived, are managed in the future is something the Ghetto Biennale team might want to take into account for those guests who are perhaps less willing, or personally prepared, to take them.
* I have since been informed that the man who stood in front of the door was the brother of Jerry Chery (aka Twoket, and a member of Atis Rezistans) who is a lawyer and wanted to ensure everyone’s safety.
** I have since been told that the person who attacked Jery was a twenty-year old man who had only recently arrived in Port-au-Prince from the countryside. After Jery had broken a bottle over his head, the other man retaliated with a broken bottle, severing Jery’s jugular.