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Issue 233

The Collective Power of Atis Rezistans

Members and affiliates of the Haitian art collective trace the group’s history and advocate for the importance of supporting the country’s next generation of artists

BY André Eugène, Evel Romain AND Leah Gordon in Interviews | 17 MAR 23

In the summer of 2022, the fifteenth edition of the quinquennial exhibition documenta – curated by the art group ruangrupa and organized around the theme and principles of collective practices – was unfortunately mired in bitter controversy, when it faced allegations of antisemitism due to the inclusion of a mural containing problematic imagery. However, there was still cause to celebrate documenta 15 for its many achievements, not least of which was the noteworthy presentation of the Haitian art collective Atis Rezistans. For its contribution, the group staged an iteration of the Ghetto Biennale – an international arts exhibition held in Port-au-Prince that Atis Rezistans spearheaded with the aim of bringing international recognition to the region. Taking over the St. Kunigundis Catholic Church in Kassel, the group exhibited monumental sculptures from senior members – including Jean Hérard Celeur, André Eugène and Frantz Jacques, aka Guyodo – as well as younger artists from Grand Rue, the neighbourhood from which Atis Rezistans hails. For this issue of frieze, we spoke to founding members Eugène and Evel Romain, as well as to Ghetto Biennale co-founder Leah Gordon, about the history of the dynamic group and how its future rests in the hands of Haiti’s emerging artists.

Atis Rezistans, Ghetto Biennale at documenta 15, 2022, installation view. Photograph: Frank Sperling

How did Atis Rezistans come to be?

André Eugène I was born and grew up in Port-au-Prince, where I learned woodworking and how to make sculpture. I live in the very same place today, in Grand Rue, on Boulevard Jean-Jacques Dessalines: I never left.

When I first started making sculptures – you know, small artisanal objects to sell at the city’s Marché en Fer [Iron Market] – in 1996–97, the mayor of Port-au-Prince at the time, Manno Charlemagne, wanted to clean up the city and so he had all the broken-down cars and other junk taken to this soccer field called Parc Pelé. It was a field we used to play on as kids but, after 1995, it became a junkyard. The neighbourhood of Grand Rue is known for having sculptors, artisans, woodcarvers, metalworkers and mechanics. When the mechanics needed machine parts, they would go to Parc Pelé. Myself and my friend Jean Hérard Celeur – the other founding member of Atis Rezistans, or Les Sculpteurs de Grand Rue [The Grand Rue Sculptors] as we were originally known – decided to do the same, so we took parts from the junkyard to create our sculptures. Instead of making traditional woodcarvings, we came up with the idea of fixing wood to metal.

And that was how we started making sculptures combining wood, metal and, later, detritus from the streets of Port-au-Prince. We recycled things from the trash and we developed our own style, our own trend. People started to notice us. At first, folks said we were crazy for making work out of rubbish. But we soon started to have small exhibitions and slowly garnered more and more attention, both nationally and internationally. In 2006, we were invited to the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool and commissioned to create a monument to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, which we titled The Freedom! Sculpture [2007]. It was around this time that we renamed our group Atis Rezistans.

Evel Romain I’m another one of the original founders of Les Sculpteurs de Grand Rue. We all grew up together in the same area. When I was younger, although it wasn’t very lucrative, I was able to sell art to pay my way through school. But, with the poverty and political situation in Haiti as bad as it was then – and continues to be now – a lot of us who helped form the group in 1996–97 had to find other means of supporting ourselves outside of just making art. A few of us, myself included, left the group to figure out things on our own financially. But in 2006, after some of the original members either dropped out or simply passed away, a number of us got back together and decided to rename the group Atis Rezistans for those who had remained in Haiti and ‘resisted’. At that point, the group consisted of myself, Celeur, Eugène, Frantz Jacques aka ‘Guyodo’ and Jean Claude Saintilus.

Andre Eugene working in his atelier in Grand Rue, Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photograph: Leah Gordon

What is the history of the Ghetto Biennale?

Leah Gordon I’ve been going to Haiti since 1991, but I met Eugène – that’s what everyone calls him – in 2006, when I was working on the International Slavery Museum commission for a monumental sculpture from Haiti that would greet visitors as they entered the museum. I knew a lot about Haitian art at that point, but I had never met Atis Rezistans. It was the Haitian artist Mario Benjamin who took me to see them, and I knew straight away that I would commission them. And, when we met, it also became a love story: Eugène and I started a relationship.

AE In 2004, we had a show called ‘Lespri Endepandan: Discovering Haitian Sculpture’ at the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University in Miami [FIU]. Unfortunately, it was only the artworks that travelled to Miami: none of the artists were able to attend. A few years later, we met Leah in Liverpool and started discussing this idea of bringing people and artists to Haiti to meet with artists there and exhibit work. So, we created the Ghetto Biennale, which has since been synonymous with Atis Rezistans. It has allowed us to move around the world, exhibit more of our artists’ work and, most importantly, give more opportunities to our younger artists. The first Ghetto Biennale was held in 2009 and, despite Port-au-Prince being hit by a massive earthquake in 2010, we managed to hold our second iteration of the Ghetto Biennale in 2011, and then regularly until 2019. After that, it became too complicated with COVID-19 and too dangerous with the violent situation in Haiti involving gangs and kidnapping.

LG Hearing that some of the artists couldn’t attend the FIU show due to financial constraints prompted us to come up with idea for the Ghetto Biennale. We’ve been criticized before for exotifying the group, but I had just made a film about them [The Sculptors of Grand Rue, 2008], in which they all used the word ‘ghetto’ and called Grand Rue ‘Ghetto Leanne’. That’s the term they use to describe their environment. So, we just put the words together and launched the project. We made a website and invited international artists to come to Haiti, but we had no idea what was going to happen. We received 60 or 70 applications from which we chose several artists who all came out. The first biennial was very exciting on all levels. As time went on, they became a little more admin-based, but the joy of it was in seeing how art from the West and art from the Global South rub up against each other – whether they bleed, so to speak.

Entrance to the Ghetto Biennale painted by Michel Lafleur and commissioned by John Cussans, 1st Ghetto Biennale 2009, Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photograph: Chantal Regnault

How does the Ghetto Biennale work? What has the project done for the group?

ER At the first Ghetto Biennale, I participated in a set of performances by Atis Rezistans, before going on to become the group’s head of logistics. I gave a lot of myself to the project. In 2017, we produced a book about the Ghetto Biennale and, in 2018, we participated in an exhibition at Pioneer Works in New York called ‘PÒTOPRENS’. I was a big part of why ‘PÒTOPRENS’ came to New York, and I worked closely with Gabriel Florenz, the director of Pioneer Works. Leah and the Haitian American artist Edouard Duval-Carrie were responsible for choosing the artworks, but I was responsible for ensuring they were shipped safely to New York. Since we couldn’t stage another Ghetto Biennale in 2021, due to COVID-19 and the political situation in Haiti, we decided to bring it to Kassel for documenta 15 in 2022. As a result, everyone from Grand Rue participated in documenta 15.

LG Eugène works on the Haitian side of things, liaising directly with the community there, while I deal with the visiting artists for the Ghetto Biennale. On one level, we are dependent on who applies. However, we do have a strong group of artists that applies every two years, building on the collaborations and the work they’ve been developing together. When we were doing the installation for documenta 15, we really wanted the younger members of Atis Rezistans to be involved, because they are part of the community. But we also didn’t want the work to be read in an ethnographic way, which Eugène’s practice often is. So, we invited international artists to show with Atis Rezistans, as well, to complicate the idea of collectives. Ultimately, it’s the same concept behind the Ghetto Biennale: if you exhibit your work alongside ‘academic’ contemporary art, it alters how people read it because they feed into each other.

AE It was a great opportunity for us because many artists from Atis Rezistans had never travelled outside of Haiti before in their entire lives – a lot of them didn’t even have passports. And documenta is a big event that only happens once every five years. I’ve been lucky enough to travel the world already: I’ve been to the Venice Biennale, the Sydney Biennale. But, for some of these younger artists, it’s their first time abroad, which is a big deal. It’s also an opportunity for us to show the rest of the world that, despite all the bad news happening in Haiti, some good things are happening too and there are valuable things coming out of this country. This enables folks from outside to see Haiti in a different light. We left for Kassel with 17 people. That was unheard of before for Atis Rezistans.

Atis Rezistans, Ghetto Gucci, 2022, performance, St. Kunigundis, Kassel. Photograph: Frank Sperling

What does the future look like for Atis Rezistans?

ER We work with the younger members of Atis Rezistans, preparing them for the future, in the hope that they will eventually take over from us. One of my favourite memories of the group is from 2006, when all came together to make a float for Carnival from steel drums. That project was a collective effort with both the youth and the elders of the group. We also have so many projects to look forward to, like the Rising festival in Melbourne later this year, where we will re-enact the performances we did at documenta 15.

Since the last Ghetto Biennale in 2019, our focus has been on pushing for international recognition in the hopes of getting funding and aide in the region. It would be great to be able to offer a local community studio or residency, so folks have a place to work, and we can help them and their families. Our mission is to teach the youth and to promote younger artists coming of out Grand Rue. That’s our biggest dream.

AE I’ve already mentioned Celeur, who was with us at the beginning, although he is no longer part of the group. There were also a couple of former apprentices, Jean-Robert Palenquet and ‘Chebi’ Ronald Basil, who now lives in Miami like Evel. It’s guys like these who have opened doors for the younger members of Atis Rezistans. It’s important for us to work with the youth because we’re not going be here forever. At some point, we’re going to get old and wither away. So, if we’re able to pass on our skills and what we’ve learned to the next generation, then they will move on and do better things. And, in that way, it will be like we never left. The idea is to give these young people the opportunity to work for themselves, so they can look at what they do as a job that can provide for their families, and so they don’t end up on the streets or in a gang.

When Celeur and I first started out together, before Guyodo joined the group, we were making a lot of work and doing some big things. At a certain point, I could see we were getting a lot of attention. People from all over the world were coming to Haiti to check us out – the American Ambassador to Haiti, German press, Chinese press, French press, even the American writer Chelsea Clinton and the Canadian rock band Arcade Fire, who have been supportive of us in the past. I wanted to take advantage of this moment and to promote not just ourselves but the larger community of artists in Grand Rue.

My dream for Atis Rezistans is to have the means to build three foundations or museums in Haiti: one for Celeur, one for Guyodo and one for myself. I don’t know what organization could help us achieve it, but that’s my dream. They are so many beautiful and wonderful things that have come out of Grand Rue, and the youth are starting to understand that. But having a foundation – a space that could safeguard our archive, our body of work, so that subsequent generations could have access to it and learn from it – would be amazing. That way, if we were to die tomorrow, none of this work would go to waste. If we could get the state to fund a project like this – a place where kids could come, eat food and receive a free education in a safe environment surrounded by art and culture – would be great achievement. That’s what I want to push forward: to organize the community in Grand Rue so that we don’t have to live in squalor. A project like that would create jobs and prevent folks from starving. It would save people. It would be a bon bagay – a great thing!

Dasha Chapman, Yonel Charles, Jean-Sebastien Duvilaire & Ann Mazzocca, ‘Activating Petwo’s Kinesthetic Imagination: Dancing revoltion and forging Lakou in the Gran Rue’, 2015, performance at the 4th Ghetto Biennale in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photograph: Lazaros

This article first appeared in frieze issue 233 with the headline ‘Whether They Bleed’

Main image: member of Fungus Collective working on wall installation at 2nd Ghetto Biennale, 2011. Photograph: Peter Anderson

André Eugène is an artist and founding member of the artists collective Atis Rezistans, and the broader movement known as the Sculptors of Grand Rue.

Evel Romain is a member of the artists collective Atis Rezistans and the broader movement known as the Sculptors of Grand Rue. Much of Romain’s work reflects his African heritage with his use of minimal form and rope detail. Evel has been a participant and organizer for the Ghetto Biennale since its inception in 2009.

Leah Gordon is a British photographer, artist, curator, writer and filmmaker. She is a co-founder of Ghetto Biennale, a biannual international contemporary arts exhibition in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.