Venice

Halka/Haiti: The Polish Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale

On a dirt road surrounded by low buildings, the inhabitants of a remote village in Haiti gather for an unusual purpose. A cohort of Haitian musicians with string and brass instruments sit on folding chairs, tuning their instruments. At the center of this panoramic view are three performers, incongruous for their obvious European-ness, and for their 18th-century period dress. The orchestra commences, and the performers begin to sing of a young peasant girl who is seduced and impregnated by her landlord; she interrupts his wedding to a noblewoman only to be rejected, contemplate mass murder, and ultimately commit suicide. The performance is Halka, a 19th-century opera by Stanislaw Moniuszko that is a hallmark of Polish nationalism. Scanning the scene again, another complication emerges: The audience gathered to watch this performance is local, but the people have a mix of African and central European features. This is Cazale, the home of La Pologne—the Polish Haitians.

C.T. Jasper, Joanna Malinowska. Halka/Haiti. 18°48’05”N 72°23’01”W. Polish Pavilion. 56th International Art Exhibition - la Biennale di Venezia, All the World’s Futures. Photo by Sara Sagui. Courtesy: la Biennale di Venezia.

C.T. Jasper, Joanna Malinowska. Halka/Haiti: 18°48’05”N 72°23’01”W, 2015. Polish Pavilion, 56th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia, All the World’s Futures. Photo by Sara Sagui. Courtesy of la Biennale di Venezia.

C.T. Jasper and Joanna Malinowska’s Polish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Halka/Haiti: 18º 48’ 05” N 72º 23’ 01” W, considers the mythology surrounding the origins of this small but distinct community of Polish descent in the contexts of post-Communist Poland and post-dictatorship Haiti. Believed to be descendents of Polish soldiers recruited by Napoleon Bonaparte, the Pologne of Cazale have, for Poles, come to represent Polish resistance to despotism. The story of Poles in Haiti begins with the occupation of the independent Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by the joint seizures of territory by Russian, Prussian, and Habsburg forces between 1772 and 1795. Seeking to liberate themselves from their occupiers, some Polish partisans joined up with Napoleon’s army, whom they viewed as the enemy of their enemies. By 1802, a cohort of Poles had been sent to Haiti to help squash the nascent revolution led by Toussaint l’Ouverture. Some of these Polish fighters are believed to have switched sides, either fighting alongside the Haitian rebels or absconding to the remote mountain region known today as Cazale. Two hundred years later, Polish Haitians are credited with resisting the Haitian dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, and lauded in Poland as evidence that the Polish national spirit is anti-authoritarian in any form. The pavilion, and the book published to accompany it, seek to problematize any such simple understanding.

C.T. Jasper, Joanna Malinowska, Halka/Haiti. 18°48’05”N 72°23’01”W, 2015. Musicians from St. Trinity Philharmonic Orchestra, Port-Au-Prince, with conductor Grzegorz Wierus. Photo by Joanna Malinowska. Courtesy of the artists and Zachęta – National Gallery of  Art.

C.T. Jasper, Joanna Malinowska. Halka/Haiti: 18°48’05”N 72°23’01”W, 2015. Musicians from St. Trinity Philharmonic Orchestra, Port-Au-Prince, with conductor Grzegorz Wierus. Courtesy of the Artists and Zachęta – National Gallery of Art. Photo: Joanna Malinowska.

The work on view is the result of a massive production. Although the musicians were Haitian, they were not local, and the singers and film crew were imported from Poland, requiring housing, feeding, and minding. Curator Magdalena Moskalewicz likens the undertaking to Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982), a Romantic epic in which the titular antihero, played by Klaus Kinski, derails his ambitions of economic imperialism in Peru in order to pursue the mad dream of building an opera house deep in the jungle. Opera represents the “civilizing” influence of the West and is ultimately a futile goal, although it motivates Fitzcarraldo to exploit the indigenous community around him to spectacular effect. In Poland, operas such as Moniuszko’s have a similar connotation. Halka, Moskalewicz writes, is not an innovative opera but a conservative one: adopted as a national symbol by a country struggling to validate itself under occupation by stronger Western European powers, preserved as a parable of class struggle during the Communist period, and rejected by contemporary Poles seeking a more modern identity. Yet what Moniuszko does in Halka—integrating Western European structures with Polish folk motifs, and using a woman’s stolen honor as a metaphor for the exploitation of the working class—is textbook Modernism. A century later, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht’s Threepenny Opera would apply similar tactics, if with more avant-garde intentions.

C.T. Jasper, Joanna Malinowska, Halka/Haiti. 18°48’05”N 72°23’01”W, 2015. Soloists from the Poznań Opera House during performance in Cazale. Photo by Damas Porcena (Dams). Courtesy of the artists and Zachęta – National Gallery of  Art.

C.T. Jasper, Joanna Malinowska. Halka/Haiti: 18°48’05”N 72°23’01”W, 2015. Soloists from the Poznań Opera House during performance in Cazale. Courtesy of the Artists and Zachęta – National Gallery of Art. Photo: Damas Porcena (Dams).

Halka in Haiti, meanwhile, is an artifact of a distant past presented to a community to which it is only weakly connected. It is difficult to determine whether the artists’ intent is to provoke a dormant sense of nationalism among La Pologne, or whether it is to demonstrate to Poles who celebrate their countrymen’s part in the Haitian Revolution that there is little real commonality they can claim. Moskalewicz points out that the Polish nationalist narrative of Cazale—Polish partisans switched sides and aided the revolution, becoming heroes—erases the agency of the black Haitians who initiated and won their fight for independence. For Poles, having been on the receiving end of imperialism for over 200 years, this narrative holds undeniable appeal, even more so because contemporary Poland has been reshaped by past oppression into a homogenous ethnic and religious community. However it is interpreted, Halka/Haiti complicates Poland’s understanding of itself as a noble victim of colonial oppression.

Halka/Haiti: 18º 48’ 05” N 72º 23’ 01” W is on view in the Polish Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale through November 22, 2015.

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