The More Things Change: Haitian Art in the Western Imaginary

Hector Hyppolite – Damballah La Flambeau, c1946 (Image source: Wikimedia)

Two troubling documents came to my desk recently and, well, they put a few more bees in my bonnet (it’s becoming a bit of a hive in there!). One was a promotional article on a concurrent suite of three “Frieze Week” exhibitions of Haitian art in London that appeared in the Telegraph; the other was an e-newsletter about what is curiously named a “Ghetto Tarot Retreat,” which is to be held in January at a beach resort in Haiti.

Combined, these two documents reminded me that when it comes to the representation of Haitian art, and the very problematic imaginaries about Haiti and Haitian culture that have surrounded this, it always seems to be “one step forward, two steps backward.” Frustratingly, it appears that any attempt at pushing the critique and at leveling the playing field (and there have been some serious and sincere efforts in recent years) is predictably followed or accompanied by efforts, witless or deliberate, to  reestablish the old, patently problematic narratives. And what bothers me about these two instances, is that they illustrate that it is first and foremost the Euro-American market of Haitian art which seems to crave and produce such narratives, and swiftly reproduces them whenever they seem to slip away. If they have every really slipped away, that is.

The Ghetto Tarot Retreat strikes me as belonging to the “witless” category, not that this is any less damaging, no matter how it is couched in glib rhetoric of healing and goodwill. When I initially heard about the Ghetto Tarot deck, which was produced in 2015 by the artist Alice Smeets and which is now marketed online, I rather naively thought it was a cool project and a witty, visually and culturally interesting photographic re-interpretation of traditional Tarot, that built on the work of the Atis Rezistans and Ghetto Biennale, two initiatives that are based in the inner cities of Port-au-Prince. Looking back, I recognize that this project was from the start very problematic, as it fetishizes notions about the “ghetto” and co-opts and trivializes the cultural and artistic practices depicted, to produce an exotic commodity for the thriving Euro-American “spiritualism industry.”

And if there was any shred of doubt left about the problematic nature of the Ghetto Tarot project, this was removed by the description in the Ghetto Tarot Retreat announcement. Alice Smeets, who is originally from Eupen, Belgium, but apparently spends significant time in Haiti, describes herself as a photographer, artist, and life coach, as well as a “psychonaut” and “status-quo challenger.” In her bio, she claims that, having moved away from producing photographs that depicted poverty and hopelessness, as this was apparently too depressing, she now uses”photography art as well as photojournalism to help transform our world, but this time [focuses] on the solutions instead of the problems.”

And apparently, the Ghetto Tarot Retreat, which is organized by Smeets and her best friend Kerrie O’Reilly from Ireland, another life coach (although more florid terms are again used),  is part of those solutions. The tagline for the event is: “palmtrees, white sand, fresh coconuts,” and the rest almost reads like satire. Candidate participants are advised that:  “The Ghetto Tarot cards were created to bring you in touch with your deepest truths. We will use the cards as a tool to discover our purpose in life, our suppressed self and the reason behind feeling lost, depressed or unhappy;” and: “To make it extra fun we will visit the artists of the Ghetto Tarot in their Ghetto Art Gallery in Port-au-Prince.” So yes, by spending time on a beach, doing Ghetto Tarot readings and such things, and by participating in a guided excursion to the actual “Ghetto,” participants will be tapping into their “deepest truths,” recover their happiness and overcome depression. I don’t know if I should laugh or cry but, then again, I just read today about Melanie Trump wearing a pith helmet on her official visit to Kenya, so cultural insensitivity is apparently the order of the day. And of course, I was immediately reminded of the tarot-reading virgin psychic Solitaire in James Bond’s Live and Let Die (1973), which is not coincidentally set in the fictional Caribbean island of San Monique and presents a filmic narrative that is riddled with lurid allusions to Haiti and Vodou.

I have not contacted Alice Smeets (she is welcome to comment, though) and only have sketchy, third party information about the business arrangements involved, but I have to question if and how the “ghetto” community has benefited from this, financially and in terms of how it reflects on the community’s own art initiatives. I have sought and received the following statement from Andre Eugene and Leah Gordon, the organizers of the Ghetto Biennale: “As the joint directors of the Ghetto Biennale we simply want to state that this set of tarot card photographs and subsequent vacation project are in no way linked with our project. Atis Rezistans are also deeply disappointed that the artist [is] glibly renaming their space ‘Ghetto Art Gallery’ thus negating their own identity and agency.”

Chung, Andrea - Come back to yourself
Andrea Chung – Come Back to Yourself, c2012 (Photo courtesy of the Artist, all rights reserved)

Had Ms Smeets and Ms O’Reilly organized a spiritual self-discovery retreat like this in the picturesque countryside around Eupen, or in Ireland, leaving Haiti out of it entirely, or had she even just left the “ghetto” designation (or is it a justification?) out of what is basically a luxury retreat in Haiti, it would perhaps just have warranted a few amused eye-rolls. As it stands, however, the Ghetto Tarot Retreat illustrates the very problematic way in which places such as Haiti are constructed and mobilized as sites for self-discovery and -redemption and for what can, in this case, only be described as  narcissistic self-indulgence. The newsletter came to my attention when it was posted to the Critical.Caribbean.Art Facebook group by the artist Andrea Chung, who is based in California and who has her family roots in Jamaica and Trinidad. Chung’s own work, among other things, questions the narratives that are constructed around race, culture and society in Caribbean tourism. I have illustrated above an Andrea Chung collage from 2012 in which she powerfully critiques exactly the sort of perceptions and constructs that inform the Ghetto Tarot Retreat concept and juxtaposes them pointedly to the socio-political contradictions of the postcolonial Caribbean.

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