Polish Pavilion Honors Haitian Tie

Venice -- Brooklyn-based artists C. T. Jasper and Joanna Malinowska are representing Poland at the 56th Venice Biennale. Their video installation, which is a staged opera in rural Haiti, celebrates a little-known historic connection between the two countries.

Art collectors of Art Kabinett social media network are eager to view this video which will be shown in the Polonia Pavilion.

The couple’s project, 'Halka/Haiti', owes much to Werner Herzog’s 1982 film Fitzcarraldo, a visionary tale of a madman fixated on the idea of bringing opera to the Amazon.

When asked why they chose Haiti, Jasper referred to the connection between Haiti and Poland:

Polish soldiers were sent by Napoleon to Haiti in 1802 and 1803 to put down the slave rebellion but instead they joined the rebels. In January, 1804, Haiti declared independence, and white people were prohibited to own property there -- with the exception of the Poles, in gratitude for their defection from Napoleon’s army.

The Haitian Constitution of 1805 stated in Articles 12 and 13 that ‘no White man may hold land in Haiti apart from Germans (who had a small community there) and Polanders.’

Many of the soldiers settled down in Haiti and were given honorary legal status for their contribution to the revolution. In some villages today, over 200 years later, there are Haitians with Slavic features -- blond hair, blue eyes -- descendants of the soldiers.

Polish is an honorary language of Haiti. A study of surnames in parts of Haiti shows many that were Polish in origin but were Gallicized to sound French, with the final syllable, such as “ski,” lopped off.

Poland and Haiti also share a religion, and the image of the Black Madonna -- a Polish icon -- is worshipped on the island, although the Haitians also practice voodoo, an instance of the consequences of cultural import and export, which is a major preoccupation of 'Halka/Haiti'.

Halka Opera

The story of Halka is classic and was first performed in Vilnius in its entirety in 1848 -- a Polish Madame Butterfly.

A peasant beauty from the highlands, Halka is seduced by Janusz, a rich landowner who then abandons her. The opera begins with his engagement to a young woman of his own class and proceeds to its tragic denouement. “It lasts over three hours,” Jasper said, “but we cut it to its essentials for the performance we staged in Cazale, the village we chose for the production.

“Halka is considered to be the national opera of Poland,” Jasper said.

Much more than a love story, it’s nationalistic, politically progressive, combining folk culture with a critique of Poland’s feudal system and the exploitation of the peasants. It is possibly the first operatic libretto written in Polish.

The couple filmed the project using four cameras to create a sense of total immersion. “We wanted a 360-degree angle, four-channel work, choosing sequences and putting them together during post-production,” explained Malinowska.

Difficult to Film

Jasper and Malinowska visited Haiti a couple of times, first in October 2014 to determine the viability of the project and the location, choosing Cazale, which is situated in a mountainous region about 28 miles from Port-au-Prince.

They selected Cazale because it was the center for the Poloné, the descendents of the Napoleonic troops. The town's name is believed to be a mash-up of Haitian Creole for “home” and the Polish surname “Zaleski.”

They returned two months later, in December, to make preparations and finally to film, which they did this past February in an intense, two-week session.

The cast and crew were a mix of Poles and Haitians, with the soloists from the Poznan Opera House, the musicians from the Holy Trinity Philharmonic Orchestra of Port-au-Prince, and the dancers from Cazale.

The logistics were difficult, more complicated than they anticipated, and it took a great deal of time to figure out how to do things and negotiate the details.

Ruined Infrastructure

Haiti is still in ruins from the massive earthquake that struck it in 2010. Infrastructure for filming is virtually non-existent. Port-au-Prince is worse off than Cazale, its Edenic landscape cloaking the devastation, which can almost be forgotten. Malinowska described the river in the mountains where everyone, including the artists, bathed in the morning.

They also wanted to build a relationship with the people in the village, which is another reason for making multiple visits.

“We couldn’t start without involving the community and explaining to them what we were planning to do—not always easy. Our translator didn’t even know the term ‘opera’ in Creole. We also didn’t want to use our cameras without permission, since many are reluctant to be photographed,” Jasper explained.

The artists had many stories about their interaction with the villagers, recalling how Malinowska attempted to communicate with the Cazaleans, at times in “broken French.”

The Haitians were suspicious at first. Once, at a large community meeting in the high school, where they went to invite people to be dancers in their production, the headmaster asked the couple to prove they were artists -- could they sing or dance?

Not knowing what else to do, they danced a polonaise, the traditional dance graduating Polish high-school students perform at the start of the studniówka (the dance that takes place 100 days before final exams). The kids watching them clapped and laughed at the auditioners becoming the auditioned.

Moskalewicz, when asked what she thought, responded that, coming from a very homogenous country -- culturally, ethnically, linguistically -- where national identity remains an urgent discussion, she has found it fascinating to take Halka to “such a different context and see what it can tell us about Polish national identity today, how we still define our national identity through 19th-century artistic forms, and how this influences our self-image?"

While drawn to and touched by Fitzcarraldo and his obsession with bringing European culture to the Amazon, Jasper and Malinowska acknowledge the madness and arrogance of his romanticism.

Today's homepage Featured Art Video offers a mazurka from the famous opera. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8XhgXjC70kE&sns=em