In the Polish Pavilion, you display a panoramic projection of the opera Halka by Stanisław Moniuszko. It’s the most important opera written in Polish, which you staged and filmed in the mountain village of Cazale. Cazale was founded in the early 19th century by what remained of the Polish legionnaires. Today, their descendants call themselves Le Polone, meaning Poles, but they actually know very little about Poland. What kind of Poland and what kind of contemporary Poles did you want to present to these people?
We wanted to show Polish culture to the people of Cazale in the same way that we show it to our children in Poland. Halka is a part of the classic 19th-century repertoire, which, together with Pan Tadeusz and the paintings of Jan Matejko, we still consider to be the foundations of our national culture – the culture that is taught at schools, displayed in museums, and shown in theatres. We took Polish opera to Haiti in order to ask ourselves: "does this 19th-century literature/music/art based on the concept of national culture still say anything about us today?"
Paweł Passini, the theatre director who worked with us, was initially very reluctant to take kontusze, the traditional Polish costumes, with us to Haiti. He wanted to present a contemporary Halka, a Halka that could happen today. However, the opera actually takes place in the late 18th century – at the same time when the later inhabitants of Cazale, who at that moment were still Polish soldiers, were joining Polish Legions in Italy and before they were dispatched to fight the slave rebellion in Saint-Domingue, in 1802. Halka is a depiction of this historic moment shared by Poles and Haitians.
When Le Polone of Cazale tell their own origin story, it often begins with their ancestors fighting in the Polish Legions in Italy! For that reason, we wanted to show them the Poland that they come from, as portrayed in a prominent Polish work. Through their eyes, we also wanted to see why Halka would have significance for us today. Simultaneously, it was important to present this shared Polish-Haitian history to Polish people, since nowadays it is more known in Haiti than it is in Poland – to bring back a record of this encounter. The presentation was meant to work in both directions from the outset.
Did you consider any other opera than Halka?
Yes, for a brief moment we thought about The Haunted Manor. It was always obvious that it had to be Moniuszko, the “creator of Polish national opera” (as he is inscribed in the history of Polish music and culture). In The Haunted Manor, the anti-Russian motif seemed attractive to us, since anti-Russian sentiments were so instrumental for the shaping of Polish national identity in the 19th century. In the case of Halka, such motifs are only present in how the piece had been received, in its historic context, and not in the libretto itself.
But The Haunted Manor would be impossible logistically. Halka charmed us with the presence of highlanders, since Cazale, where we wanted to bring the opera, is located in the mountains. Plus, one does not need to know the history of Poland’s partitions in order to understand the tragic love of Halka and Janusz. Thus, we selected what would be more powerful in the Haitian context.
The Halka/Haiti project comprises your stay in Cazale, the performance, a film, and a book. How did you succeed in bringing all of this together for the display in Venice?
Whether we succeeded is a question for the public, the critics, and the reviewers. Halka/Haiti is a multilayered project and a multifarious one. It is not necessarily easy to receive it in its totality. I don’t expect that every viewer is going to see the entire eighty-two minutes of the film, or read the two-hundred-plus pages of the catalogue. And it is not essential, either – there are various points of entry for this project and various viewers will appreciate it differently.
For me as a curator, it was crucial to make these various layers – the historical, the operatic, the post-colonial, and the identity-related – visible and to adapt them for different types of audiences. For tourists and viewers in a rush, there is a brief wall text mounted in the entrance hall. For a more involved viewers, there is a leaflet with a longer explanation of the project that includes the artists’ bios and a note about the book.
Artists, curators, academics – professional viewers – can reach for the book, where they will find, among other things, the history of Cazale starting with the Napoleonic period authored by Geri Benoit who comes from the village; a literary study of the sources for Halka’s libretto by Katarzyna Czeczot; an essay addressing the relationship between slavery and feudalism, written by anthropologist Kacper Pobłocki, as well as interviews with artists, and contributions by the project’s participants. This all does not mean that the intellectual reception is any better than the aesthetic one, when the viewer finds delight in the imagery and the power of operatic singing. It’s just different.
Your project makes us realise that thanks to the Legionary soldiers in Haiti, our country is also connected with the history of colonialism – although its connection is different than that of countries from Western Europe. What kind of gestures were you trying to avoid?
That is a very good question, as there were many such gestures. We constantly doubted ourselves – at least I had numerous doubts. Is it a good thing for us to teach these young people to dance the polonaise? The kids that came to the workshops were excited, but are not we repeating the colonizers’ gestures? How to make them understand the critical element of the project?
Sometimes the descriptions of the project included a “repetition” of the gesture of Fitzcarraldo from Werner Herzog’s film, who brought the opera to a remote village within the Amazon jungle.
Personally, I was not inspired by Fitzcarraldo but rather provoked by it. The film’s message is highly problematic. Its protagonist is not so much interested in presenting the opera to the native people as he is in erecting an opera house – it is a significant difference that emphasises the motif of cultural colonisation, where the opera is a symbol of European domination. We, on the other hand, cared precisely about staging the opera and having it received among the local people.
So we can only speak about “repetition” on a very abstract, metaphoric level. In practice, we repeated very little – we are currently in a different historical moment, in a different country, where we do not aim to build an opera house, and our funds come from legal sources. The financial element was incredibly important, of course. We wanted to leave money in Haiti and in Cazale, but we also had to find the proper ways to do so, since the budget wasn’t unlimited and we wanted the money to end up in good hands. For example: the hotels in Port-au-Prince are usually owned by Haitians who live in the United States, or by Americans. Thus, we accommodated our opera group in a hotel in Ouanga Bay, at the seaside. The hotel’s owners are locally based and we had an opportunity to meet them in person. (Later, they also attended the performance.)
The recurring question that I kept asking myself was: how do we avoid using this enormous advantage that we have over these people? But without pretending that it doesn’t exist? When a UN car drove into Cazale with people throwing sweets to the children – we knew that we definitely did not want to be on that side.
Representing Haitians in the film was a separate issue. We were aware of the disgraceful tradition of early ethnographic films that were set up to stress the primitivism of the depicted people. We also did not want to arrange things in the other direction, so as to hide the visible poverty, for example. We wanted to present an existing situation, where it was important for us that the Cazalois participate both in the opera and in the movie. And they are very aware of the importance of representation. The justice of the peace who was helping us out said one day, “If you show Haiti as dirty in the film, then it’s as if you were publicly showing my dirty face.” That was very powerful, and it raised the bar very high.
Is the history of Poles in Haiti known in the international milieu? Is it understood?
Since we were just talking about representation – I was sincerely surprised to find that the viewers in Venice so often thought they were watching a film from Africa. And that many of them did not even try to hide their ignorance. “That’s in Haiti? But it looks like Africa!” Black people standing in front of wooden houses in the heat – that must be Africa! Journalists also sometimes manifested a rather scary lack of knowledge. One of the American magazines wrote, for example, that Polish is an official Haitian language. What kind of understanding of the history of Europe and the Caribbean does one have to have in order to make such a mistake?
In Poland, on the other hand, I once heard that the Caribbean is “paradise on earth…” But those are extreme examples, of course, and they say little about the reception of the project. It was especially satisfying to witness people share their own personal connections to Poland in reaction to the movie; I heard about Polish grandparents from viewers of various nationalities and ages, be it a young assistant from the Israeli pavilion or a curator from Canada.
The film evoked personal memories. Conversations in the pavilion confirmed that the audience understands the identity element of the project. Filmmakers, philosophers, and musicologists alike received the film positively. And the international press reacted enthusiastically to the Polish-Haitian history, which is almost unknown outside of Haiti. There were many articles published in many different languages. But I still await a thorough, critical review in Polish – one that would attempt to analyse the realisation of the project, not just the concept.
What was your experience of working with people who had never been to the theatre?
Well, we tried to prepare our audience for the performance by explaining what an opera is, and why Halka is important for Polish culture. The theatre director also make such an introduction at the beginning of the performance, which is recorded on film. Paweł Passini was invaluable, and his experience of working with amateurs and actors from different cultural backgrounds proved a great advantage in many situations – during the collaboration with Haitians just as much as with the Polish singers. The incredible energy with which he spoke about theatre when we first visited the Cazale high school in search of dancers was both awe-inspiring and contagious.
But it’s not that we intended to prepare the Haitians for their experience of theatre in any absolute and correct way. We were actually surprised when everybody came to the performance dressed up; we did not expect such a solemn and focused reception. The people of Cazale took Halka very seriously.
In my talk with Paweł Passini, he recalled that the people of Cazale have expectations. A young boy said, “Why did you forget us?” One of the teachers asked, “What are we going to get from this? We would like for our students to go to Poland.” Or others, who asked “And? Just like Professor Leszek – you will come and you will go?” They were referring to Professor Leszek Kolankiewicz who conducted his research in Cazale, like Grotowski some time earlier. Recently, Bartek Konopka made his film there, entitled "The Art of Disappearing". What was it like when you were leaving?
First, we were forced to practically run away. The performance took place on Saturday, on Sunday we were planning to visit all of our collaborators with a thank you and some small gifts, in order to leave on Monday. But it turned out that a big national transportation strike was planned for Monday, where it would be impossible to travel without running into riots. It was one in a series of strikes, and the previous ones were bloody.
All of our collaborators and advisors urged us to leave straight away, or we otherwise would not be able to fly out of Haiti. We are talking about seventeen people, quite a large group – eight people from the The Poznań Opera House team, plus the director and the choreographer, a three-person film crew plus two sound engineers, Joanka Waśko from Zachęta–National Gallery of Art, Joanna and C.T., and myself. There was also a Haitian photographer Damas Porcena, based in Port-au-Prince, whom we hired to document the performance.
The moment of shared celebration was then immediately interrupted by harsh reality. The reality that carries with it the realization: The people of Cazale need international attention and strategic developmental support much more that they need the opera. We were not able to offer them such help, which was very difficult and raised doubts about the project itself. We wanted to make it clear to the Cazalois from the outset that, unfortunately, our project was a one-time event. That we wouldn’t establish regular dance workshop in the village, and we wouldn’t come with a new performance every year – which we were asked to do.
We did not want to make any empty promises that would help us act, but that some other Pole would be made accountable for later. Still, we were also aware that these expectations – like the organisation of music classes in a local high school, for example – were addressed to us simply because there was nobody else who would listen. In Haiti, there have been no local elections since 2011, so there are no structures in place that one could turn to with similar requests.
We intend to return to Cazale in order to show its community the film we showed in Venice, and we care about keeping in touch, which we currently do via the internet. But it’s impossible to fulfill the expectations and requests that were addressed to us; we can only pass them on to others. Once of the goals of the project, and the reasons for its presence both in Venice and in Poland, is to draw the attention of the Polish government as well as non-governmental organisations to these expectations and real needs of the people of Cazale (and Haitians more generally). I do hope that Halka/Haiti will make at least a small contribution to the visibility of this community in the international arena.
In an interview for the Notes na 6 Tygodni (Notepad for 6 Weeks), you said that it’s not important what you want to achieve with this project, but what you will find out. What did you find out?
I found out that I am white. It may sound banal, but I am serious. What I mean is that only when I found myself in a country where white people are such a minority, had I experienced so strongly – on my own skin, so to speak – what racial prejudice really means. Of course, I live in the multicultural and multiethnic New York City, so the concept is not alien to me. But it was only in Haiti that I was personally impacted by racial prejudice for the first time.
There, being white meant automatically that I was rich and of high social status. Haitian society is extremely stratified, and the class divisions still go hand in hand with skin colour. The lighter the skin tone, the higher the status. As a white person, I was treated almost like an aristocrat, with respect, but also with high expectations – of money or of support.
It was difficult for me to find myself in this role; role that I couldn’t simply abandon, due to the colour of my skin. I gained an understanding that was deeper, because it was personal, of just how privileged we are as white people in the post-colonial world. As Poles we are often unaware of this since we only see ourselves as the victims of imperialism, who suffered like nobody else.
This is what I would like the viewers of Halka/Haiti to learn. The popularisation of knowledge about Polish Haitians is an incentive to speak about Polish national identity as well as about the Polish presence on the post-colonial map of the world. (As these are not only the former colonies that are post-colonial; post-colonialism is a condition of the entire contemporary world.) As a second-world country, and as victims of European imperialism, we rarely view ourselves in this context. And if we ever do – we would like to see ourselves either as suffering victims or as heroes.
This is why the history of Polish soldiers in Haiti is so resonant in Poland today. On a basic level of understanding, it delivers a heroic narrative about Polish merits. In the story, we can recognise our compatriots as righteous citizens turning against the evil colonizers and sympathising with the oppressed. This type of narrative goes hand in hand with our other nation-making myths. The trouble with it is, however, that it is incomplete and harmful.
In my essay included in the catalogue, I propose to read this history through the beautiful argument made by Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot. In his article, which is also reprinted in the book, Trouillot speaks about the global silencing of the Haitian Revolution. By emphasizing Polish contributions to Haiti’s struggle for independence, we undermine the role of the black insurgents themselves. The Revolution in Saint-Domingue lasted years, going through different phases from 1791. Poles only arrived there in 1803, and we are talking about merely a few hundred soldiers who ended the war on the side of the black insurgents. If we inverse the perspective, however, it turns out that it was actually the Haitians who freed Polish peasants from serfdom by granting land ownership to these soldiers, who as a result stayed in Haiti. Such a privilege was inaccessible on Polish territories for many decades to come. Thus, we were not exclusively heroes in this episode of history. Just as today, we are not simply the former victims of European imperialism.
In the performance, actors from the Poznań Opera House sing in Polish. You decided not to add English subtitles to the video projection of the performance in the Polish pavilion. Why didn’t you want to have them?
We wanted the experience of the Venetian viewer to be similar to that of the viewer from Cazale. There were no subtitles in Haiti, why should the Venice audience be so privileged? This would create a voyeuristic situation, where the Biennale audience could be peeking into the Haitian event, provided with extra explanation for easier consumption.
That is not at all what we were after. The lack of subtitles allowed people to better concentrate on the film – rather than on reading the libretto – and for experiencing the strangeness of the situation; similarly to how we felt there. It’s important that the film is presented on a circular screen sixteen metres long and three metres high. The figures in the moving image are life-sized, and the road where the performance was staged seems to be opening right in front of us. This allows the audience to “enter” into the image, and is very well received by the public.
Those interested can certainly find fragments of the libretto translated into English in the catalogue. But the knowledge of the libretto lines is not necessary to understand the operatic story in the form that we present it. I was not aware of this myself until I heard the soloists of the Poznań opera sing for Haitians on that mountain road.
The incredible expression of this singing and its enormous power, combined with the acting tells the whole story of Halka practically without words. Operatic singing has an unparalleled expressive and narrative power and this is also what I found out during my work on this project.
During an event as big as the Biennale, a viewer who enters each pavilion for only a few minutes can only have a fragmented reception of your 80-minute-long video.
As I said, the film can be received on different levels. I did not fool myself that anyone would watch the 82-minute-long film in full at the Biennale, an event with such a density of art. Similar reservations were already made to us during editing, but I don’t find the festival nature of the biennale a good enough reason to cut the work down or otherwise adjust it to go with the insane pace of today’s art events. Besides, we should do away with the imperative of totality and the assumption that fragmented equals “bad”, and that partly is the same as not-at-all.
We were pleasantly surprised that many people did sit in the pavilion and watch. I would like to believe that it wasn’t only because the pavilion had very good air-conditioning! Many viewers returned. They often wanted to see the film from the beginning, and they asked which moment is being played right now, or they attempted to catch fragments they had previously missed. That was incredibly satisfying. Our initial assumptions were wrong – we often underestimate reception capacities and the level of engagement of art audiences.
Warsaw – New York, July 2015