3.8 / Without Price and With(out) Worth

Interview with Romel Jean Pierre

By crystal am nelson February 1, 2012

In December 2011, I traveled to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as a participating artist in the 2nd Ghetto Biennale (November 28–December 18, 2011), a growing international art festival that brings artists from around the world to convene in a nation better known for its challenges from political unrest and natural disasters than for its contributions to the global art scene. For three weeks of intense, site-specific art making, we hunkered down in the heart of Port-au-Prince in its perhaps most challenged district, known as the Grand Rue, collaborating with our host group Atis Rezistans, a collective of contemporary assemblage artists, all of whom grew up and still reside in this part of the city. Cofounded by André Eugène and Jean Hérard Celeur, Atis Rezistans is a multi-generational group of artists who work with the urban detritus that surrounds and composes their neighborhood. Vodou and male sexual prowess figure heavily into their works, which often feature skeletal remains and large phalluses, but what is most prominent is the recognizable compulsion to take what remains in the wake of failure and transform it into something sublime. It is important not to label this practice as quaint. These are serious artists who have exhibited and sold works internationally, even if they have not traveled as widely as some international artists. Despite the artists’ growing reputations, obtaining visas remains notoriously difficult for the members of Atis Rezistans, especially to travel to the United States.

During my stay, I had the opportunity to talk with a young member of the movement, the sculptor and media artist Romel Jean Pierre who, despite only joining the group in 2009, exhibited in the 2011 Art Basel Miami fair and has collaborated with international nongovernmental organizations on major video projects. Over the course of an hour, we discussed what it means to be Haitian, what it means to be a contemporary artist, and what happens when the two converge.

crystal am nelson: Can you talk a little bit about the Biennale? What is the Ghetto Biennale?

Romel Jean Pierre: The Ghetto Biennale is a big event. It’s an event like the Venice Biennale, but we call it the Ghetto Biennale because a biennial is something big that allows you to connect with other artists to make other forms of art. We call this the Ghetto Biennale because it happens in the ghetto and it takes place in a poor community. The Biennale is a sort of art revolution, to prove to the bourgeoisie that the people in the poor towns in Haiti can collaborate with artists from all over the world, in Haiti, and make some really good art and express themselves.

CN: The first Ghetto Biennale was in 2009—that’s when you first became involved with Atis Rezistans. How did you get involved with Atis Rezistans? Were you already living in the Grand Rue?

TeleGhetto. Haiti Introduction, 2010; video, 4:20. Courtesy of the Artists.

RJP: I was staying at the boys dormitory at the Haitian Adventist University, and I had just returned home to visit my family. And my family said, “Okay, you will not go back to the boys dormitory because you live too far from us and you don’t have time to see your family. You have to stay at the Grand Rue.” During my stay at the Grand Rue, I heard about the Biennale. I heard that it’s a big event that has a lot of international artists and local artists working together, to create something and to show to the world they are able to create together, and that they are one.

When I heard about it, I said, “I have to go to this place. I have to know what happens here because I am very passionate about art.” For me, art is another way to communicate. When I joined Atis Rezistans, I met André Eugène, Jean Hérard Celeur, and other people, and they said, “Romel, what happened? We heard about you, man. We heard you are a smart guy, and we would love you to stay here and help us.” After that, I was very involved in all things happening in Atiz Rezistans and the Grand Rue.

CN: Who are Eugène and Celeur?

RJP: Eugène and Celeur are the two founders of Atis Rezistans. When you think of resistance, you think of fighting and resisting against something. You have to fight against something, so they called the group Atis Rezistans. Eugène is one of the principal cofounders and is the spokesman for Atis Rezistans. Celeur, the other cofounder, is also someone very special for the group; he is the one who is more close to the young people at the Grand Rue.

CN: Are Eugène and Celeur mentors? Do they teach the other artists? Are they your teachers?

RJP: No. They don’t teach at university or a college or an art institute. I really agree with them because art doesn’t have to be taught. For example, I will never go to school to learn about art because art is yourself. If someone teaches you how to draw, how to paint, how to create sculpture, this person teaches you his own art, but he doesn’t teach you your art. Art has to come from your heart; it has to be like an expression of what you think. Eugène and Celeur just say for you to be free; just express what you want. To make what you want, you have to make that with the spirit of a Vodou spirit. But they especially ask us to express something because art is like therapy for us.

CN: What were you studying before you became an artist?

RJP: When I was at university, it was not like a typical university: it was a university campus with a high school, and I was in the high school. I was also living on the campus. I studied academic and vocational courses like other high school students. I was also in extracurricular programs, like the soccer and art clubs. I usually consider myself a writer because I love to write anything on my mind, and I prefer to write because the word is more powerful than anything. When you’re speaking, people can forget about that, but when you’re writing something, people will always see the text. I was in the literature club, too, before I became a part of Atis Rezistans.

CN: Do you miss what you were doing before? Do you miss writing and the soccer club, or are you more focused now on Atis Rezistans?

RJP: I really don’t know. I say that because I’m still playing soccer; I’m still writing. I wrote something about the earthquake. And I make art. I make video. For me, art is not only painting, drawing, making sculpture—it’s a way of life. So, I don’t know. When I’m lauaghing, it’s art. When I’m crying, it’s art. When I’m saying, “Oh, you are beautiful,” it’s art.

CN: What kinds of things do you focus on now, as a media artist? What are some of the topics that you deal with in your work?

RJP: I actually call myself a media maker. In my role as a media maker, two friends and I created a videographic and artistic program called TeleGhetto Haiti. It’s on YouTube and Facebook. For the 2nd Biennale, we created a project called What Is Your Dream? We asked a lot of people what their dreams are because Haiti needs some strong dreams to rebuild. Following the 2010 earthquake, Haiti has to be rebuilt by its children. So, the project asked what the dreams of the Haitian people are, for our country and for themselves.

crystal am nelson. My Man aka Romel Jean Pierre, from the project Sa Soti Direkteman Potoprins (Straight Outta Port-au-Prince), 2011; multi-media. Courtesy of the Artist.

CN: Are you interviewing people in the street? Are you asking young Haitian people what their dreams are?

RJP: Yes. The project is not like a journalistic interview. [A viewer] will see the image of the person saying, “My dream is…” But for this project, Alex Louis (a member of Atis Rezistans) and I chose to interview only young people because we think that young people are the future of Haiti.

CN: Are you talking to them mainly about Haiti after the earthquake, or are you talking about the entire history of Haiti—what Haiti was even before the earthquake happened?

RJP: A lot of people think when you say dream, it’s when you sleep and you see something. But dreaming is more than that. A dream is something you will be and something you want to be. Also, it’s something anyone can describe. We just ask what their dream is. They just answer freely. It’s art. That’s art. You give the people a free way to speak how they want. We just ask them, we just explain to them the project; we want to know their dreams, and we give them some information about the project, what we will do with it. Some people dream about Haitian independence, but we also have some people say they dream about a new Haiti. Haiti will have buildings like Toronto, Montreal, New York, Amsterdam—a modern Haiti. You will see; you ought to see a Haiti like that.

CN: What are some of the other things that people say they dream about? Are any of the comments not about Haiti?

RJP: This is the funny part of the project. For example, this morning we interviewed a girl, and she said she wants to be a big bitch. I said, “What!?” She wants to be a big whore, a bitch. I said, “Why?” “Because I want to have sex with a lot of men.” I said, “Whoa. That’s your dream?” She said, “Yes, that’s my dream. I’m free to say my dream.” I said okay, but we have some people who dream to become a nurse, president, prime minister, senator. But that is her dream.

TeleGhetto. Pre-Elections Interview, 2010; video, 2:57. Courtesy of the Artists.

CN: And it’s a collaboration between you and another member of Atis Rezistans?

RJP: No, it’s a collaboration between me, Alex Louis, Steevens Simeon, and Robert Gomez, who studies at the California College of the Arts.

CN: Do you like collaborating internationally? Do you like working with artists from other countries?

RJP: I love to work with artists from other countries. Even if they are from other countries, they are human. And also, they are artists. There is no U.S. world, no European world, no Oceania or Asiatic world. There’s only a world of humans—of men and women. So, yes, I like to work with humans like me.

CN: You speak English, but do you sometimes find that working in Haiti with artists who don’t speak either Creole or French is very difficult?

RJP: Art has no language because art is just expression. If an artist has a project like TeleGhetto, we have to communicate because we have to edit video, we have to ask questions, we have to know the way we will film the topic. But it’s not really hard because the artists know we will work with each other. Even though we cannot all say English or Creole words, we’ll try to figure it out. The language is not the problem. The real problem is when you don’t have cooperation and can’t really find the way to realize your project.

CN: How do you achieve cooperation?

RJP: It’s easy, very easy. Before you start a project with a person, you have to begin a friendship with him or her. You have to make this person feel free, relaxed, like we’re in a brotherly atmosphere. After making friends with the person, you begin the project. And when you are friends with someone, it is easy to communicate with them even though you don’t speak the same language. Our project is going well because all of the people are together. All of the people are working, playing, and having fun together.

CN: Can you talk about some of your other collaborations besides TeleGhetto?

RJP: In the summer of 2011, I visited New York, Philadelphia, and Maine. I collaborated with Dr. Myron Beasley, a professor at Bates College, to present TeleGhetto to the students, and I gave a speech about Haitian culture and the rebuilding of Haiti. TeleGhetto was working with Global Nomads Group, an NGO specializing in student relationships. We were video producers for a program named Students Rebuild, and we collaborated with Architecture for Humanity in a program named Art in Haitian Schools, and we actually work with [the artist] JR on a project named Inside Out. Also, now we work with Roberto Gomez, and we have some other projects.

CN: How was your time traveling through the United States? 

RJP: It was very beautiful. It was good and very special.  

CN: Did the people in the places you visited know that there was contemporary art being made in Haiti?

RJP: People in Maine knew before I arrived because Eugène had already been there. I was the second Haitian artist from Atis Rezistans to go to Maine. But people did not know that Haitians had so much potential and knowledge. They said, “Oh my god, we want to be like you, Romel. Please, can you stay with us for a while and teach us something? Because we want to be like you.” Now they know the importance of Haiti in the world.

crystal am nelson. Sa Soti Direkteman Potoprins (Straight Outta Port-au-Prince), 2011; film still. Courtesy of the Artist.

CN: Do you believe, then, that artists in Haiti are the ones who are going to help bridge that gap between Haiti and the rest of the world?

RJP: We have a philosopher (I don’t remember his name) who said the culture is the only thing that persists longer than everything else. I believe that. Because our culture is one of the only things we have left after we lose everything. We lost our independence; we actually have U. S. soldiers in Haiti. We lost our economic independence. We lost a little bit our political independence. But we will never lose our culture. So, yes, culture and artists can be the ambassadors of Haiti for all over the world.

CN: And do you think that artists and writers will be the ones to lead the rebuilding of Haiti?

RJP: It’s not only the artists who should rebuild Haiti. Haiti has to be rebuilt by all of its children because artists are not able to do anything and everything. We artists already do our job. Our job is to promote Haiti all over the world. It’s like being an ambassador of Haitian culture. We do that. I went to Maine, and because of me people from Maine are coming to visit Haiti. Alex [Louis] went to New York, and there are a lot of New Yorkers coming here because of him. So, yes, we will do a lot, but other people—politicians, middle-class citizens—have to rebuild also. We artists can’t afford to rebuild all of Haiti.

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