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Artist, curator, collector, researcher, director and a prominent educator about Haitian culture, a country little known by anything other than natural disasters and political upheavals; the more that we find about her life the easier is to understand the interconnections across perceived disparities and a life devoted to art and storytelling.
The art of Leah Gordon has many layers; an outer one of immaculate aesthetics down to a core of scrupulously researched history, heritage, and myth. A narrative that deepens into fragments of stories that would otherwise be forgotten or gone unnoticed, sunk between the paragraphs of the history books. In an art world plagued with hollowness, hype and cultural appropriation, the authenticity of Gordon’s work swims upstream into cultural recognition and celebration.
Leah Gordon works across a variety of media including photography, film and installations, Recurring themes of her work are Modernism and architecture; the slave trade and industrialisation; and grassroots religious, class and folk histories. Her photography offers a rare glimpse into the life of the Haitian people; giving us unprecedented access to a world invisible to most foreign observers. Surveying these photographs reveals unexpected couplings: mysticism and civil society; secrecy and spectacle; solemnity and celebration; patriarchy and grace.
Gordon’s film and photographic work has been showcased by the most prestigious art institutions around the world, from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney to the National Portrait Gallery, London; Her curatorial talent is also well regarded internationally. She was a curator for the Haitian Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale; as well as guest curator for the 2016 NYC Outsider Art Fair.
Last but not least, Gordon is the curator of the Ghetto Biennale; a one of a kind cross-cultural arts festival held in two adjacent neighbourhoods in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. It is hosted by the artists’ collective, Atis Rezistans, and co-directed by Leah Gordon and her partner Andre Eugene. The Ghetto Biennale momentarily transforms spaces, dialogues and relationships considered un-navigable and unworkable into transcultural, creative platforms. The Ghetto Biennale has realised a ‘chaotic, amorphous, de-institutionalised space’ for artistic production that offers a vibrant creative platform to artists from wide socioeconomic classes.
You were born in Ellesmere Port, equidistant Liverpool, a city built upon the slave trade, and Manchester, built upon the industrial revolution, themes that are recurrent in your work. How was your childhood? What experiences shaped your personal and artistic journey?
I am very proud of Ellesmere Port in many conflicting ways. as my father always said ‘if the mersey is the arsehole of England then Ellesmere Port is half way up it!’…which pretty much sums it up. When I was a child there was probably 100% employment at Shell Stanlow, Vauxhalls, Carbon Black and Bowaters. This was a utopian era for the british working class, but since Thatcherism it has declined and lacking the infrastructure for touristic gentrification has been allowed to sink into a high smack rate – low employment rate stupor.
We lived on a low-rise council estate, but life was great and family and community coherence was very strong. I was a slightly odd child, an only child, in that i could read very early and had read all the C.S. Lewis books before I was five. I had an early interest in magic, witches, and at the age of eight started a ‘voodoo’ club at my school, very quickly shut down, but which considering my eventual interests was bizarrely precedent.
I wanted a lens before I even knew their real power. – Leah Gordon
When was the first time that you stood behind the lens of a camera?
The first real experience of the lens…or of looking…was owning at five years old a little plastic pretend camera which when pointed at light and by clicking the mechanism circulated small transparencies of beautiful views. after that when I was ten years old my father won a Kodak Instamatic in a competition and gave it to me.
When I was ten years old I declared I wanted to direct films, which whilst I lived in a town where it was considered the best thing you could achieve as a woman was to be a hairdresser, was considered quite shocking.
I was also influenced by ‘The Prisoner’ on TV and most influencially ‘The ruling class’ with Peter O’toole and ‘If’ with Malcolm McDowell as films.
In the 80s you wrote music and played for a feminist folk punk band. How would you describe that period of your life?
Feminist punk folk gave me, as a lyricist, that chance to imagine the female voice of the British peasantry and fisherfolk. It always felt to me that within British folk songs women had been sidelined to the role of sitting in a flower strewn valley as an object of love. In The Doonicans we wanted to, in some small way, reconfigure the folk gender action narrative.
I was never an actual punk and don’t even know many punk songs…but the post-punk period was one of the most invigorating and exciting periods in the creative life of the UK…there were a fantastic proliferation of independent publishing, recording and distribution companies…and they made the UK into one of the most creative and exciting places to be a performing and musical artist. In fact I was a performance poet before I started working within The Doonicans.
When did Haiti appear in your personal landscape?
As I said earlier I, at some point, instinctively drew toward vodou and also as a withdrawn only child I was attracted to books about the esoteric and magical such as Alan Garner, Susan Cooper and Madelaine D’Engle so an interest in the magic was always within me.
I was woking for the communist party in 1991 as one of their van drivers for their book distribution warehouses. I was relaxing one evening in December and the BBC holiday programme came on and Jill Dando was presenting from the Dominican Republic…it was snowing outside and I was intensely affected by the onscreen warm climate…finally Jill Dando concluded by saying this was an ideal family holiday but do not make the mistake of going to the other part of the island…Haiti…land of military coups, dictatorships, vodou and death.
I thought WOW all that and hot weather…and read about the Haitian slaves revolt, Duvalier’s dictatorship and the Aristide revolution within a week and then after three more weeks left alone for Haiti.
Why did the modernism vs mysticism dichotomy appear in your work?
I am intrigued with the relationship between the modern and magic…at first seemingly antithetical but the more I look the first is often either propped up by the second or often even the Modern creates and depends upon its own forms of magic to survive. ‘The Magic of the State’ by Michael Taussig being an important book for me but also finding that the high priest of Modernism himself, Corbusier, was a Freemason and Occultist.
Your work is very meticulous, in a way feels close to what historians and anthropologists do. How much of Haitian cultural heritage is preserved through art?
I co-curated the exhibition called ‘Kafou’ at Nottingham Contemporary and we, Alex Farquharson and I, attempted to exhibit a survey of Haitian popular (lower class) art from the early 20th century to the current contemporary period. The narrative that we were presenting was from a particular class position and at the same time we were aware that there were many conflicting class and national positions for exhibiting Haitian art that we were at the same time missing.
A white woman partnered with a black man in a country reigned by mysticism. How was it to adjust to a perceived totally different culture? What is taboo in Haiti?
My piece of work ‘Caste’ is a way of asking the question ‘what rights do I have of assuming Haitian history as my history?’ – and by the way I do see Haitian history as my history – the enclosure act was the internal brutalism affected upon my own ancestors which created the primarily powerless industrial working class – then the miracle ‘collective bargaining’ occurred and the industrial world changed!
What did you mean when you wrote ‘I see no futures only the past. Haiti is my sole speculative’?
When I say ‘I see no futures only past’ – it’s because I can only understand the present via the past especially the turbulences of the epochal capitalist accumulations of the 18th and 19th centuries. Also I have become increasingly seduced by the writings of John Zerzan, the theorist of the anarcho-primitavists and do think that human life was in a far better place as hunter gatherers before the agrarian revolution which created surplus, hierarchy and forced labour.
I say ‘Haiti is my sole speculative’ because the state has not yet been able to destroy the informal economies in Haiti. I think that the informal economies are one of the best forms of resistance to capital now that neo-liberalism destroyed collective bargaining. The creation of wealth that came from colonialism, the slave trade and the industrial revolution was deeply disturbed by collective bargaining…and now I think capital still hopes to achieve the gains of colonialism and slavery under different names and systems.
To find out more about Leah Gordon’s work, visit leahgordon.co.uk