Polish Haitians, ‘Halka,’ & a Book Launch You Should Check Out Tomorrow, 07/09

Staging 'Halka' for the residents of Cazale, located in the mountains of Haiti c/o labiennale.art.pl
Staging ‘Halka’ for the residents of Cazale, located in the mountains of Haiti c/o labiennale.art.pl

To be honest, I rarely leave Brooklyn unless I have to run an errand. And yet, there’s a book launch event tomorrow for Halka/Haiti 18°48’05″N 72°23’01″W at CANADA Gallery that may just lure me onto the G & J trains.

What is this book with the long name, you ask? What is Halka? And how are Poland and Haiti involved? What makes this so intriguing? Read on for the scoop.

Halka is an opera by Polish composer Stanisław Moniuszko set to a libretto written by Włodzimierz Wolski. It was first performed in 1848, and has since joined the canon of Polish national operas because the melodies are beautiful, the lyrics tug on heartstrings, and the love story is tragic (with political overtones)—Halka, who is just a poor village girl, falls in love with the nobleman Janusz. He loves her back for a hot second (and long enough to get her pregnant) until he abandons her to marry up. The first act opens with Janusz’s engagement party to a wealthy landowner’s daughter and with Halka crying right outside.

This is where it gets tricky: Two Polish artists, C.T. Jasper and Joanna Malinowska, and curator Magdalena Moskalewicz, decided to bring Halka to Haiti after being inspired by the title character in Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo, which centers on an Irishman obsessed with building an opera house in his small Peruvian city.

Jaspers & Malinowska c/o Photo: Barbara Kaja Kaniewska via e-flux.com
Jasper & Malinowska c/o Photo: Barbara Kaja Kaniewska via e-flux.com

In an attempt to undercut Fitzcarraldo’s colonial romanticism, Jasper and Malinowska revisited Polish history and decided to stage the opera in Cazale, a Haitian village located roughly 45 miles away from Port-au-Prince and inhabited by the descendants of the Polish soldiers who fought for the Haitian Revolution in the early 1800s.

While this revolution was only briefly touched upon in my high school textbooks, it was important for a number of reasons, including that it started as a slave revolt on a French colony but became a thirteen year struggle that ended in the elimination of slavery and the founding of the Republic of Haiti.

The Polish got involved towards the end of the revolution in 1802, when Napoleon added a Polish legion of around 5,200 forces to his army and sent them off to fight “a revolt” on the island. When the Polish soldiers got to the island and saw that the “revolt” was actually a group of slaves trying to fight the French for their freedom, many of the Polish deserted the French and fought with the Haitians. Why the sudden turn-cloaking, you ask?

In 1795, Poland had been erased from the map after a series of invasions and partitions of Polish territory carried out by the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia, and the Austrian Habsburg Monarchy. Thus, since Poles were now trying to form a rebellion of their own in Europe to get their country back, the French oppression of Haitians just wasn’t going to fly.

Wikipedia puts it this way (somewhat romantically): “For their loyalty and support for overthrowing the French, the Poles acquired Haitian citizenship after Haiti gained its Independence, and settled there to never return to Poland.”

Halka singing about her sadness c/o labiennale.art.pl
Halka in Haiti singing about her sadness c/o labiennale.art.pl

In light of this history, Jasper, Malinowska, and Moskalewicz asked themselves some questions:

Does the nineteenth-century operatic piece, which is absent from the international opera repertoire, really have the power to represent national identity?

How can this identity be constructed in the twenty-first century, and to what extent can it be understood by other cultures?

Could the opera’s themes resonate with Poland and Haiti’s shared histories to connect, for a moment, two geographically and culturally distant communities?

After two research trips to the country, a plan to stage a collaborative Halka was set into motion, and the final performance ultimately involved five soloists and the conductor of the Poznan Opera House, twenty-one musicians from Port-au-Prince, and eighteen dancers from Cazale, plus two residents who served as translators.

And, when the opera was performed—one time only—earlier this year in February, an audience of over one hundred people came to watch the acts unfold on a winding road that ran through a part of the village (cameos included motorbikes and goats). Residents of Cazale sat on porches, stood in the shade, or brought out folding chairs to watch.

The performance was also filmed in one take, and is currently on view as a large-scale projected panorama in the Polish Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale. Since the Biennale participants don’t have this article handy, the exhibition is accompanied by a book, (impossibly) titled, Halka/Haiti 18°48’05″N 72°23’01″W: C.T. Jasper & Joanna Malinowska. The book includes a wealth of information about the project, including diplomat Géri Benoît’s history of her hometown of Cazale and questionnaires completed by the project’s Haitian and Polish participants.

The book is having its New York launch tomorrow at CANADA Gallery on
333 Broome Street, and Jasper, Malinowska and Moskalewicz will all be there to present the project, screen excerpts of the movie, and answer your burning questions.

The event is free and open to the public, starts at 7pm, and “refreshments and light fare will be served,” says the press release. I hope “light fare” includes pierogi.

About Ona A

Ona Abelis is a poet & journalist in Brooklyn.

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