Dorota Sosnowska

Halka/Haiti – white archive, black body? Reenactment and repetition in the Polish-colonial context


In 2015 Venice International Art Biennale had somewhat revolutionary character. Not only under its title “All the World’s Futures” one could easily recognize an ideological statement, explained by curator Okwui Enwezor with a famous motto from Walter Benjamin depicting Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, but also for the first time in its 120-years old history La Biennale di Venezia was curated by a man of color – by someone with black skin.

Okwui Enwezor wrote: “One hundred years after the first shots of the First World War were fired in 1914, and seventy-five years after the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, the global landscape again lies shattered and in disarray, scarred by violent turmoil, panicked by specters of economic crisis and viral pandemonium, secessionist politics and a humanitarian catastrophe on the high seas, deserts, and borderlands, as immigrants, refugees, and desperate peoples seek refuge in seemingly calmer and prosperous lands. Everywhere one turns new crisis, uncertainty, and deepening insecurity across all regions of the world seem to leap into view” (Enwezor, 2015) With All the World’s Futures he wanted then to ask what is the current state of things? How can art respond to the world with it’s dramatic events returning one after another with the wind of progress? To achieve this he composed the main Biennale exhibition using what he called “filters”. First one was called Liveness: on epic duration bringing to the anachronistic form of Biennale strictly performative dimension. Enwezor wrote: “In the search for a language and method for the exhibition of the 56th Art Exhibition we have settled on the nature of the exhibition as fundamentally a visual, somatic, aural, and narrative event. In so doing, we ask how an exhibition of the scale and scope of the 56th International Art Biennale can address its format and refresh it with the potential of its temporal capacity” (Enwezor, 2015). The second filter was called  Garden of disorder and was thought as a kind of tribute to the actual space the most of Biennale presentation takes place. The third filter was the most important one. It was entitled Capital: A Live Reading and consisted of live readings. “Das Kapital a massive meticulously researched bibliographic project, conceived by the artistic director in the Central Pavilion. This program, occurring everyday for nearly seven months, without stop, will commence with a live reading of the four volumes of Marx’s Das Kapital and gradually expand into recitals of work songs, librettos, readings of scripts, discussions, plenaries, and film screenings devoted to diverse theories and explorations of Capital. Over the course of the 56th Art Biennale, theater ensembles, actors, intellectuals, students, and members of the public will be invited to contribute to the program of readings that will flood and suffuse surrounding galleries with voices in an epic display of orality” (Enwezor, 2015). A need for such an activity during one of the most important contemporary art events in the world was motivated by a concept of repetition. Quoting Althusser’s and Balibar’s Reading Capital stating that we all know Marx’s Capital just by living in its reality, Enwezor says: ”But some day it is essential to read Capital to the letter. To read the text itself, complete, all four volumes, line by line, to return ten times to the first chapters, or to the schemes of simple reproduction and reproduction on an enlarged scale, before coming down from the arid table-lands and plateaus of Volume Two into the promised land of profit, interest, and rent…” (Enwezor, 2015) It is essential to perform it and to repeat it although we all know it. I would like to see this gesture as strictly connected with contemporary concept of blackness.

In one of the most important texts written in frames of black studies perspective Fred Moten states that blackness, understood as nothingness, can be treated as a different form of subjectivity. He writes: “[…] blackness is nothing, that is, the relative nothingness of the impossible, pathological subject and his fellows” (Moten, 2013, p. 741). But at the same time he is not a pessimist. He doesn’t perceive this nothingness in the context of social death and permanent exclusion of black people. “Is it possible to desire the something other than transcendental subjectivity that is called nothing? What if blackness is the name that has been given to the social field and social life of an illicit alternative capacity to desire? Basically, that is precisely what I think blackness is” (Moten, 2013, p. 778). For Moten, blackness becomes a field of philosophical discourse with universalistic ambitions. He wants to adore and love blackness as a possibility of difference, of being always outside, in different place. The black subject is not really a subject – it takes radically different form desiring always something that is not there but at the same time is reachable and possible – at the reach of your hands. In this perspective blackness as nothingness can be understood as a kind of re-sisatnce that produces the void – indefinable place of freedom from all the meanings in the state of non-existence.

Maybe the reading of Capital could be understood as a performance of repetition that produces such a void? The famous and so important for whole modernity text appears in this loud reading as deprived of its history, context, importance and meaning providing a space for new, somatic and alienated by repetition existence – existence as nothingness, as blackness perceived in its void which opens door to new modernity project preached by Fred Moten and his friends. “Whom do we mean when we say “there’s nothing wrong with us”? The fat ones. The ones who are out of all compass however precisely they are located. The ones who are not conscious when they listen to Les McCann. The Screamers who don’t say much, insolently. The churchgoers who value impropriety. The ones who manage to evade self-management in the enclosure. The ones without interest who bring the muted noise and mutant grammar of the new general interest by refusing. The new general intellect extending the long, extra-genetic line of extra-moral obligation to disturb and evade intelligence. Our cousins. All our friends” (Moten & Harney, 2013, p. 52).


In frames of All the World’s Futures in Polish Pavilion placed in the Giardini one could see a video-work entitled Halka/ Haiti (the rest of the title consisted of the geographic coordinates of the Cazale in Haiti) by C.T. Jaspers and Joanna Malinowska. It is a panoramic projection presenting the “staging” of the Polish national opera from XIXth century in the Haitian village, on the gravel road next to some wooden houses with local public and a goat in the very center of the frame. Polish singers are dressed in XIXth century-like costumes. Local performers dancing polish national dances like mazurka and polonez are in their own contemporary clothes. The orchestra from Port-au-Prince (Haiti’s capital) sits on the plastic chairs. One can also see some normal live going on in the third plan.

The viewer has this odd feeling that she had already seen it somewhere – déjà vu. Opera sung on the streets of exotic village; strange collision of highly theatrical gestures and costumes of white performers and kind of festive but full of shyness attitude of those black ones; sophisticated artistic form clashing with reality of poverty, heat and radical foreignness. Watched on the screen, although it’s not a film but rather performance documentation – if this distinction is really needed, Halka/Haiti becomes clearly a reenactment of Werner Herzog’s Fizcaraldo. Joanna Malinowska says in the interview: “Of course, the unquestinable godfather of this project was Fitzcarraldo. Werner Herzog’s film followed the delusional title character on his mission to build an opera house in the rainforest of Peru and to bring the renowned Italian tenor Enrico Caruso to perform there. Fitzcarraldo’s faith in the benevolence and power of opera was extreme and unshakable – at one point in the story, he uses a gramophone playing a scratchy Caruso record as a kind of magical shield to enter the territory of an indigenous nation that was believed to be particularly dangerous and bloodthirsty” (Smith, 2015, p. 122).

Rebbecca Schneider shows that reenactment realizes itself in constant tension between performance, repetition and time. By embodiment the reenacted past is actualizing in now, diverting the time itself. We can never be sure if the history is in present or if the reenacting bodies are in the past. “I went to Civil War – she starts her famous book. I did not go to an archive, though that would have been the most legitimate path to set for myself as a scholar interested in history. Instead, I went to witness battles mounted in the again of a time out of joint, as a scholar interested in history’s theatrical returns” (Schneider, 2011, p. 1). Battles reenactment appears in her thinking also a field of formulating paradoxes of performative practices: from everyday life to art galleries and theatres. “In the syncopated time of reenactment, where then and now punctuate each other, reenactors in art and war romance and/or battle an “other” time and try to bring that time – that prior moment – to the very fingertips of the present” (Schneider, 2011, p. 2) – she states. But it means that time is no longer a linear structure, it is open for repetition, not completed and remaining not only in material remains as documents and objects from the past, but also in what Schneider calls “immaterial labor of bodies engaged in and with that incomplete past”. She continues: “bodies striking poses, making gestures, voicing calls, reading words, singing songs, or standing witness. Such acts of labor over and with the past might include a body sitting at a table in an archive, bent over an ‘original’ manuscript or peering at a screen, interacting with history as material traces positioned as evidence. Or, such bodily labor might be – though this a far more contested problematic – a twenty-first-century body interacting with traces of acts as history: carrying a replica nineteenth-century musket on a historic battlefield, uttering the ‘phonic materiality’ of a cry to arms, or engaging in surgical amputation practices of the 1860s. In both cases – archive and battlefield – interaction with (and as) traces exercises a cross- or multi-temporal engagement with im/material understood to belong to the past in the present. Said more simply: inside the archive or out, times touch” (Schneider, 2011, p. 33).

But Schneider’s thought goes further. The very possibility of reenactment, this possibility of bodies repeating other bodies, is anchored in the citational character of the performance itself. “Indeed, looking even cursorily at reenactment as a practice one is soon hounded by the paradoxes of performativity and the fecund question (one as long-beloved of feminist theory as it has been of sociology, linguistics, and performance studies) that all representational practice, and indeed all communicative behavior, is composed in reiteration, is engaged in citation, is already a practice of reenactment, or what Richard Schechner has termed ‘restored’ or ‘twice-behaved’ behavior. That is, stepping back from the battlefield, we find solidly lodged in twentieth-century critical thought the notion that all bodily practice is, like language itself, always already composed in repetition and repetition is, paradoxically, both the vehicle for sameness and the vehicle for difference or change” (Schneider, 2011, p. 10).

In case of Halka/Haiti the change is crucial. Enrico Caruso and Italian repertoire becomes Polish national opera sung by artists from Poznań. Peru becomes Haiti. In this movement of meanings reenacting Fizcarraldo suddenly becomes a way of reenacting completely different (hi)story.


In 1791 the Haitian war for independence begun. It was the first rebellion of black slaves in the colonial world history. In September 1802 and March 1803 5 280 Polish soldiers arrived to Saint-Domingue (former name of Haiti) from Italy. Those two Polish squads were part of the legion formed under Napoleon in hope for the fight with Russia, Prussia and Austria who divided Poland in 1795 erasing it from the map. Instead they were send to Saint-Domingue to fight with black slaves fating for their independence.

There are two ways of telling this story further. One based in archival and historical knowledge will say that around 4000 from 5280 soldiers found their death on the island. 330 returned to Europe. 400 – the lowest in rank, ill and weak – stayed on the island. They were mostly the ones captured by black squads during fights. 120, maybe 150 of them changed sides and joined black revolution. None of the officers among them.

The other story – told till today by Haitians (so belonging more to the repertoire to use well known Diana Taylor’s categories) – will state that Polish squads massively changed sides as they were moved by the same goal of the Haitian revolution – they also wanted to fight for freedom of their country and couldn’t bear the situation in which Napoleon put them. In consequence of this story Jacques Dessaline – the chief of the rebellion – said, “Poles are the white Negros of Europe” and after the victory ordered a special legacy in the Haitian constitution giving the Poles and Germans (for others reasons) as the only white people right to own land in Haiti.

In effect Polish soldiers settled in few places on the island from which Cazale in the mountains is the best-known one. Cazalois till today define them selves as Poles and few of them actually have blue eyes and lighter skin color. They are called Polone Nwa (Black Poles).

To stick with Diana Taylor’s theoretical proposal (Taylor, 2003) we might say that the archive – so the documents and history produced on their basis – would state that Poles are white. They belong to the western European tradition even if it must be confirmed by cruelties of colonial era. The other story, belonging to the repertoire – so to embodied practices such as performance and oral tradition – would say that Poles are black: the “white Negros of Europe”. This second statement has of course its political power in unfolding hidden territories of Polish social history.

“How Poles became white?” – asks Kacper Pobłocki in text that is a part of the catalogue accompanying Halka/Haiti project. He shows that a problem of race, if it is seen as a product of the slavery system, is present in Polish history in a very strong way. By analyzing the racial background of the biblical story of Ham who was cursed by his father for laughing at him, Pobłocki shows that Polish word “cham” describing for centuries the serfs (so technically slaves working for reach land owners in XVI and XVII century Poland) has racial connotations. “The global popularity of the Curse of Ham notwithstanding, it was only in Poland and Russia that it entered the vernacular. Over the years, the serfs, who were belived to be the progeny of Ham, were increasingly called chamstwo. Thus while in the Atlantic world race is often how class relations are mediated, in the Polish story, it was class that had the tendency to be expressed in racial terms” (Pobłocki, 2015, p. 110). The majority of Polish society was black for a very long time.


Reading the interviews with artists and texts in the catalogue one might think that Halka/Haiti was an attempt to tell this second version of the Polish-Haitian story. That the goal was to put Polish identity in question, by reenacting one of the most well known colonial images – of the white man bringing the opera to “black” people; that by using performance medium, by putting black and white bodies next to each other, artists wanted to ask, if the blackness is inherent not only to Polone Nwa? If Halka – poor country girl used by a reach man from a higher class and left alone pregnant, committing suicide during his wedding – is not telling the story of blackness being always present in Polish history?

But surprisingly it is not what happened. Watching Halka/Haiti video the viewer feels still trapped in the Fitzcarraldo context. White people dressed in beautiful, reach theatrical costumes singing with opera voice, and black, poor people dancing in amateur way or watching the show from plastic chairs. What happened? Why this image is still telling the colonial story without braking it’s schemes and critically lever the race category?

Magdalena Moskalewicz – the curator – starts her text about the project, which opens the catalogue: “Already by morning on the Saturday the opera was to take place in Cazale, dark clouds were gathering over the mountains that surround the village, making the Polish team seriously nervous. That day’s performance of Halka was supposed to take place en plain air, on a road nestled between houses leading further up into the mountains. A one-time show for the local community, this collaboration between an opera team from Poland and musicians and dancers from Haiti had been planned for many months – and was meant to be filmed panoramically, all in one go. There was technically a back-up plan, but everyone knew that rain would ruin everything” (Moskalewicz, 2015, p. 57). The most important thing for author is this “one go”, the risk that this one-time show won’t be properly registered what would “ruin everything”. Performance as such is then a weak medium – something that can go wrong, that disappears and doesn’t exist without registration.

“[I]f we consider performance as ‘of’ disappearance, if we think of the ephemeral as that which ‘vanishes’, and if we think of performance as the antithesis of ‘saving’, do we limit ourselves to an understanding of performance predetermined by cultural habituation to the patrilineal, west-identified (arguably white-cultural) logic of the Archive?” – asks Rebecca Schneider in her famous text Performance Remains (Schneider, 2013, p. 138). This logic of Archive is not only white it is also at the very same moment capitalistic. “One go” is so important because money were invested and the budget allows only one registration – which must be “good” (of good quality) as money have been taken for presentation of the work at the Venice Biennale. It’s money and budget, which set the limits of the work. That’s why the Polish part of the team is nervous – they hold all the production means, they need to hold some effect after their stay in Haiti and they will be presenting it as their work of art in frames of the most prestigious art presentation. It is perhaps important to add that there is no Haitian pavilion. There was only a temporary container put near Giardini where some folk sculptors presented their work. It was the poorest “pavilion” in whole Biennale.

So even if the intention of the artists was to critically approach race in the Polish context they didn’t critically approached class. Maybe they didn’t arrived in Haiti as whites but they arrived as those with money and production means. They held the camera, they were nervous about the weather, they wanted to get the best frame, they introduced dances, instruments, singers and finally a goat. By re-enacting famous western film they re-enacted it’s capitalistic dimension reintroducing race as the effect of class divisions. Black bodies on the registration of Halka remained black, and white remained white legitimizing Poles as part of the western European world. In effect watching the film without context one may even think that Poles colonized Haiti at some point in the history – so not only Polish identity remained un-criticised but it gained this new, lacking dimension of the colonial power.

Enwezor idea to read and re-read Marx’s Capital in the heart of the Venice Biennale presentation appears then as a truly political gesture – to criticise the race one needs to criticise class at the same time, and the other way around, to criticize class one needs to criticizes race. In order to do it one needs to perform in many goes, repeating and reenacting, again and again. Because as Rebecca Schneider shows performance always remains by coming back, returning, hunting and repeating itself in never ending loop. It has no source, as it is always already a reiteration and no goal, as the repetition won’t stop. Maybe this is this possibility of other time, other history, other body nestled in reenactment that is a site of Fred Moten’s blackness – new impossible subjectivity in the new impossible world.

Works Cited

Enwezor, O., 2015. All the World’s Futures. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 01 09 2016].


Moskalewicz, M., 2015. Behind Mountains, More Mountains. In: M. Moskalewicz, ed. Halka/Haiti 18°48’05″N 72°23’01″W. Warszawa: Narodowa Gelria Sztuki Zachęta, pp. 57-72.


Moten, F., 2013. Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh). The South Atlantic Quarterly, 112(4), pp. 737-780.


Moten, F. & Harney, S., 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Studies. Wivenhoe / New York / Port Watson: Minor Compositions.


Pobłocki, K., 2015. How Poles Became White?. In: M. Moskalewicz, ed. Halka/Haiti 18°48’05″N 72°23’01″W. Warszawa: Narodowa Galeria Sztuki Zachęta, pp. 107-119.


Schneider, R., 2011. Performing Remains Art and war in times of theatrical reenactment. 1st Edition ed. New York: Routledge.


Schneider, R., 2013. Performance Remains. In: A. H. Amelia Jones, ed. Perform, Repeat, Record. Live Art in History. Bristol/Chicago: intellect, pp. 137-151.


Smith, T., 2015. Interview with C.t. Jaspers and Joanna Malinowska. In: N. G. S. Zachęta, ed. Halka/Haiti 18°48’05″N 72°23’01″W. Warszawa: s.n., pp. 121-141.


Taylor, D., 2003. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. 1st Edition ed. Durham(NC): Duke University Press.