March 7, 2012

Haitian artist dramatizes post-earthquake challenges

Artist-in-Residence at the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture Gina Athena Ulysse weaves history, personal narrative, critical theory, and statistics in spoken word with Vodou chants to reflect and deconstruct childhood memories, social (in)justice, spirituality, and the incessant dehumanization of Haitians.

A little over a year after a 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti, Gina Athena Ulysse brought her one-woman show, Because When God is too Busy: Haiti, Me and The World, to the University of Chicago. The performance, combining her passion for singing and performing with her academic training in anthropology, interweaves historical analysis, personal anecdotes, and commentary about the challenges that Haitians face after the earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people on January 12, 2010.

Third-year Maria Ekpo shares her review of Ulysse’s performance with UChicago Arts:

The performance begins with a strong almost defiant voice coming from the dark singing in Kreyòl. With time, the voice begins to sound tired, but eventually Ulysse ends the song with a wavering but strong force. Ulysse uses the fluctuation in tone and tempo as an analogy for the character of the Haitian people. The theme of the resilience of the Haitian people, despite the many obstacles they face, resonates throughout the performance. Additionally, Ulysse presents the inequality and inhumanity entrenched in the relations between Haiti and the ‘developed’ world, particularly the United States, through her monologue.

Her first monologue provides the audience with an image of a young girl jumping high to reach sweet and sour fruits from a tree. Ulysse then transports the audience to the future, where she visits her homeland after a long time, and there are hardly any fruits in the few trees that are left. Upon giving up reaching for fruit, the young girl watches a tourist enjoy refined sugar when the majority of Haitians can barely afford unrefined sugar. This narrative method in which Ulysse expresses global inequality diverges from typical statistics, like GDP per capita or literacy rate. Instead, she puts a human face on the issue by using temporal change to communicate to the audience, the very human consequence of inequality.

Humanizing the challenges facing Haiti

In another anecdote Ulysse further humanizes the challenges facing Haiti. She asks the audience to imagine having a neighbor who tells you what to do, and you have no choice but to comply because he paves your driveway, provides products for you to tend to your garden, and fixes your roof and fence. In return, he requires that you give him free entry to your house and allow him to buy produce from your garden at an unfair price. In return, he dumps his processed goods and demands that you buy them, even though you have the ability to plant your own products. He insists that all of this is in your best interest and will help you to ‘develop.’ If you choose not to comply, then he can stop buying your products and plunge you into financial ruin.

Of course, this neighbor is the United States, and the homeowner is Haiti. There is a palpable feeling of anger, appreciation, and mistrust emanating from Ulysse that defines the way in which ordinary Haitians feel about the United States. By asking the members of the audience to imagine that they were the home owner, Ulysse allows them to feel these conflicting emotions that Haitians are experiencing everyday when dealing with American NGOs who provide them with tools for survival but do so with their own interest in mind. Ulysse draws the audience in by singing powerfully in a room full of darkness and never lets them go through her analogies and public announcements. During her post-performance discussion, Ulysse asserted that she wanted to infuse the human condition that is often ignored when discussing Haiti in the media, and she did just that in her performance.

Maria Ekpo is a third-year International Studies major in the College.

Gina Athena Ulysse, the 2011 Artist-in-Residence at the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at the University of Chicago, was born in Pétion-Ville, Haiti. Trained as a cultural anthropologist, she is also a poet, performer, and multimedia artist and associate professor of African American Studies, Anthropology, Environmental Studies, and Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Weslyan University. Her first book, Downtown Ladies, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2008.



Gina Athena Ulysse: On Life in Haiti and America. Video courtesy of YouTube