On a dirt road surrounded by low buildings, the inhabitants of a remote village in Haiti gather for an unusual purpose. A cohort of Haitian musicians with string and brass instruments sit on folding chairs, tuning their instruments. At the center of this panoramic view are three performers, incongruous for their obvious European-ness, and for their 18th-century period dress. The orchestra commences, and the performers begin to sing of a young peasant girl who is seduced and impregnated by her landlord; she interrupts his wedding to a noblewoman only to be rejected, contemplate mass murder, and ultimately commit suicide. The performance is Halka, a 19th-century opera by Stanislaw Moniuszko that is a hallmark of Polish nationalism. Scanning the scene again, another complication emerges: The audience gathered to watch this performance is local, but the people have a mix of African and central European features. This is Cazale, the home of La Pologne—the Polish Haitians.
C.T. Jasper and Joanna Malinowska’s Polish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Halka/Haiti: 18º 48’ 05” N 72º 23’ 01” W, considers the mythology surrounding the origins of this small but distinct community of Polish descent in the contexts of post-Communist Poland and post-dictatorship Haiti. Believed to be descendents of Polish soldiers recruited by Napoleon Bonaparte, the Pologne of Cazale have, for Poles, come to represent Polish resistance to despotism. The story of Poles in Haiti begins with the occupation of the independent Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by the joint seizures of territory by Russian, Prussian, and Habsburg forces between 1772 and 1795. Seeking to liberate themselves from their occupiers, some Polish partisans joined up with Napoleon’s army, whom they viewed as the enemy of their enemies. By 1802, a cohort of Poles had been sent to Haiti to help squash the nascent revolution led by Toussaint l’Ouverture. Some of these Polish fighters are believed to have switched sides, either fighting alongside the Haitian rebels or absconding to the remote mountain region known today as Cazale. Two hundred years later, Polish Haitians are credited with resisting the Haitian dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, and lauded in Poland as evidence that the Polish national spirit is anti-authoritarian in any form. The pavilion, and the book published to accompany it, seek to problematize any such simple understanding.