In Extremis: Death and Life in 21st Century Haitian Art
UCLA Fowler Museum
September 15, 2012 to January 20, 2013
It may be the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, but Haiti’s culture is adamant in its richness. Whether in spite of or inspired by calamity – both socio-political and natural – the visual arts in Haiti flourish. Earthquake, floods, a cholera epidemic, and violent political turmoil have pummeled the Caribbean island for the last decade. Many have died. Many continue to suffer in the quagmire of a slow recovery. What has survived through the series of tragedies is an astonishing, undying artistic determination.
In Extremis features more than 70 pieces, including paintings, prints, installations, metal sculpture, and mixed media. Among these are several examples of 20th-century art, grounding the exhibition in historical context – including art from the Haitian diaspora, such as two pieces by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Aside from the stunning historical frame of reference, the primary focus of this survey is nearly a decade of research on Haiti’s emerging art scene. The exhibit connects the work of 34 artists, mostly residents of Port au Prince (the capital and center of the devastation). In recent years, some of the featured artists have received international recognition, while others will likely gain some well-deserved notice as a result of exposure generated here.
In Extremis revolves around artistic representations of the Gedes and the role of the Vodou religion in Haitian society. Unlike the other Iwa – Vodou gods who reflect shared African identities, or stem from the collective Haitian experience – the Gede are thought of as an independent extended family of spirits. Their patriarch is the fearsome Bawon Samdi, or Papa Gede, familiar to western audiences through his caricatured portrayal in Hollywood movies, like Live and Let Die. Capricious children of the Bawon, the Gede are beloved, laughing tricksters, while Bawon Samdi presides over mortality, sexuality and rebirth. A feared killer, he represents death.
Death permeates this exhibit, just as it is a pervasive undercurrent of Haitian life. Setting the mood on entering the first gallery is Frantz Zephirin’s The Resurrection of the Dead (2007, acrylic on canvas, 51 X 40.5 cm). Painted after the flood and mudslides of 2004, the artist envisioned the surging waters engulfing the house of the dead. In this haunting and haunted surreal image, three Gedes, portrayed as costumed skeletons, peer at the watery scene from their doorway. The wall of the house is made up of faces. After the earthquake of January 12, 2010, The New Yorker featured this painting on its cover.
Death is echoed again in the ornate and delicate crosses from Haitian cemeteries by Haiti’s most renowned metal sculptor, Georges Liautaud, who elevated forged metal work into a major category of Haitian art. The work of Pierrot Barra also focuses on death, with his three miniature coffins (before 1994, wood, felt, metal, plastic and ribbon, length of largest 46.5 cm). A Vodou priest, Barra started his artistic career making ceremonial flags, but then began creating these jewel-like assemblages.
As detailed and nuanced as the paintings are the many ritual flags -- drapeaux (French) or drapos (Kreyòl), which have become the most popular genre of Vodou art in the last half century. Intricate beaded tableaux on textile, the flags are full of symbolism and vivid color. Evelyne Alcide’s Séisme (Earthquake, 2010, beads, thread and polyester, 104 X 127 cm) is a post-earthquake Port au Prince street scene, exquisitely crafted in jewel-like beads. In it, Vodou angels float in the clouds above the ground, which is strewn with the bodies of the dead. The pastel Caribbean palette and delicacy of the beadwork seem incongruous with the shocking carnage. The beads form patterns of lines and swirls like brushstrokes, adding texture and subtle movement to the vibrant scene. Baron LaCroix (Bawon Lakwa, after 2000, satin, sequins, 103.5 X 75 cm) is one of several flags by Roudy Azor, one of the most prolific contemporary Haitian banner artists. Azor depicts a dapper Bawon Lacroix, god of the cemetery, as if dancing, wearing a black hat and white suit, fly open, flaunting his sexuality. The flat scene is resplendent with colored beads, inside a purple satin border.
Among many works portraying the dreaded god of death, is the painting Bawon Samdi by André Pierre, (1980s, paint on canvas, 67.2 X 57.8 cm) in which the Bawon is portrayed in a black top hat and morning coat, walking through a lush Haitian garden. Pierre wanted to show the world that Vodou not diabolical. This is an example from the Haitian Renaissance, the post-World War II period when many Haitian artists rooted in the tradition of Vodou began experimenting with new media, like oil painting and steel drum sculptures.
The Haitian expatriate point-of-view is eloquently expressed by artists like Stivenson Magiore. His painting, Et La Pluie Tomba (And the Rain Falls, 1989, acrylic on canvas, 76 X 102 cm) leans toward the surreal, with dripping blue paint on a background of blue. As if foretelling the disasters that have struck Haiti since, a graveyard of crosses populates the foreground, blood drips from the eyes of the head on a gravestone, bodies fall from the sky. In Wicker, (1984, oil and mixed media on canvas, 218 X 249 cm) Jean-Michel Basquiat deconstructs Vodou iconography, incorporating skeletons and Vodou symbols on a large white background with the flavor of street art, compatible with the emerging New York hip-hop scene of the day.
A sculpture of a Gede, Untitled (before 2009) by Jean Hérard Celeur, is one of several imposing and disturbing metal sculptures made of recycled parts from cars, motorbikes, computers, pipes and other found material. The grotesque figure, its skull head grimacing, is dressed in a sparkly woman’s robe, arms outstretched in welcome. Many of the sculptures of the Gede are well endowed with sensational lengthy pipes -- a reminder that in Vodou, death and sexuality are intimate bedfellows. Even though the sculptures, mostly figurative, convey a profound expression of human suffering, a macabre sense of humor rallies. In the last gallery is an altar-like collection of painted bottles, beaded dolls, crosses, candles and other Vodou paraphernalia. Even Jesus makes an appearance, his portrait presiding in the background.
In Extremis excels in capturing a cross-section of Haitian art in a range of media and through time – with videos and large photographs of contemporary Haitian street scenes and Vodou ceremonies projected on the wall, juxtaposed with relics like the Cross for Gede, by M. Brutus (date unknown, 40.5 cm) made of rusted metal, with two skulls at the base. The art that emerges from this beleaguered island nation is infused with color and life. Still, how can Haitians forget the significance of the quotation above the entrance to the La Grand Cimetière, the cemetery of Port au Prince, the city of the dead, “Souviens-toi que tu es poussière.” Remember that you are dust.
Megan Abrahams is a Los Angeles-based writer and artist. The managing editor of Fabrik Magazine, she is also a contributing art critic for Art Ltd., Fabrik, ArtPulse and Whitehot magazines. Megan attended art school in Canada and France. She is currently writing her first novel and working on a new series of paintings.
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