Painting the Body Politic

Haiti tumbles. Haiti reels. Haiti tears itself apart. And Eduoard Duval-Carrie, one of Haiti's premier painters, chronicles the island's chaos on his canvases.

A group of bare-chested green men with African features and leaves for hair are gathered together in a large, unfinished island landscape propped against the wall in the back room of Edouard Duval-Carrie's Miami Beach house. Palm trees line the lush, painted shoreline, their slim trunks positioned in a row tight as the bars of a jail cell. In the distance, a ship with a red cross on its hull bobs in the water. The figures, personifying loas, or Congo spirits, are zombies with dark vacant slashes for eyes. Their searching expressions recall fuzzy newsprint faces of anonymous black Haitians seen in recent front-page photographs of anchored boats bound for nowhere.

The painting is part of "The Savage Garden," an installation that Duval-Carrie is preparing for an upcoming gallery exhibition in Colombia. There are more works in progress in the studio he recently rented in the South Florida Art Center on Lincoln Road. One of these, inspired by the mapou tree, legendary home of vodou spirits, depicts a deeply rooted Tree of Life. Decapitated indigo heads hang from its branches, a ghostly crop of strange fruit.

Dressed in khaki shorts and a T-shirt, Duval-Carrie sits on a paint-stained chair in his studio, a diminishing pack of Marlboro Lights close at hand. He had visited Haiti two weeks earlier, before the embargo that banned commercial flights and significant financial transactions between Haiti and the United States was imposed. Since then, as a result of the dire economic situation, production at his father's construction materials factories in Port-au-Prince has slowed almost to a stop. At the same time, the U.S. has begun amassing Marines on assault ships off the coast of Haiti.

"At this point I'm very worried for my family's safety," confesses Duval-Carrie, whose frequent calls to the island are now threatened by the deteriorating Haitian telephone service. "It's really getting tragic -- I'm getting sick."

He shakes his head, inhales some smoke, then enthusiastically begins to describe his idea for a painting called Fountain of Violence. In it, a fountain will spew a selection of unsavory characters, some of the "Mafiosos and killers who've been running Haiti for the past 50 years." This piece is to be part of a triptych that also will include Fountain of Verbs, inspired by the island's widespread illiteracy and the ruling military regime's convoluted propaganda, as well as the utopian Fountain of Light.

"It's called 'The Savage Garden,' but it's going to be a very formal garden full of all sorts of illusions, and where all sorts of events take place, where the mythical world meets reality," offers the artist, speaking English with a light French accent. "It will be an exact metaphor for Haiti."

The escalating Haitian crisis makes the installation's themes topical, but in Duval-Carrie's work they are a constant concern. His paintings depict a carnavalesque tragicomedy of Haitian experience, with a cast that includes military dictators, African slaves, popular heroes, revolutionary soldiers, and vodou spirits.

Light-skinned, with translucent blue-green eyes, a North American education, and the lusty, ready laugh of a career diplomat, Duval-Carrie's articulate presence negates the ready stereotype of the naive illiterate often applied to Haitian artists. His work, while retaining elements of typical Caribbean styles, depicts island culture that challenges the images of industrious villages and quaint countrysides that hang in commercial Haitian art galleries, establishments Duval-Carrie pointedly avoids. With a wicked sense of humor and a popular conscience, he continues a lesser-known artistic tradition of social criticism.

"I am a chronicler of my times," the artist asserts. "It's imperative that someone should do it, at least that way there will be some images of what happened during this experience. Right now, you have to be concerned. My whole family is in Haiti, and the situation gets more dramatic every day. The United States, the major power on this planet, is ready to invade this tiny country, and of course I know they're going to make us pay for it down to the last bullet.... It's simple, you cannot be sending thousands of people a week to your neighbors. And these people aren't going next door to Santo Domingo or to Caracas. They're coming right here to South Florida. The problems in Haiti are closer in Miami than anywhere else."

Duval-Carrie, his British wife, Nina, and their sons, four-year-old Thaddeus and two-year-old Krystian, came to Miami last year from Paris, where the artist had lived for six years. The move here was intended as the first step toward a permanent return to Haiti, but that plan was interrupted when President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced into exile.

"When Aristide came into power, I said, 'This is the time for me to go back,'" he recalls. "I decided to first install the family here and go back and forth. Then the thing went haywire."

The artist has, in fact, lived outside of Haiti for most of his 39 years. He spent part of his childhood in Puerto Rico, where his father took refuge from the oppressive regime of Franaois "Papa Doc" Duvalier in the Sixties. His parents, his brother Robert, a political activist, and another brother and sister who work in the family's construction and automotive parts businesses have remained in Haiti since their return there in the early Seventies. Edouard stayed at home, a large house in Port-au-Prince, for a few more years, then struck out on his own, spending his last year of high school in New York City. He then went on to study at Loyola and McGill universities in Montreal.

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