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.

Although Duval-Carrie had been interested in art since he was a child, as a college student he did not consider making it a career. "I could not with a straight face look at my parents and tell them I was going to study art," he explains. "I had to do something practical." So he studied urban planning.

However, he did get a part-time job at a Montreal gallery that sold a multiethnic selection of sacred artifacts. The owner, George Butcher, a collector of the works of Swiss painter and graphic artist Paul Klee, also held an occasional small exhibition of modern art.

Influenced by the gallery's stock, which reminded him of popular Haitian art, Duval-Carrie started painting in his spare time. In the late Seventies, he showed some of his works, which he now describes as "very Haitian" in style, at Butcher's gallery.

"I'm a self-taught artist," he stresses. "Just like everybody else in Haiti. It was Haitian art that pushed me to paint in the first place, and I was interested in continuing that form and identifying with it. There are some wonderful things in Haitian art that are always lost in the mire of it all.

"I was also, I admit, looking for my roots. Just because I am outside I cannot just pretend that I am not a part of them or I'm not concerned, which is what a lot of people do. It's very difficult to reconcile one's artistic ambitions with a reality where you feel compelled to react."

A full-length portrait of Jean-Claude Duvalier, who succeeded his father, "Papa Doc," as Haiti's president in the early Seventies, was among the works that Duval-Carrie had prepared for his first big show, held at the Centre d'Art in Port-au-Prince in 1980. Baby Doc is ridiculously posed wearing a frilly wedding dress and opera gloves, his nostrils flared, eyes rolling, and holding a pistol a few inches from his left temple. The work was excluded from the exhibition after an apprehensive gallery director convinced the artist, then an idealistic 25-year-old, that hanging it on the wall would not be wise.

"I just said, 'Come on, why not?,'" he remembers. "And she said, 'You put that up and we're all going to prison.'"

There is another painting from the same period, titled Surprise partie chez les militaires (Surprise Party at the Soldiers' House), in which a group of decorated men in uniform are gathered at what appears to be military headquarters. The smallest member of the squad holds a cake in the shape of Haiti, while another stands poised with a white plastic card, granting himself carte blanche to divide and distribute the treat among the generals.

That work was exhibited at the Centre d'Art show, although Duval-Carrie, at the urging of the gallery director, took the precaution of painting a cellophane wrapping over the cake to obscure the obvious political significance. It nonetheless caught the attention of a government representative who attended the show's opening, and then proceeded to interrogate the artist about its meaning.

"I told him, 'You know, they're just having a party,'" he recalls, laughing. "They really did not like what I was doing. It was like looking at yourself in a mirror."

Duval-Carrie has continued to show his work in Haiti, most recently in 1991, when Aristide was still in office. Since then, he has exhibited in museums and galleries in Europe, Latin America, Africa, and the United States. Last April, he had a one-man show at Gutierrez Fine Arts in Miami Beach. His large paintings currently sell for $15,000 apiece, and he has been living off his work for several years. Although he has some faithful buyers -- one owns 35 Duval-Carrie paintings -- few are Haitian collectors.

"In Haiti, I'm the only one who's taken the whole baggage of popular art and worked that into a contemporary language. I'm the outcast in this whole thing," he says with a shrug. "You cannot claim that I am a primitive person. People in Haiti looked at my work and said, 'Who is this and why is he doing that?' It's like I'm a traitor to the cause. Which cause it was, I never quite understood."

On the other hand, some international art dealers have dismissed Duval-Carrie's work because of its concern with Haitian subject matter and its illustrative style, lumping it together with that of other artists under the label "Haitian art," a historically indiscriminate category.

"People say that my language is too regional, but what am I supposed to do, just discard Haiti totally?" Duval-Carrie asks, gesturing toward the paintings in his studio. "I feel just like other Haitians: excluded. I'm just trying to say something about myself and others. These are people with their own belief systems and their own ways. One day they will get it together and do something great."

Then he clamps down hard on his cigarette and explains why he took such an interest in exposing the absurd side of Haitian politics in the first place.

"I got involved in all that because my brother spent almost two years in prison," he relates. Robert, who is one year older than Edouard, was arrested when he was a university student in the late Seventies. After his release, he founded an association of former political prisoners, and currently co-edits a newsletter monitoring human-rights abuses in Haiti. No concrete charges ever were made against Robert. Like the rest of the Duval family, he had friends associated with a group of intellectuals who were members of the opposition to the Duvalier regime.

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