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.

"The reason [for arresting him] was completely arbitrary," Edouard explains. "They just came to my father's plant where he worked and dragged him away. When they released him, he was in such a bad state they had to wait another six months before they could let him go. He was covered with pustules, and he had not eaten for so long. My mother had to send him food. It was pretty tragic. I came back from university right after he got out. I decided then that I could not just sit down and paint pretty pictures."

n 1993 Duval-Carrie participated in the first Vodou Cultures Festival, held in the West African Republic of Benin. He created an installation on the beach using 23 small sculptures of Congo spirits popular in Haiti. The statues of Oggun (god of iron), Papa Loko (the wild spirit), and other gods were meant to act as beacons that would guide the spirits of dead Haitians back to their African homeland. The artist also hung three murals in the temple of Dagbo Hou Non, and subsequently was asked to paint the vodou holy man's portrait.

"There's this belief," he remarks, while sopping up the sauce on a plate of conch stew with a thumb-thick slice of fried plantain, "that the spirits of the parting dead go back to Africa. Every ten years they ship them off in a boat." It's a busy weekday lunch hour at Chez Moy International Restaurant in Little Haiti. Diners at large tables talk softly in Creole over a radio playing Cuban boleros. "Whaaat?" he exclaims loudly, chuckling and shaking his head with an expression of exaggerated disbelief. "You have to say, 'OK, these people are in another frame of mind.'"

Duval-Carrie revels in the irrationality of it all. During trips to Haiti he has been delighted to discover posters of his work in vodou temples. Although he is not is not a practitioner -- the rituals involved are too time-consuming, he says -- he is fascinated with vodou as a syncretic element of Haiti's culture of conquest.

"The fantastic dimension in my painting is the fruit of observing everyday life in Haiti," he explains. "The conditions there are so tragic that they have to be balanced with the supernatural."

Duval-Carrie has been influenced by the images in drawings by vodou priests, and by popular fetishes. He makes exceptional artisanal wood frames for his paintings, decorating them with small plastic animals, masks, hands, tin cutouts, and glitter. The frames resemble altar pieces, and the artist recently discovered that similar adornments are placed around doors of African temples.

Vodou spirits are common protagonists in Duval-Carrie's paintings. They take a variety of forms, from the glowing green specters seen in the works that make up "The Savage Garden," to bright-colored, streetwise types Alike a portrait of Loko sporting dark shades -- that have the combined contemporary swing and preindustrial edge of shop signs in Little Haiti.

"The spirits are the true representation of the people, and for me they are the soul of Haiti. The whole pantheon of gods is created in the image of man," the artist enthuses, sipping sweet Haitian soda. "First of all they are there to provide for the people and to help the people and be part of them. They look like them, too. Of course, I put my imagination into it because there is a lot of fantastic activity. But basically I'm talking about the Haitian people when I paint spirits, and their capacity for being more than they really are.

"Most people in Haiti live very close to this imagery because there's a lot of freedom in it," he continues. "Art has always been a spiritual expression in Haiti, and to me that's the great thing about it. What interests me is that first of all vodou is an expression of the people who try to remain true to themselves. And second of all it's the political aspect. For me, it is foremost a religion of oppressed people. This is a people who have been fighting about everything. They were brought up as slaves, they conquered a little bit, and were put back into slavery. What happens is that the world cannot accept this any more. The fact that you have a population of 70 million individuals of which 80 percent are more destitute than they were two centuries ago... This is insufferable, do you understand?"

Duval-Carrie was one of three artists asked to create work for an exhibition dealing with the theme of the French Revolution's influence on the tropics. It was held in 1989, the bicentennial of the revolution, at the Musee National des Artes Africains et Oceaniens, in Paris. Eventually, the show traveled to museums in a number of other countries, including Haiti, Senegal, and the U.S., where it was shown at the Davenport Art Museum, in Iowa, which has an important collection of Haitian art. Artists from France and Senegal also participated.

"I was the most figurative of the artists so I thought I should go into it with a lot of research," the Haitian painter recalls. "You read the chronicle of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries in Haiti, and it's as if you were reading about it today. It's a country that's split. You have the people of Haiti, of which the majority is black. You have an upper class which is all colors of the rainbow, but they have an attitude which is bringing out the problems you have now. You have a postcolonial society, and what was there in colonial times is what is there today. Nothing has changed."

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