Georges Liautaud's Winged Figure (1975)
Georges Liautaud's Winged Figure (1975)

Big Bass Bonanza

With a bushel of blue-ribbon exhibits on display, the Bass Museum of Art has embarked on perhaps its busiest programming season.

For art lovers accustomed to a lull in activity during the dog days of summer, deciding which shows to choose from among the museum's expansive menu might be as slippery as handling a hog in a greased-pig contest. But that is bell-clanging news.

The Bass is featuring everything from Haitian art to Renaissance altarpieces to embroidered silk robes from the Chinese Imperial court and, not unlike a country fair, boasting a little something for everyone. Through the end of July, the museum celebrates Haitian culture with three exhibits, including "Allegories of Haitian Art from the Collection of Jonathan Demme," "Edouard Duval-Carrié: The Vodou Pantheon," and "Haitian Art from the Bass Museum Collection." The bass is also showing "Arturo Rodriguez: The Human Comedy," which features nearly 30 of the Cuban-born artist's large-scale fun-house-mirror canvases depicting people with gargantuan distorted heads. "Asian Art from the Bass Museum Collection" and "Treasures from the Bass Museum of Art" round out the rest of the roster with sculptures from China, India, and Nepal; nineteenth-century Japanese prints; and, rarely seen in these parts, Renaissance and Baroque works by Botticelli and Rubens.


"Allegories of Haitian Life from the Collection of Jonathan Demme," "Edouard Duval- Carri: The Vodou Pantheon," and "Haitian Art from the Bass Museum Collection"

Bass Museum of Art, 2121 Park Ave, Miami Beach

Through July 23. Bass Museum of Art, 2121 Park Ave, Miami Beach; 305-673-7530

Although there was too much to sink the teeth into during a recent visit, I left thinking — much like I would for the corn dogs, fried catfish, or sundry other versions of a heart-attack-on-a-stick in which one indulges at the Miami-Dade County Fair — I would definitely return for more. I was especially drawn to the trio of exhibits collectively titled "The Haitian Spirit" and smartly installed by Rachel Talent Ivers, the Bass's exhibitions coordinator.

Entering the second-floor gallery where they are displayed, I was immediately struck by the sublime sound of drums and the plaintive wail of a woman's voice summoning her gods, which evoked an almost spiritually charged mood. The CD playing was a live recording of ceremonial music used to summon the lwa, or vodou spirits. The space's walls were painted powder blues, sea-foam greens, and bright tangerines typical of the colors that cover homes in the Haitian countryside.

At the show's entrance are works from the Bass Museum's holdings of Haitian art, included dazzling examples of sequined ceremonial vodou bottles and flags by Clotaire Bazile and Edgar Jean-Louis of the Bel Air School in Port-au-Prince. The museum has also scheduled a multidisciplinary series of performances, lectures, and films throughout the exhibit's duration. And do not miss Edouard Duval-Carrié's imposing installation of paintings and bronze sculptures depicting contemporary interpretations of some of the mysterious lwa. Although they were originally displayed at the Atlanta Olympics and the São Paulo Biennial in 1996, this is the first time these works have been shown together in Miami.

Jonathan Demme's collection, highlighting the Bass's Haitian heritage celebration and curated by Axelle Liautaud and Candice Russell, features more than 80 paintings and sculptures by mid-twentieth-century masters such as Hector Hyppolite, Wilson Bigaud, Andre Pierre, Rigaud Benoit, and Georges Liautaud. Demme, who in 1992 won an Academy Award for directing The Silence of the Lambs, began collecting Haitian art during the Eighties. He has since amassed one of the most comprehensive privately held collections in the nation, and it will be displayed only at the Miami Beach museum.

These mostly narrative works teem with allusions to Haiti's turbulent history — from the island's colonial period, to becoming the first nation where slaves overthrew their European masters, through the political hardships and abject poverty prevalent today. But the works also exude a deep connection to the faith and belief system some say holds the country together. Several pieces are painted in a colorful, deceptively naive style — typical of many of Haiti's unschooled masters — with flattened perspectives and a childlike modeling of people and landscapes.

Castera Bazile's Cemetery Scene, an oil-on-board piece dated 1952, depicts a Catholic priest leading prayers at a grave surrounded by mourners, while a passel of ghosts mills about as if celebrating its growing numbers. A one-arm street urchin kicks a ball to his friend nearby, seemingly accepting the phantoms' presence as normal. In Revenge, a remarkable 1956 oil-on-board by Benoit, a winged beast that kidnapped and slaughtered an infant appears in the center of the composition as he is attacked in retaliation by villagers. The lurid monster bleeds from a wound on his foot caused by a kneeling man swinging a machete. As another male pokes out the creature's right eye with a stick, a fainting woman is supported by two men in the background. Some Haitians still believe in supernatural beings, whose actions are usually said to be the result of a curse.

Liautaud's pioneer metal sculptures, manufactured from recycled oil drums, stand out in the show. One of Haiti's best-known sculptors, Liautaud originally worked as a blacksmith and railroad repairman but went on to earn acclaim for crosses he forged for the dead in the town of Croix-des-Bouquets. Winged Figure, from 1975, depicts an androgynous merman with a split tail and wings. Part of vodou myth, these fabulous creatures are said to appear to the faithful in visions or dreams. Grand Bwa, one of Liautaud's inventive iron pieces, shows a forest spirit holding a leaf in one hand and a branch used for healing in another.

When it comes to healthcare, many Haitians have access to only homemade herbal remedies, a notion captured by Ernst Prophete's painting Chez un Docteur Feuille. It shows a group of patients waiting to see a leaf doctor in what appears to be a rural emergency room that may double as a dining room. A woman who is nude from the waist up sits on a straw mat to receive treatment. While others await their cures, jars full of leeches and leaves soaking in liquid sit on a table. A man bleeding from his leg, his head hanging in anguish, sits on a picnic bench to the far right. Jacques Hyppolite's color-saturated oil-on-board piece, Reptiles and Insects (1979), portrays a vision of nature where butterflies are as ornate as lace, and giant emerald frogs and golden-armored crabs tangle for supremacy.

Demme's collection is a joy to discover and leaves a lingering impact. It's easy to see why he claims to be driven by a passion he calls "Haiti-mania." The director expresses a fantasy in which mankind makes a pilgrimage to Haiti, saying most visitors would also be bitten by the bug after one trip. A visit to his collection promises to turn the trick as well, provided you pencil in plenty of time.


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