The Spirits Are Willing

The term "Haitian art" inevitably evokes several enduring cliches, manifested in images of quaint island landscapes painted by self-taught artists, "primitive" personifications of Vodou gods, and "derivative" works executed in expressionist or figurative styles. As with art from Africa, art from Haiti traditionally has defied Eurocentric notions of originality and authenticity. It has not acknowledged the Western fine art division between form and function, nor has it subscribed to mainstream ideals defining what constitutes appropriate subjects for artistic imagery. Haiti's diverse artistic practices, derived from the island nation's own sociohistoric circumstances and spiritual heritage, have been dismissed by most outsiders either as craft or as poor copies of European masters. These foreign assumptions, as well as the dictates of the tourist market for "native" Haitian art, have perpetuated the above-mentioned cliches to the extent that any work by a Haitian artist today generally is stereotyped as naive, assumed to be of interest only to specialized folk art collectors or souvenir-buying vacationers.

Contemporary Expressions of Haitian Art, now at the South Florida Art Center's Ground Level Gallery, offers a more complex view of Haitian art through a selection of works in different media by fifteen Haitian artists, the majority of whom currently live in the U.S. The show is the first to be organized by the Alyans Atizay Ayisyen (Haitian Cultural Arts Alliance), a year-old association of prominent members of the local Haitian community created to "preserve and promote the cultural arts of Haiti, and thereby to encourage interethnic understanding and education." The exhibition received support from the Haitian ministries of Culture and Tourism, and will travel to Port-au-Prince and other Haitian cities in the fall as part of the Aristide administration's new cultural program.

Dr. Carol Damian, an assistant professor of art at FIU and a Latin American art scholar, curated "Contemporary Expressions." With the help of Edouard Duval-Carrie (one of the artists in the show) and other Haitian advisers, Damian has put together a survey of works that consciously presents an expanded definition of Haitian art.

"This multifaceted exhibition of contemporary expressions by Haitian artists is an effort to validate the contributions and accomplishments of a diverse group of individuals as much as it is an opportunity to celebrate and pay tribute to the Haitian spirit that inspired their works," Damian writes in the show's catalogue. "Their art should not only be recognized as that of Haitian artists asserting their own identity by responding to the troubled situation in their island homeland, but as contemporary artists creating works of universal significance."

Some of the artists -- who live in Port-au-Prince, Miami, Washington, D.C., and New York City, among other places -- convened in the gallery for a panel discussion on June 13, two days after the show opened. While one audience member tiresomely pressed the group for a uniform definition of Haitian art, the artists expressed their desire to create works that reflect their experiences as Haitians (or Haitian Americans) while freeing themselves from artistic stereotypes based on their nationality.

"When people come to see Haitian art they want tigers, blood, and Vodou priests," said 35-year-old Mario Benjamin, the current bad boy of the Haitian art world and one of only two artists in the show who resides in Haiti full-time (the other is classical painter Philippe Dodard). "When you're not white, people have their preconceived categories about your culture and they want to see them forever.... We shouldn't even waste our time trying to define what the Haitian brain can produce. Why do you want to put me in a ghetto as a stereotyped mind?"

Not surprisingly Benjamin's untitled installation is the most provocative work in the show: a wooden, boxlike construction painted black and topped with a batch of speckled feathers. Benjamin cut holes in the surface of the wood, through which can be seen portions of a chest X-ray; the small image of a figure is superimposed in one corner of the X-ray film. This unsettling piece suggests both mental and physical forms of repression and confinement, while simultaneously alluding to spiritual rituals.

Other artists more obviously refer to the spirits of Haiti in paintings of Vodou gods. One is Burton Chenet, who divides his time between Miami and Port-au-Prince. Educated at New York's School of Visual Arts, Chenet decided some years ago to use only Vodou symbolism in his work. His Elematurin, included here, shows a grinning bat-man figure painted in a graphic, cartoonish style. More visually intriguing is Emmanuel Merisier's sinister Edvard Munch-like figure of Baron Samedi, set before a hectic orange sky. Marilene Phipps's marvelous, emotionally wrought realist painting Praying Hougan shows another side of spirituality. This work depicts a religious ceremony in which an elderly man sits in front of a homemade shrine that includes candles, bottles, and sundry icons; additionally, lying on the floor at the man's feet, shrouded by a white sheet, is the outline of a human corpse.

Lionel "Yony" St. Pierre, a young self-taught artist who lives in Miami Beach, is represented by several simple, if not particularly well-executed, paintings. In fact the works' handmade metal frames, fashioned from assorted hardware, are more interesting than the paintings themselves, and best serve to indicate St. Pierre's potential as a sculptor. Edouard Duval-Carrie, the best known of these artists, takes a revisionist approach to Haitian themes. His elaborate, meticulously painted Vien Vien the Indian Sprit has a decidedly contemporary look, while his handmade frame, decorated with ceramic figures, exhibits a traditional Haitian attitude about blending the borders between artisanship and fine art.

There is a noted lack of politically themed work here, somewhat surprising given the reality of Haiti's recent past and current transitional situation. Only two artists choose to touch on political subjects. Jacques Liautaud lives in Alexandria, Virginia, where he works as an engineer. His two thematically sophisticated paintings are from an ongoing series of works with Haitian themes. Ecce homo shows "Papa Doc" Duvalier sitting in a chair in a tuxedo -- the image is painted from a photograph but is slightly caricatured. Liautaud has framed the portrait with the words Homo desastrus, Homo sinistrus, Homo fornicatus, and at the top, Ecce homo. The other work, Terrible Truths, depicts a man with a tire around his neck, a reference to the Haitian practice of "necklacing," in which victims are physically confined by tires, then doused with gasoline and set ablaze. Rejin Leys, a young woman artist who lives in New York, offers Guantanamo Survival Kit, an ingenious, intricately executed foldout artist's book containing images and biting texts on both life in the U.S. camp and international politics.

Just as Haitians are given the short shrift by U.S. immigration policy, Haitian artists have received scant attention from local galleries and museums, despite Miami's large Haitian population. Representatives of that constituency, along with the usual art-scene suspects, flocked to Lincoln Road for the jubilant opening of this exhibition, demonstrating that there is certainly an audience for the Alyans Atizay Ayisyen's future projects. "Contemporary Expressions of Haitian Art" is a bit of a mixed bag, but its spirit is definitely in the right place.


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