Painting the Body Politic
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.
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.
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.
"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."
In works that are like surrealist political cartoons, Duval-Carrie pays "homage" to the revolution with a series of historical scenes painted in primary colors. A row of members of the Army of the Republic of Saint Domingue (Haiti's former name) are posed on round pedestals like toy soldiers. Several other paintings feature a group of nine slaves: in one, the proud-postured Africans contentedly spearfish from a wooden boat; in another, they are shackled together as they shuffle dismally through a jungle. Toussaint L'Ouverture, the former slave who wrote Haiti's first constitution and died in a French prison after the uprising he led against France's attempt to reestablish slavery was quelled by Napoleon's army, is shown stepping on a snake as he grasps his decree. In another painting, he stands in a boat surrounded by crocodiles.
Brightly colored oil barrels are piled up in a far corner of the Little River Service Center in Little Haiti. Painted with idyllic tropical scenes by local Haitian artists, they're meant to function as garbage cans in a litter campaign proposed by the center's administrator, Fedy Vieux-Brierre. The barrels, which look too lightweight to withstand hurricane season, have not been approved for use by the city. So for now they're being used to liven up the office.
Duval-Carrie did not want to paint a garbage can. He is, however, involved in another project with Vieux-Brierre, serving as vice-president of the recently formed Haitian American Artists Association. This will lead, Duval-Carrie hopes, to the founding of a Haitian Arts Center, which the artist envisions as a place that could offer residencies to both exile artists and those who still live on the island. Additionally, the center could host serious exhibitions of Haitian art that later could travel to Haiti when the situation there stabilizes.
Vieux-Brierre seems to have a more touristic function in mind for the arts center, establishing a place that would display handicrafts as well as art. (The art-center proposal is moot for the moment anyway. Little Haiti, whose businessmen rely on trade with Haiti, is suffering as a result of the current embargo. Artistic projects there are not a current priority.)
"I feel that this is an extension of Haiti. For the first time in Haitian history the Haitians have an enclave outside of Haiti. Even in New York that does not exist. I think that decisions will be made here," he says optimistically, while acknowledging that building a strong Haitian community will take time. "What happens in Haiti happens again here. You have the Haitian intelligentsia, the upper middle classes, who are moving to places like Kendall, and you have the Haitian people here in Little Haiti." Duval-Carrie says he looked for a house in Little Haiti, but opted for Miami Beach instead because the school system there has a better reputation.
Last spring the Aristide government-in-exile invited the ousted president's supporters to celebrate the second anniversary of the new Haitian constitution at a reception at the headquarters of the Organization of American States, in Washington, D.C. Duval-Carrie created a site-specific installation for the occasion at the hosts' behest.
Although the Duval family in Haiti has supported Aristide, the artist says he is not interested in party politics A or in political statements, for that matter. His name is absent from a petition signed earlier this month by 22 Haitian musicians and visual artists protesting U.S. intervention in Haiti. Duval-Carrie's view of the situation is a little more complex.
"It's not that I want the intervention. But something has to happen," he stresses. "If the world community has decided to take on the cause, they have to do something about it." In any case, he's not very interested in signing petitions.
"I am not a politician," Duval-Carrie cautions. "I am not a crusader, and I am not an activist. Activists have told me, 'Edouard, your art speaks for itself.'
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.