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Friday, February 3, 2023

Spirit of a nation: Capturing the angst, agony of Haiti

BY ELISA TURNERCertain Haitian artists and their fans cringe when they hear art from this beautiful, brutalized island called ”naive,” as has been the case for years. In Haiti, says Miami-based Edouard Duval-Carrié, “there’s too much angst, uncertainty, and violence. Naive it’s not.”Duval-Carrié, whose art is featured in handsome shows at the Bass Museum of Art and at Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, is walking around the galleries at the Bass.The Haitian-born artist can’t help himself. Duval-Carrié breaks into a tirade against the commonly applied label, a loaded description that brings to mind sweet, pretty landscapes where figures and forests have the flat, fanciful look of children’s art. ”Naive” is a code word, in this case, for tourist-friendly art.Also on display here: Allegories of Haitian Life from the Collection of Jonathan Demme, guest curated by Candice Russell and Axelle Liautaud, and Haitian Art from the Bass Museum Collection; Duval-Carrié gestures emphatically at eloquent paintings from the collection of filmmaker Jonathan Demme.”You look at any of these paintings, and you see that they tell stories,” he says.The more than 80 paintings from Demme’s collection showcase the drama in Haiti’s brutal politics, hardscrabble life, barren hillsides, and the peculiarly beautiful altars and emblems wrought from Vodou.1940s PAINTINGSFrom this private collection are 1940s paintings by the late Hector Hyppolite and Rigaud Benoit, artists whose careers flourished when well-connected Westerners began to lavish attention on Haitian artists as World War II ended.Marché a la Campagne by Benoit shows the flattened perspective that’s a hallmark of this so-called ”naive” art. It portrays a hectic market day in a countryside stark with gray hills devoid of trees, the marks of rampant deforestation and the resulting soil erosion.Benoit’s Reine d’Afrique also has the colorful flatness of naive art, but the dress of the dark-skinned woman in this painting marks her as Erzulie Freda, a Vodou priestess who celebrates the religion’s spirit of love.Recent Haitian history is redolent in richly metaphoric images populating Duval-Carrié’s Vodou Pantheon at the Bass. This is an installation, combining bronze sculptures and four paintings, that was shown in Brazil at the Sao Paul Biennial in 1996; the four paintings, owned by the Bass, and 16 of the 30 original bronze sculptures are now on view at the Bass (the Miami Art Museum owns 10 of the sculptures). It’s a rare treat to see so much of the installation altogether.”History can’t be looked at in a naive way,” Duval-Carrié says. “You have propaganda, deception . . . . I have a real problem with calling this art naive, especially mine. That’s the last thing you can call it.”Debate over the so-called naiveté of Haitian art surfaced in Miami in 1996, when the Miami Art Museum, then called Center for the Fine Arts, featured a landmark exhibition, Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou.Breathtaking, gorgeous and complex, it included both Vodou altars and contemporary art, such as the painting of a Vodou priest at his altar by Marilene Phipps, a Haitian artist then based in Boston.”The true naive artist is more rare,” Phipps told The Miami Herald in 1996. “One gallery in Port-au-Prince made a fortune in keeping standards of stylization of naive art. A lot of it is very lyrical, beautiful and joyful in the way Western society expects naive art to be.’TROUBLED’ PLACE“Haiti is a very troubled island. People have manifested a lot of ingenuity in their survival and their art reflects that. One should not necessarily attribute the bright colors to joy. In some forms of art, bright colors are associated with brutality and conflict.”Certainly it was the brutality of recent Haitian history that in part drew Demme to the bright colors of Haitian art. You can intuit that from the Bass exhibit based on the art collection he began in the mid-1980s.The show includes work by classic figures in Haitian art, like Andre Pierre, who’s represented by his Roi de Voudon, with lacy, intricate white designs recalling the symbolic veve drawn on temple floors during Vodou ceremonies. And there are other works by less known artists, such as Adam Leontus and Jacques Hyppolite, that show a striking mix of realistic and symbolic details. This is not ”joyful,” tourist-friendly art.When Demme first traveled to Haiti in 1987, he was living on the upper West Side of New York, down the street from a store called The Haitian Corner, says his curator, Pebo Voss. ”He enjoyed the endless political discussion in the store and the art all over the walls,” she says. Demme has since been to Haiti about 10 times, amassing a collection and creating his own art.After that first visit, Demme made the 1987 documentary Haiti: Dreams of Democracy, about life after the overthrow of dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier a year earlier. In 2003, the Academy Award-winning director made The Agronomist, a documentary about Haitian journalist Jean Leopold Dominique, an outspoken voice for change in Haiti amid his country’s ongoing mire of political unrest and military coups. Dominique was shot to death in 2000 in the courtyard of his radio station.It’s a special opportunity to see Demme’s collection with Duval-Carrié’s Vodou Pantheon. This is neither historical art that tells us lessons we learned from dusty books about battles ages ago nor poster art proclaiming easy-to-read propaganda. This is history that’s happening right now, with the roots of New World colonialism still playing an active role in Haiti’s vibrant, tragic culture. For the most part, these works creatively employ imagery to engage your imagination.WYNWOOD SHOWA related show — Edouard Duval-Carrié: Uprooted — is across town at Bernice Steinbaum Gallery in Wynwood. Steinbaum also is showing Maria Jose Arjona: The Puppet Project: Stage One, The Absent Puppeteer. Arjona’s work in Steinbaum’s project space upstairs is the delicate residue of her performance at the gallery, a nuanced meditation on spiritual themes that fits with Duval-Carrié’s adaptation of Vodou lore.The selection here of Duval-Carrié’s recent work on paper and a mixed-media installation is an eye-popping leap beyond the mood of magical realism that has informed much of his previous work, such as the dramatic, narrative paintings in Vodou Pantheon.This new work features a pared-down palette, chiefly drawings in starry white on fields of indigo blue. The images appear to float on the indigo blue almost like the storytelling patterns of constellations depicted in the night sky. But these are stories drawn from New World life on Earth.Duval-Carrié mines rich associations in his visually sumptuous art. In this new series, The Burning House, with its twin staircases descending from a house engulfed not in flames but in ghostly vapors, recalls famous photographs of a building in Africa with double, descending stairways. The building is still located on the coast of Ghana. It’s called the Cape Coast Castle, and was a famous departure point for Africans leaving on slave ships for the New World. They walked down the steps after passing through the notorious Door of No Return.Note: This article was first published on the Miami Herald

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