(New York Times, March 18, 2010)
Out of Ruin, Haiti’s Visionaries
By HOLLAND COTTER
In a disaster, you focus on lives first, all else later. When the earthquake hit Haiti in January, the news was about the dead and missing, miraculous survivals, towns smashed to bits.
Behind this news came other news. One of Haiti’s proudest cultural monuments, the Episcopal cathedral of the Holy Trinity in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, had collapsed, destroying murals painted in the late 1940s by some of the great artists of what is often called the Haitian Renaissance: Philomé Obin, Castera Basile, Rigaud Benoit, Wilson Bigaud, Prefete Duffaut. Their images of verdant, fruit-colored tropical heavens had helped turn a politically volatile nation into a tourist destination, and art itself into an export industry.
The Centre d’Art, where these artists once met with André Breton, Aimé Césaire and Wifredo Lam, was seriously damaged, as was the Musée d’Art Haitien. Catastrophically, many of the 12,000 Haitian works, accumulated over half a century, in the Musée/Galerie d’art Nader were lost when the building that housed them, a family home, disintegrated.
Objects retrieved from the Centre d’Art and the Musée d’Art Haitien have been locked in containers. Nearly everything recovered will need conservation.
Far more difficult to assess is the survival of art produced outside the fragile museum and gallery network, though some of this work has relatively high visibility through commercial connections with the United States and Europe. A funky downtown section of Port-au-Prince called the Grand Rue was the scene, in December, of a first-time art event called the “Ghetto Biennial.” Based on international models but operating on a tiny budget, it brought in a few artists from abroad but was basically a showcase for a collective of Haitian sculptors who call themselves Atis Rezistans. The group’s three senior members — André Eugène, Jean Hérard Celeur and Frantz Jacques, known as Guyodo — work together in the Grand Rue, in a warren of cinderblock car-repair shops that supply the material for their art: rusted chassis, steering wheels, hubcaps, broken crankshafts, cast-off oil filters. With the help of young assistants, they turn this industrial junk
into demonic doomsday figures with giant phalluses and gargoylish bodies topped by plastic doll heads or human skulls.
These artists, all around 40 years old, belong to a generation that is internationally attuned — they have a higher profile abroad than at home — and has experienced life in Haiti at its most abject, which is saying something, given the nation’s scarifying modern history.
Their art comes across as a hellish response to the older painters of tropical idylls, though in reality all of these artists share a common bond. To a greater or lesser extent, and in different ways, much of their work is based on the Afro-Caribbean religion of voodoo — or vodou, as many scholars prefer to spell it — Haiti’s majority religion and continuing source of social and cultural cohesion.
Where Centre d’Art painters like Andre Pierre (circa 1915-2005) and Hector Hyppolite (1894-1948), who were both voodoo priests, emphasized the religion’s more benign aspects with images of regal deities in bosky settings, the Atis Rezistans group tunnels into its dark, dystopian, underground side. Many of their sculptures depict the ghoulish spirits called Gedes and their paternal leader, Baron Samedi, the lord of death, decay and grotesque eroticism.
When the quake struck, much of the Grand Rue was flattened, and unknown numbers of Atis Rezistans sculptures are likely to have been crushed and buried. An exception was a single colossal metal figure of Baron Samedi, which stayed intact and erect as if surveying the havoc he had wrought.
But the greater unknown is the fate of voodoo religious art. Anyone who saw the traveling exhibition “Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou,” organized by the Fowler Museum of Cultural History at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1995, knows how visually potent this art can be.
Voodoo has ancient roots in West Africa, where at some point it met up with European Christianity and, later, in the Caribbean, through the Atlantic slave trade, with indigenous New World religions. The result was a baffling, exhilarating, multifarious sacred art, which takes a visually explosive form in assemblage-style altars.
These are dedicated to specific voodoo deities, often embodied in a printed picture or statuette of a Christian saint, around which is distributed a purposefully crowded array of devotional objects and substances including dolls, Buddhas, Roman Catholic holy cards, playing cards, political portraits, satin-swathed bottles, perfume atomizers, rosaries, carved phalluses, Masonic diagrams, candles, kerchiefs, money, mirrors, fruit, rum, flowers and human and animal skulls.
The largest altars are often in voodoo temples, which can be rooms in homes or shedlike congregational spaces that are decorated with wall paintings and sequined ritual flags called drapo.
Wherever it is, the altar is a total, balanced work of religious art, a model of good ritual housekeeping. At the same time, it is unfixed: kinetic and ephemeral, meant to be added to and removed from, to be tasted, touched, lighted, adorned, fanned and fed.
It is a form utterly unsuited to conventional museum display, though the Fowler show incorporated several altars, some of them recreations of ones that already existed in Port-au-Prince. At the Fowler itself, and then in museums, as the show traveled to Miami, Washington, Chicago, New Orleans and New York, the altars invariably attracted voodoo devotees who left offerings of money and food. Clearly they saw no distinction between sacred art and museum art. Or, put another way, for them the presence of sacred art made the museum a sacred space.
By some estimates, Haiti has tens of thousands of voodoo temples, the bulk concentrated in cities, and most all but invisible. Tucked away in alleys and basements, or behind garage doors, they rarely announce themselves. This makes any attempt to survey them and the art they hold difficult under any circumstances, but particularly now, when the very topography of cities like Port-au-Prince and Jacmel to the south, renowned for its production of Carnival masks, has been altered. At least one of the Port-au-Prince temples replicated in “Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou” is known to have been destroyed in the quake.
But word has come that a celebrated maker of sequined flags, Myrlande Constant, after camping with her family in a tent city in Port-au-Prince for more than a month, is back at work in a borrowed studio. The mask-maker and painter Civil Didier, left homeless in Jacmel, is in New York, as part of a new, possibly temporary diaspora of Haitian artists that the quake has created.
Meanwhile, long before January, the Fowler had already begun work on a sequel to its 1995 Vodou show, organized, as the first one was, by Donald J. Cosentino, a professor of African and diaspora literature and folklore at U.C.L.A., partnering with the art historian and anthropologist Marilyn Houlberg of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Circumstances in Haiti have greatly changed in the two decades since the earlier exhibition was conceived. In 1991, when research was beginning, Jean-Bertram Aristide was president; the country was giddy with hope for the future. The hope couldn’t last. Mr. Aristide was forced into exile, returned and left again, under a cloud. The country has since endured extreme levels of poverty and violence. The tropical Elysium of older Haitian art has never looked more out of place.
This is the reality that Mr. Cosentino has set out to address in the new exhibition, initially titled “Haiti in Extremis.” And voodoo gives him apt images to work with, from the cult of the Gedes and Baron Samedi, guardians of the dead, who could, through cataclysmic fusions of eroticism and destruction, generate a recuperative vitality.
The Atis Rezistans collective was on the preliminary list of artists to be in the new show, which is scheduled to debut in 2012, as were contemporary painters and sculptors like Edouard Duval-Carrié, Frantz Zephirin and Mr. Didier, all of whom gave their voodoo sources a deeply fatalistic spin.
Then came the earthquake. And even before Mr. Zephirin’s painting of a skeletal Baron Samedi had appeared on the cover of The New Yorker, Mr. Cosentino was rethinking the show. He expanded its title: “Haiti in Extremis: After the Apocalypse.”
News came from Port-au-Prince that a particularly vibrant Gede temple overseen by the voodoo priest Akiki Baka, called Emperor Sonson, and situated near the Grand Rue, at the very epicenter of the quake, had survived unscathed. An altar from the temple would be in the new show.
So would art being created in direct response to the disaster. In other words, this would be a project whose shape and contents are, like life in Haiti, in the making and unpredictable. And it’s still two years away, which could be, depending on how the Gedes play their hand, never or forever.