Wednesday, 19 November 2014


Paintings in Haiti: Two Centuries of Artistic Creation (Photo: McKenzie)

Nearly five years after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, a wide-ranging exhibition of the country’s contemporary art began Wednesday in Paris, a testament to survival and a bold move to shatter misconceptions about Haitian culture.

Going far beyond stereotypes of naïve painting, the show aims to “transcend the magico-religious and exotic vision too often simplistically associated with Haitian art”, according to the curators.

A visitor views work by Jean-Michel Basquiat.
(Photo: McKenzie)
“We didn’t want to repeat what has been done before, so this really is contemporary work with a glance to the past, or a dialogue between the past and the present,” said Mireille Pérodin Jérôme, director of a museum in Port-au-Prince and co-curator of the exhibition with Régine Cuzin, who heads a France-based artistic events company.

“The works include all styles, and the artists were chosen for the force of their expressions,” Pérodin Jérôme told SWAN. “The impact of the earthquake is of course present, with some of the artists addressing issues of continued poverty, of people still living in precarious conditions.”

The exhibition, titled Haiti: Two Centuries of Artistic Creation, will run for three months at the landmark Grand Palais national galleries. It’s already generating a buzz in the French capital, especially because of the range of the 56 artists represented and the level of the 160-plus works displayed.

Jean-Ulrick Désert stands before his artwork.
Alongside creations by celebrated figures such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Hervé Télémaque and Robert Saint-Brice, one can find striking works by acclaimed “contemporary artists of all generations”, living in Haiti and abroad.

The Berlin-based architect-artist Jean-Ulrick Désert has two pieces in the show that immediately capture attention. His huge wall installation, labeled The Goddess ConstellationsSky Above Port-au-Prince 12 January 2010, 9:53 pm, is particularly poignant.

Rather than focusing on the physical destruction, Désert shows the constellations at the precise time of the catastrophe, evoking destiny, religion, astrology, power, powerlessness and the immense human toll. The artwork, measuring 300 x 300 cm, comprises hundreds of metal disks pinned into nine polystyrene panels covered in red velvet.

Each orb represents the exact location of the stars and planets at the time, and Désert said he worked from a satellite map to get it right. When one looks closer, one can also see that the pieces of metal are all embossed - with various images of the legendary American singer Josephine Baker, whom Désert considers a kind of goddess.

Jospehine Baker "in the stars",
“Because this exhibition is taking place in France, I wanted to have some Parisian gesture as well, because Josephine Baker is the perfect example of an icon in exile,” Désert told SWAN.

The piece pairs well with his floor installation, The Goddess Temple, which consists of carpeting, concrete, black and white velvet, glass, and Arabic text from the poem The Ruins (made famous in song by the Egyptian star Oum Kalsoum). Désert said this work was inspired by the façade of a house built for Baker.

The artist, who studied architecture in New York, is presented at the exhibition in “tête-à-tête” with Finland-based plasticien Sasha Huber, who also does installations. The show has three of these “face-to-face” or “dialogue” sections, in addition to areas devoted to untitled works, landscapes, spirits and chiefs.

Robert Saint-Brince "in dialogue" with Sébastien Jean
The other “tete-a-tete” segments feature Télémaque and Basquiat; and Saint-Brice and Sébastien Jean.

In the latter, one can view a painting by Saint-Brice that was almost destroyed by the earthquake. Titled Loas and painted around 1958, it was buried in the rubble for nearly two months and has now been restored by experts at the Smithsonian Institution.

The earthquake, which killed more than 200,000 people, also ruined numerous artworks; and while these can never be replaced, young Haitian artists are continuing the island’s cultural traditions, said Pérodin Jérôme.

Among the participants in the exhibition is 28-year-old rising star Manuel Mathieu, born in Port-au-Prince in 1986, educated in Montreal and now working and studying in London.

Artist Manuel Mathieu
Mathieu uses different elements for his art, including photography, installation and video; but he’s showing two arresting semi-abstract paintings in the Paris show, with mixed media on canvas.

Mathieu told SWAN that taking part in the exhibition was like “having a big party with your friends”, since some of his colleagues and mentors, like the installation and performance artist Mario Benjamin, were also involved.

“I’m happy to be here and to show to everyone that we have a diverse and complex culture in Haiti,” Mathieu said. “Trying to put nearly sixty artists together is a journey in itself.”

The exhibition took nearly three years to bring to fruition, and it may also be regarded as a journey beyond the earthquake. Several of the artists described the profound impact the disaster has had on their work, and according to one, Vladimir Cybil Charlier, some found it near impossible to produce anything afterwards.

Charlier, who was born in New York but who attended schools in Haiti, told SWAN that the earthquake “razed” her childhood in Port-au-Prince.

Vladimir Cybil Charlier and her response to Preacher Pat.
“It’s like it never existed, except in my imagination,” she said, adding that even “airport art”, or pieces sold to tourists, became “grimmer” after 2010.

In her work, Charlier plays with the idea of looking through several windows at the same time, using collage, ink, paper, wood and pencil to create distinctive pieces that gradually reveal layers of narrative to the viewer.

Her two pieces at the exhibition are from her Postcard to Preacher Pat series, a riposte to American televangelist Pat Robertson who preached that the earthquake was a consequence of Haiti being “cursed” because its people “swore a pact to the devil”.

Pointing to Robertson’s ignorance and shameful posturing, Charlier said her artwork is also a critique of the missionaries who flooded Haiti after the earthquake, many without any understanding of the country’s culture.

Her collages are among the political pieces in the exhibition, which will also teach spectators much about the nation’s history. Through art, visitors will gain further insight into Haiti’s slave revolution and its battle with France to become the first independent country in the Caribbean and Latin America.

They will also get to understand that Hati’s luminous art is the real “magic potion”, as famed writer Maryse Condé has said. - A.M.