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.

Tuesday 11 November 2014


Sia’s Tolno’s infectious laugh and relaxed “vibe” do not immediately convey the message that this Guinean artist is a fighter. But once you hear her story and listen to her music, you realize that Tolno is on a serious mission to change attitudes - towards war, gender and parenting, just to name a few issues.

Her latest album African Woman, with the single Rebel Leader, is a blistering critique of those who ravage and destroy countries with incomprehensible wars and of leaders who do nothing for their populations.

Set to Afrobeat music, the lyrics of Rebel Leader are addressed to warlords in general, and to Liberia's Charles Taylor in particular.

“Mr. Rebel Leader, tell me who you fighting for, tell me why this massacre,” Tolno sings with palpable anger and urgency. “How do you feel inside when you see children die?”

The 39-year-old singer says she has no interest in being a heroine, but she wants to use her music to bring about change.

“I know what it means to be a refugee in other people’s countries because of war,” Tolno told SWAN in an interview in Paris, where she now lives. “And I wonder about the mentality of people who create war, beating people who are already down. So when I’m alone, this is what I write about. I decided to use this album to speak about these things.”

Sia Tolno in Paris
Tolno’s empathy and drive owe something to her own rough childhood in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where she lived with her father who had relocated from Guinea to work as a teacher.

Her father used corporal punishment as a constant form of discipline, she says, and she can still remember being hit just because she had been seen walking home with a friend after school.

“He thought that beating was for a child’s own good,” she says. “Some parents don’t know the long-term repercussions that this can have. But I have to say that he was always there, and made sure I went to school, but he was not a mother.”

Her mother lived in Sierra Leone as well, but Tolno had little contact with her. Along with the feeling of isolation within her own family, Tolno suffered from the conflicts created by warlords fighting over the region’s “blood diamonds”, and she took refuge in writing and poetry.

“There are so many people who manipulate us because of our poverty, and nobody is there to help us,” she recalls of those days.

When she was 20 years old, and wondering whether to study drama or information technology, Charles Taylor’s forces once more plunged Liberia and the region into bloody warfare, and Tolno had to flee to Guinea, although she hardly knew the members of her family there.

“I can see nothing good about war, nothing,” she says. “It’s like a disease. What can you do if you’re not sure you’ll still be alive at the end of the day?”

Music was a means out.
Photo by N. Lawson-Daku / Lusafrica
Music provided a way out of the feeling of desolation, and in the mid-Nineties Tolno began performing at a club called “Copains d’abord”, operated by a Lebanese businessman named Mustapha, who she says was kind and helpful to the people working for him.

As a member of the conservative, “forest-based” Kissi ethnic group, Tolno could not draw on any griot troubadour tradition, and she says her family found it unimaginable that she had decided to be a singer.

But her powerful voice and her choice of material - popular songs by Western singers such as Edith Piaf, Nina Simone and Whitney Houston - soon won her many fans.

She represented Guinea in the first series of the “Africa Star” music show held in Gabon in 2008 and particularly impressed two of the judges: Gabonese musician and composer Pierre Akendengue and record producer Jose Da Silva (the CEO of the Paris-based Lusafrica label and the person who first recorded the late great Cesaria Evora).

Although Tolno didn’t win, Da Silva invited her to join his label, and her first international album Eh Sanga was released in 2009. That was the year more civil unrest broke out in Guinea, with security forces opening fire on a crowd and sexually assaulting women in the streets.

Pierre Akendengue, a mentor.
Living in countries where such atrocities have occurred has had an impact on Tolno’s writing and singing. She has now set her powerful voice and lyrics to Afrobeat, the rough and angry fusion of Ghanaian-Nigerian funk, jazz and highlife made popular by music legend Fela Kuti.

African Woman, her third international release, comes with notable contributions from Tony Allen, who was Fela’s drummer and artistic director for more than 10 years until they had a political falling out. But here there’s a difference: while the music is still “angry” and explosive, Tolno’s songs take aim at machismo, gender inequality, Africa’s inadequate children’s rights and the culture of warmongering.

African Woman also condemns female genital mutilation (in Kekeleh) and the treatment of migrants (Yaguine et Fodé). The latter song is perhaps the most moving on the album, as it focuses on the tragic story of two teenagers from Guinea, Yaguina Koïta and Fodé  Tounkara, who set out for a better life in Europe but who froze to death as stowaways in the undercarriage of a Belgian airliner in 1999.

Their bodies were discovered on the plane at Brussels International Airport after the aircraft had reportedly made at least three return flights between the Belgian capital and Conakry. If they had lived, the young men would have been 30 and 29 years old respectively in 2014.

Sia Tolno,
before a portrait of Cesaria.
“We have to do more for our young people who must cope with so much frustration,” she says. “You always hear that Africa is the richest continent in terms of resources, but what are the resources being used for?”

Despite such heartfelt words, there’s a small problem with the album: people may find themselves too busy dancing to the catchy rhythms to fully consider the urgent message. 

But one can only hope that at least some of Africa’s government leaders and warlords will hear the appeal from this African artist.

Watch the video of Rebel Leader here:

Saturday 1 November 2014


With stirring tributes to the late Nelson Mandela, the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO launched celebrations on Oct. 31 to mark its 70th anniversary.

Nelson Mandela, "Papa Africa". Visual by J. Abinibi
The agency’s director-general, Irina Bokova, said that Mandela “embodied UNESCO’s ideals, our faith in human dignity, our belief in the ability of every woman and man to change society through tolerance and peace.”

The celebrations in Paris included a colloquium featuring the prickly Nigerian writer and Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka, who examined Mandela’s legacy and his impact on the world, in a sometimes uncomfortable lecture.

Soyinka, himself a former prisoner of conscience and long-standing critic of oppression, said there might be various reasons behind the universal love of the South African icon - including the desire to feel adulation for a legend - but the main cause stems from the human need for freedom.

       Wole Soyinka. © McKenzie
“Mandela was the protagonist of a universal humanity,” the writer said, explaining that dialogue and reconciliation were not means of appeasement but higher goals toward peace and forgiveness, following human rights violations.

Haiti’s president Michel Martelly, the guest of honour at the ceremony, added his voice to the tributes, saying that the world needs another Mandela to “help us overcome extremism and fanaticism, before it’s too late”.

Mandela was appointed a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador during his lifetime, and was also awarded the agency’s Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize in 1991, along with Frederik de Klerk, the last apartheid-era president of South Africa. Both men received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

Irina Bokova. © McKenzie
According to Bokova, Mandela always supported UNESCO’s “values”. The agency was founded in 1945 and has grown from 20 member states to a current 195. Its mandate in the post-World War II period was to develop the "intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind" with a view to promoting lasting peace.

"Today the world faces new and steep challenges, and we need to respond with the same courage, the same audacity the same vision - because violence today is directed against schools, against cultural diversity, against freedom and human rights,” Bokova said.

The 70th anniversary celebrations will continue through 2015, as UNESCO reflects on its history, which has been one of ups and downs.

The United States withdrew from the organization between 1984 and 2003, for instance, and UNESCO recently faced a financial crisis when the US government withheld its dues after the agency’s member states decided to grant Palestine full membership in 2011.

Singer Sally Nyolo, backstage. © McKenzie
Bokova’s exhortation of “long live UNESCO” at the anniversary launch may have been a reference to such upheavals, but the evening was mostly about celebration, with the plethora of speeches interspersed with artistic performances.

The Mahotella Queens group from South Africa had the audience laughing and cheering to their skits, dances and songs. They were followed by singer Sally Nyolo of Cameroon, who brought soul and style to the stage, accompanied by two musicians and sand-art artist David Myriam.

Choreographer Sam Tshabalala and his Gumboot Dancers later stomped in unison, recalling the tradition of black miners who used their feet to provide percussion as they sang. And the celebrated Guinean singer Mory Kanté performed his 1988 hit “Yé ké yé ké”, which made spectators and UNESCO officials get up and dance.

During his performance, Kante also paid tribute to Mandela, praising all that the freedom fighter and statesman did for Africa and the world.  

The public can learn more about Mandela’s life and work in an exhibition that runs until Dec. 31, 2014, at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters. Titled Nelson Mandela, from Prisoner to President, the exhibition was curated by South Africa’s Apartheid Museum and has been shown in various countries. 

The Mohotella Queens. © McKenzie
Sam Tshabalala and his Gumboot Dancers. © McKenzie