Little Country, Big Output

One of the mysteries of 20th-century art is the remarkable outpouring of creativity that has come from a seemingly unlikely place: Haiti. For nearly half a century, a steady stream of art has flowed from the tiny Caribbean nation, which has a population of roughly six million and takes up an area slightly larger than Maryland on the island of Hispaniola, about equidistant from Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico.

In the past decade or so, the stream has swollen into a river. Commercial outlets for Haitian art continue to pop up all over the country; at least five such galleries can be found in South Florida. Haitian art fetches big bucks at the major auction houses and merits museum retrospectives, including an impressive show the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale hosted nine years ago.

The apparent explanations for such artistic fecundity don't hold up to scrutiny. As recent history has made painfully clear, Haiti is a country in almost constant social, political, and economic turmoil. AIDS is a huge problem, and Haiti's standard of living is one of the lowest in the Western Hemisphere. Could it be that Haitians turn to art out of a desperate desire to make sense of the devastating circumstances of their lives?

Perhaps, but then why is there so little overt political content in the vast majority of Haitian art? Haiti doesn't have its own Goya, chronicling the suffering of the country's people with an unflinching gaze. I've seen a few paintings of boat people risking their lives for a chance to improve their lots, but that's about as close to "political" as Haitian art seems to get. Like the Cuban exile artists who deny Castro utterly, Haitian artists have banished the legacy of the despotic Duvaliers -- the notorious Papa Doc and Baby Doc -- from their work.

Instead, Haitian art is an art of joy. (One of the authoritative scholarly studies of the subject is Selden Rodman's Where Art Is Joy: Haitian Art -- The First 40 Years.) It's an art that celebrates not only the rituals that give structure and meaning to human life --especially lives in extremity -- but also the earthy grace and dignity of ordinary daily living. Haitian art is full of scenes of workers in fields or on fishing boats, of bustling, open-air marketplaces, and of weddings and other social ceremonies. But, amazingly enough, these pictures never instill in the viewer a sense of grueling work in harsh conditions or physical and emotional hardship. Rather, they offer an intoxicating melange of color, texture, and motion. Most Haitian art is, above all else, highly sensual. (It's also an art almost totally lacking in the irony that saturates so much contemporary work.)

Accordingly, Haitian artists are preoccupied with capturing, in vivid detail, the country's verdant tropical landscapes and the exotic birds and other creatures that inhabit them. Some artists transform the quotidian world into highly stylized, ethereal "dreamscapes." Artists from the Animalist "school" conjure up Garden of Eden scenes, in which animals from all over the world coexist in happy, if incongruous, proximity -- the lion lies down not just with the lamb, but with the penguin as well.

To complicate further the mystery of Haitian art, the artists, many of them entirely self-taught, execute their visions in a wide variety of media and in a dizzying array of styles, from the crude and primitive to the highly sophisticated. An excellent representative sample of both style and content is now on display in the appropriately titled exhibition "Haitian Vibrations: Art, Color, Spirit," at ArtServe in Fort Lauderdale.

The show's more than 150 pieces run the gamut of Haitian art: oils, acrylics, and watercolors, of course, but also hanging metal sculptures, freestanding wooden and papier-mache sculptures, hand-painted decorative boxes, and beaded and sequined voodoo flags and bottles. Haitian artists are nothing if not resourceful. In their hands the metal from used oil drums is cut into intricate shapes, then painted in bright, glossy colors to represent birds and houses and the ubiquitous "tap-tap" buses. When canvases and oil paints are scarce, artists turn to acrylics and Masonite, a relatively inexpensive hardboard made from various pressed wood fibers.

Curator Candice Russell, a Plantation-based writer and art collector-dealer who assisted Selden Rodman with the 1989 Museum of Art exhibition, assembled this show with three collaborators, including Katie Barr, owner of the thriving Haitian Art Collection gallery in Delray Beach. Russell's several pages of written commentary are posted throughout the gallery, but she and her colleagues wisely opted to stay faithful to the anything-goes aesthetic of so much Haitian art; there's an appropriate playfulness to the show.

Paintings by such established masters as Andre Pierre and Wilson Bigaud (whose work is included in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City) rub shoulders with the works of young unknowns. Glass cases display voodoo flags and bottles alongside such secular items as whimsical animals made of carved and painted wood and splashy papier-mache tap-tap buses. The pervasive influence of Haiti's peculiar religious culture, which embraces both Catholicism and West African-based voodoo, turns up again and again.

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