You Can't Keep Art Down
When I bought my first few pieces of Haitian art a dozen or so years ago, I knew zilch about Haitian art. What I learned very quickly, however, is that it can be addictive. Now I know considerably more about Haitian art, and my home is filled with it: 16 oil and acrylic paintings and two watercolors in the bedroom alone, with more in the living room, the kitchen, the hallway, even the bathroom.
So you can imagine my delight when I discovered that Gallery Six at the Broward County Main Library was hosting a show called "A New Era: Haitian Art in the Diaspora." It's a modest show, nowhere near as sweeping as "Where Art Is Joy: Forty Years of Haitian Art," the exhibition put on by Fort Lauderdale's Museum of Art in its heyday in 1989.
"A New Era" includes more than 50 pieces by about 30 artists, and it's a mixed bag. There's not a lot in the way of marketplace scenes or workers in the fields or fishing boats, the subject matter many people associate with Haitian art. Nor are there the beaded vodou flags and steel-cutout tap-tap buses that are so distinctively Haitian.
One pair of acrylic paintings, Louis Rosemond's Jungle I and Jungle II, is typical of a certain style of Haitian painting (one that leaves me cold) in which jungle animals are rendered with naïve technique in bright colors. Another two acrylics, on the other hand -- Bermy Dorvil's Le Retour du Chasseur and En Enfant Polisson -- are excellent examples of the Cap-Haitien style, which often features stylized urban scenes captured in crisp, clean lines and more delicate palettes.
Le Retour du Chasseur applies the Cap-Haitien style to a rural scene, with a woman outside an ornate country house greeting a man on horseback who seems to have returned from bird-hunting. En Enfant Polisson is a busy, unusually witty street scene: A little boy at the top of a house's porch steps gleefully pisses onto the sidewalk below; an angry woman, presumably his mother, crosses the porch to punish him; a flower vendor on the street nearby looks on in amazement; a little girl on the other side of the street points out the incident to the man at her side; and a couple just around the corner flirts, oblivious to what's going on a few feet away. As a footnote, Dorvil plants a bright-red fire hydrant in the lower left corner.
Jean Edner Cadet's Landscape I and Landscape II, also acrylics, have the feel of classic Haitian "dream landscapes," featuring a wide variety of lush tropical foliage in soft, dreamy pastels. The former includes the small, rounded hillocks seen in so many Haitian paintings, as well as a pond in the center of the image. An ill-defined mermaid in the center of the pond is the piece's one big mistake. The second landscape has the same lush foliage and hillocks and water, with the addition of some water birds and a handful of people approaching in the distance on the right.
Then there are a few Haitian artists represented in the show who have taken their inspiration from cubism and ventured into territory best left unexplored: blocky, fragmented imagery that teeters uneasily on the line dividing tacky decorative art from fine art. Some of the nudes are also borderline cheesy. Another iffy item here is Alphonse "Alpi" Piard's Metamorphosis Diptych, dominated by swirls of vibrant color incorporating tropical foliage and snail shells, adding up to something that suggests Peter-Max-goes-Haitian.
But some of the other artists shatter our preconceptions of what constitutes Haitian art. Profondeur Dugeste, a mixed-media work by Léonel Jules, is a beautifully simple, long, narrow vertical abstract in which the purple, green, orange, black, and white tones are in perfect harmony. And there's lots going on in Gone with the Wind and The Tribe, two mixed-media pieces by Lucien Leconte. The latter, in particular -- probably the exhibition's strongest work -- is a tantalizing melange of elongated figures, rune-like markings, and crumpled strips of some sort of metallic substance, all set in a looming archway and accented here and there by crudely applied swaths of orange and a dramatic teal squiggle.
At its best, "A New Era" is a reminder of the astounding diversity of Haitian art. That diversity never ceases to amaze me, given that it has been a product of such a small, impoverished country. Haitians have grappled with political instability, terror, crushing poverty, hunger, AIDS, and environmental disaster for so long it's difficult to imagine when they enjoyed a semblance of normal life. Perhaps the extraordinary fecundity of Haitian artists is a reaction to the horrific circumstances of their homeland.
What this exhibition fails to do is to provide even the most rudimentary context for the art it presents. We get just the names of the work and the artist, the medium, and the dimensions, nothing more. The inclusion of the term "diaspora" in the show's title suggests that these artists may be exiles from their country, although there's nothing posted to explain that diaspora refers to a dispersion of an originally homogenous people, language, or culture. (The original term, capitalized, referred to "the dispersion of Jews outside of Israel from the Sixth Century B.C., when the Jews were exiled to Babylonia, until the present time," according to my American Heritage Dictionary.)
It's a shame such context isn't provided on even a photocopied handout, because people seeing Haitian art for the first time might not recognize that this show is just a tiny fragment of a much bigger picture.
After taking in "A New Era," I wandered over to a small display on the fringes of Gallery Six I had noticed out of the corner of my eye. It consists of a crowded row of unceremoniously presented pieces displayed on metal grid panels. Without realizing it, I started at the wrong end and mistakenly assumed that the art is by schoolchildren.
It was only when I reached the other end of the show that I saw its title: "Healing Thru Art: An Exhibition Featuring the Works of Female Prisoners in the Broward Women's Correctional Facility." A postcard handout ("A New Era" organizers, take note) explains that this art is a therapeutic tool for female inmates who were victims of physical or sexual abuse. "Alcohol and drug abuse, promiscuity, self-mutilations and misdirected anger are all symptomatic of abused persons with no creative outlet to express their pain. Prisoners who engage in arts and education programs show a 70 percent reduction in repeat offenses... Supporting the arts in prison not only helps these women to heal, but makes our community a safer place," it says.
Fair enough. Such a context explains the crude, childlike style of the pieces on display -- they were created by untrained amateurs coming to terms with traumatic events. Still, some of these women show promise, at least based on the single pieces displayed here. A desert Southwest landscape with modified geometric shapes is reminiscent of the work of Georgia O'Keeffe. Another hilly landscape is portrayed with the stark simplicity of classic Asian art. An appealing abstract features intersecting lines and a few geometric shapes.
Bottom line: If you're visiting "A New Era," take a few minutes to appreciate the unpolished work of these women.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the South Florida art and theater scene.