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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.

It seems almost criminal to single out a few pieces of Haitian art at the expense of others. The artwork is best appreciated as a totality, the exuberant output of a very specific culture -- a sort of grand mosaic that captures the many facets of that culture. Still, some individual works could hold their own in major museum collections.

There are two fine examples of the work of Phelix Brochette, widely (and justifiably) known as the Botero of Haitian art: Naked Woman, which portrays a plump figure framed by swaths of pink curtains and perched on absurdly dainty feet; and Adam and Eve, in which an equally plump pair crouch in a corner of a canvas crowded with animals and dominated by a huge tree, from which emerges a thick, almost comically phallic snake.

Among the most enigmatic pieces are several paintings by Stivenson Magloire, who was murdered in Haiti in 1994 at the age of 31 by a gang of thugs. Magloire's work is obviously spiritual in nature, although many of the symbols and icons he uses are as opaque as Egyptian hieroglyphics. In Spirituality, crosses and bird heads share the canvas with what appear to be white exclamation points and swirls of yellow and green hinting at shapes that never come into focus. The haunting Untitled Painting features a black woman and a white man embracing in the center of the image, surrounded by little icons suspended in space. Hovering ominously in the background is an androgynous figure with bright blue eyes, who holds a black cross aloft in one hand, a white one in the other.

Albert Bonhomme is represented by a lovely piece titled Three Parrots & a Waterfall. Painted in meticulous detail, the birds are positioned in a lush tropical rain forest that draws on a rich, subtle palette of deep greens. The whole painting seems to funnel itself into a patch of pale, misty-green light that recedes into the distance in the upper left-hand corner.

The show's revelation is a 37-year-old painter named Henri Pelissier, a former civil engineer who turned to art and clearly absorbed the lessons of Cezanne, van Gogh, and Gauguin. His two pieces look like the kind of work Gauguin might have produced had he somehow ended up in Haiti instead of Tahiti. The women in Mid-Day Market and a second, untitled canvas have the muscular fleshiness and serene self-assurance of Gauguin's Polynesian women, and Pelissier makes use of an extraordinary palette of pinks, oranges, yellows, and purples that bleed together as elusively and evocatively as a tropical sunset.

The works of Pelissier and other technically accomplished Haitian artists are a welcome correction to the widespread misperception that Haitian art is invariably primitive in conception and execution. If people come away from "Haitian Vibrations: Art, Color, Spirit" with a fuller appreciation of the incredible diversity of Haitian art, the show will have been a success.

"Haitian Vibrations: Art, Color, Spirit" is on display through August 30 at ArtServe, 1350 E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-462-9191.

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Michael Mills

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