Around 60 artists and almost 170 works of art at the Grand Palais in Paris were assembled to showcase a multilayered vision of artistic creation in Haiti.
Independent curator Régine Cuzin and Mireille Pérodin-Jérôme, director of Ateliers Jérôme (Port-au-Prince), assembled around 60 artists and almost 170 works of art at the Grand Palais in Paris. In doing so, they hoped to avoid the trap of a partial vision of artistic creation in Haiti. This would have involved restricting the art works solely to production of would-be naïve art. The two curators’ laudable intention was to let the viewers see for themselves the proliferation of this art scene whose history is still barely known.
“It was the effect of the art, spread profusely over the island, that exuded incredible resistance like a magic potion.” – Maryse Condé
In Haiti we still remember the terrible earthquake in January 2010 that changed the course of the country’s history forever. We also remember that in January 1804, in the same month just over two centuries earlier, the Caribbean island became the world’s first independent Black republic.
This means Haitians have been a free nation for two centuries, and it is five years since the earthquake struck Haïti. But the news at present is that the political and social situation is still very precarious, and even uncertain. Nonetheless, it hasn’t escaped us that the Haïtians are quite capable of surprising us in their determination to resist extremely unpredictable conditions. It is as if they are continually having to deny the most alarmist predictions.
That is well proved by this resilient nation’s rich and impressive literary output, which has astonished us for a long time now. However, we are still not aware enough of its dynamic artistic scene. The gap has now been filled, thanks to the exhibition Haïti, deux siècles de création artistique [Haiti, two centuries of artistic creation].
Exit through the front door
“Art is the shortest way from one human being to another.” – André Malraux
At the outer entrance of the Grand Palais – where the exhibition Haïti, deux siècles de création artistique took place from 19 November 2014 to 15 February 2015 –, the visitor was greeted by La Porte d’Haïti, a work that painter and sculptor Edouard Duval-Carrié specially created for the show. From a height of three meters (343 x 244 x 213 cm), this aluminum construction cut in a rectangular form presents four openwork sides that form a portal topped by a roof arch. Hanging lights with colored motifs create the vibrant corners. The roof part, which is closed, contains various kinds of hanging lights such as chandeliers and lanterns. These lamps, in orange, yellow and green, are made of resin.
Once past the ticket office, visitors climbed the stairs to the exhibition and found themselves face to face with a piece by Frantz Jacques, known as “Guyodo,” Sans Titre [Untitled] made in 2012. It looks like a wheelchair – with some similarity to a César compression – in metallic grey tones. This is a typical color for objects by this sculptor, who achieves it by covering his compositions with silver spray paint to unify the different elements. As he says, “I use all kinds of materials, plastic, metal, wood, rubber, glass, glitter, and I add aluminum spray to clean the salvaged material and standardize the piece. The result is completely different.”
A little further on, Le musicien [The Musician], a sculpture made in 1995 by Lionel Saint-Eloi, had its back turned to “Guyodo’s” presentation and looked out across the huge room in which the rest of the exhibition was displayed. The works were spread out along the walls and in the center of the space. Visitors followed a direct line, entering and leaving by the same door.
The above-mentioned sculpture by Lionel Saint-Eloi represents a female person playing on an instrument and wearing a pair of wings with clear contours filled with what looks like an openwork mesh. Measuring over two meters high, 1.25 metres long and 58 meters wide, it is made from recycled aluminum. It is like a hybrid being – a cross between a fairy and a butterfly – and seems to come straight out of a children’s story.
The viewer almost seemed to take in the whole exhibition with one glance. The first impression that emerged from the whole was of the very heterogeneous nature of the concept, including the multiplicity of media and techniques: paintings, sculptures, videos and installations, with the exception of photography. But can that really surprise us? The earthquake in 2010 effectively brought a huge upsurge in the island’s photographic production.
The wealth of impressions open to the viewer came not only from the large number of works on display but also, and perhaps primarily, from the overall design, which didn’t compartmentalize the spaces, and adopted a non-chronological narrative to present the dominant periods in the history of Haitian art. Creations that have come to represent the Haïtian heritage resonated with contemporary works of art.
For the event’s organizers, the aim was to show the richness of the artistic scene – to some extent dispersed all over the world – but also to mirror the diversity of countries where the artists are active, and to highlight the lack of chronology in the presentation of the works.
This meant that visitors were presented with works of artists living in Haiti (Mario Benjamin, Sébastien Jean, André Eugène, Frantz Jacques, known as “Guyodo,” Céleur Jean-Hérard, Dubréus Lhérisson, Patrick Vilaire, Barbara Prézeau-Stephenson, Pascale Monnin…), in France (Hervé Télémaque, Elodie Barthélemy), and in Germany (Jean-Ulrick Désert), in Finland (Sasha Huber), in the United States (Edouard Duval-Carrié, Vladimir Cybil Charlier), and in Canada (Marie-Hélène Cauvin, Manuel Mathieu).
A “rhizomatic approach”
The introduction posted at the beginning of the exhibition included a cautionary note: “Haïti, two centuries of creation, does not claim to be exhaustive, it has a very selective bias and the resulting choices aim to reproduce as closely as possible the extraordinary vitality and permanent creativity of Haitian artists.
The project was nonetheless divided into four major chapters, each with a title in the Creole language. The whole was rounded off by three sections under the heading “Tetatet” (Tête-à-tête) that focused on the work of two artists in each case.
The works of Sasha Huber thus formed a dialogue with those of Jean-Ulrick Désert. The works of Hervé Télémaque conversed with the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat, while Sébastien Jean’s oils on canvas were placed in dialogue with those of Robert Saint-Brice.
The first of the four chapters, titled Santit yo (Untitled Works), was an attempt to understand “the popular figure in everyday life, his emotions and his fantasies.” The idea was “to reveal the self-image that the ‘popular artist’ manages to construct himself and that which he projects of the Other.” In this way, the work of “Guyodo” whose title resonates with the name of the chapter, is presented as the viewpoint of the author on the condition of the artist in Haiti. He summarizes this in a few slightly bitter words in a text published in the exhibition catalogue: “In Haïti,” he says, “artists suffer from the indifference toward the cultural sector. I was invited to show my work abroad, […] but the museums in Haiti only show dead artists. […] I started the series on Handicapés [Disabled People] well before the earthquake. I’m disabled myself: I’ve got two hands and two feet, but I don’t satisfy my most basic needs while I’m working with rage and competence.”
Payzaj yo (Paysages – Landscapes) “illuminates aesthetic preoccupations that take account of the values of Western modernity integrated with those of naïve painting.” In other words, this section contained the sculptural approaches discredited by the critics from the years 1950-1960 who preferred naïve painting, which was “regarded as the sole authentic form of Haitian expression.”
Lespri yo (Spirits) contrasted the works of profane or sacred characters of the voodoo or Christian religions and the symbols of the Freemasons.
Finally, the section titled Chèf yo (Chiefs) – whose content was definitely the most readable – “deals with the significance of the figures of power in the Haitian artistic expression over the past two centuries.” This chapter gave the viewer an idea of the evolution of the treatment of the figure of power in the history of creation in Haïti from the end of the 19th century to the present day. It was illustrated mostly by the portrait genre with works such as the Portrait de Jean-Baptiste Belley, député de Saint Domingue, painted by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy between 1797 and 1798, or the recent, enigmatic oil on canvas by Mario Benjamin, Sans Titres, painted in 2013.
People largely unfamiliar with Haitian production will undoubtedly look for a guiding thread, as the four major chapters that structure the presentation are not enough to help us read the works, and are too sketchy to use as references. All we can do is to rely on our own impressions. Still, the show achieved the desired effect and viewers could end up satisfied with their impressions.
Haïti, deux siècles de création artistique, November 14, 2014 – February 15, 2015, Grand Palais, Paris
Based in Paris, Dagara Dakin graduated in art history and is a freelance author, critic and exhibition curator.