PARIS — Winter has been kind to art lovers in Paris. The gorgeously renovated Musée Picasso has reopened, and the city is alive with a number of top-shelf exhibitions. Over at the Grand Palais alone, crowds queue to see shows of Hokusai and Nikide Saint Phalle, but it is Haiti: Two Centuries of Artistic Creation that offers a particularly exciting feast of work to savor.
Bringing together over 160 pieces and covering some 200 years’ worth of output by Haitian artists — at home or in the diaspora — the show is loosely organized around four guiding themes and beautifully set in a single, giant gallery that allows visitors considerable flexibility in how they choose to construct their experience of the exhibit. Haiti has ambitions beyond what its title suggests, however. Far from offering a tour through the evolution of the country’s art, the exhibit’s curators, Régine Cuzin and Ateliers Jérôme, are looking to blow the doors off the way Haitian art history has been conventionally told in the West.
Most accounts relating the evolution of Haitian art begin with the American painter DeWitt Peters, who arrived in the country in the early 1940s and established the Centre d’Art in Port-au Prince. Peters is widely credited with “discovering” Haiti’s indigenous arts and bringing them to international attention, sparking a widespread enthusiasm for the “naïve” and “primitive” styles of popular and religious Haitian art. In 1978, a landmark exhibition of Haitian work at the Brooklyn Museum celebrated these patronizingly branded forms, and, according to the New York Times, “catapulted awareness of the genre to a broader American audience and prompted Sotheby’s and Christie’s to begin auctioning Haitian art.”
These neocolonial categories sidelined an entire generation of artists from critical attention. Collectors from Europe and the United States sought out so-called primitive and naïve work even as entirely new styles had been undertaken and developed by Haitian artists since at least the 1950s. Those who had moved into increasingly abstract modes saw their work ignored or discarded as not properly “Haitian.” Some repatriated abroad. Others pushed forward by drawing on the influence of movements taking hold in Europe during this period. Wherever they were, these modern artists redefined notions of “genuine” artistic expression in Haiti, even if Western observers didn’t know it at the time.
Haiti places these artists front-and-center in a thematic section labeled “Landscapes.” Here we find masterful offerings from a slew of painters and sculptors pushing the boundaries, not simply of Haitian art but of modernism itself. An oil painting by Roland Dorcely features a discombobulated figure — hinting at the influence of Pablo Picasso — in front of what appears to be a tightly constructed stone wall, while nearby, a striking, untitled piece by Max Pinchinat stands out with its beautifully organized scribbles on scribbles atop clouds of muted violets and oranges that float just beneath the surface. Taken together, the paintings collected here demonstrate a modernist aesthetic that strays from standard “primitive” works that have come to shape popular conceptions of Haitian art.
Not all the work on view, however, gives over to abstract flights of fancy. Among the most striking pieces in Haiti are those comprising the section “Chiefs,” which gathers work that grapples with the role of sociopolitical power throughout Haiti’s history. Here, we find portraits of various members of Haiti’s ruling class, sometimes with a subversive edge. Prominently displayed is Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy’s famous portrait of the Senegalese slave-turned-Haitian revolutionary, Jean-Baptiste Belley, who is presented as the noble savage. A contemplative Belley stares upward to the heavens, decked out in fine aristocratic clothing that barely contains a bulging cock situated at the center of the portrait, as his body casually leans against a bust of the fiercely rendered abolitionist Guillaume Thomas Raynal.
Across the way hang two portraits from Sasha Huber’s remarkable “Shooting Back” series. At first blush, it appears that Huber has rendered Papa Doc and Baby Doc, Haiti’s notorious father and son presidents, in the style of religious iconography. Their faces shimmer under the gallery lights against a dull brown surface. It’s only when you inspect the pieces more closely that Huber’s politically subversive intent and extraordinary method become clear: she has crafted their images on plywood using countless staples that she pressed into the surface with a staple gun. For Huber, the violent act of creation mirrors the violence of the Duvalier regimes. In the background of the portraits, staples gather like tally marks, serving as a chilling reminder of all those killed during their rule.
Huber also takes part in a “Tête-à-tête,” one of three artist pairings sprinkled throughout the exhibition. In a video, Huber lies down in the Nordic snow and makes snow angels with her arms and legs, over and over again, one for each child killed in the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti’s capital. It’s a moving piece, made more so by sitting alongside a large, red square of polyester and velour overlaid with a giant cross that is surrounded by hundreds of silver medallions of various sizes. Désert’s intent is to “echo” the configuration of the night sky above Port-au-Prince on January 12, 2010, “in the instant that some near three-hundred-thousand people would lose their lives, fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters.”
Part of the brilliance of the exhibit lies in its curatorial intent. Museumgoers are encouraged to wander among works of radically different styles, often produced generations apart, and make associations of their own. If there’s an argument elaborated by the show, it’s one that urges audiences to appreciate the diverse and distinct moments of brilliance in “Haitian art.”
Where the curators explicitly attempt to draw connections between various works, however, as in some of the “Tête-à-tête’s,” their efforts are less successful. One pairing includes the two most famous artists associated with Haiti, the ex-pat painter Hervé Télémaque and New York’s own, Jean-Michel Basquiat. The works chosen – a couple of run-of-the-mill paintings by Basquiat and Télémaque’s triptych, “La Terre Couchée” – don’t do much to support the curators’ claims that each artist demonstrates an “obvious attachment” to the Caribbean nation. Indeed, one is left scratching one’s head at the admission on a nearby placard that “Télémaque, according to some, fails to adequately emphasize his connections with Haiti.” If this is disproven by his “use of corrugated iron sheets,” an abstract painting in the Grand Palais offers unconvincing evidence to establish Télémaque’s strong connections to his homeland.
Though Haiti does not make “primitive” art its focus, a gallery entitled “Spirits” displays a parade of beautifully executed items related to voodoo traditions and the metaphysical, including dolls, totems, and tortured Christ’s. Pascale Monnin’s haunting “Eustache ou l’Eloge de la Complexité” suggests an eerie, otherworldly communion between a majestically decorated human skull and elaborate antlers, adorned with blue and orange beaded droplets. Other pieces, like a series of small, roughly-hewn statues, appear better suited for daily household rituals.
The ordinary and extraordinary in Haitian life animates the section titled “Untitled,” which serves as both the start and finish of the exhibition. Lovers embrace in Hector Hyppolite’s “Le Baiser”; tattooed youth and johns cavort on the streets outside a brothel in a series of paintings by Marie Hélène Cauvin; a young woman bends solemnly over a letter in Bernard Séjourné’s exquisite “La Missive.” And, at the center of the installation, is Frantz Jacques’ untitled sculpture: a towering jumble of recycled objects such as rods, tires, glasses, coiled wire, and other knick-knacks, all painted silver. The pile is propped up by a wheelchair, but stands proudly erect — wounded, vulnerable, but powerful and magnificent.
That “Haiti” begins and ends with work that the curators refuse to classify is entirely fitting. The narrow categories that traditionally filter Haitian art for international audiences have long perverted popular notions about the country’s cultural production, and robbed its artists of the wider recognition they deserve. “Untitled” does away with these categories, allowing the art to be encountered on its own terms, to breathe. Indeed, Haiti succeeds where so many have failed when encountering the country’s expansive variety of creative expression, simply by acknowledging it and making it the object of contemplation. The result is nothing short of exhilarating.
Haiti: Two Centuries of Artistic Creation continues at the Grand Palais (254/256 rue de Bercy, Paris) through February 15.