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Walking through PÒTOPRENS: The Urban Artists of Port-au-Prince at Pioneer Works feels much like wandering through a city. Narrow passageways give way to sparse, open spaces; glimpses of revolutionary history flicker among junk-lined streets; and the impetus to create persists, rising from the veritable ashes of an earthquake that is far from forgotten in the collective memory. Though heavily imbued with the symbols of Haitian Vodou and influenced by Afro-Caribbean traditions popular beyond the nation’s capital, the works on display in this daunting group exhibition cannot be estranged from their local roots. Against the background of a country torn by political and natural forces, the artists of PÒTOPRENS build upon the materiality of their immediate surroundings, at once exposing the vulnerability of their conditions and heroically transcending them. Place and poiesis are locked in a permanent embrace that refuses to unravel.
“The exhibition was initially conceived as a historical study of Port-au-Prince and its centers of production,” asserts Edouard Duval-Carrié, a Haitian-American artist and co-curator of the show, along with British artist/curator Leah Gordon. The correspondence between urban topography and artistic styles informs such inclusions as a makeshift working barbershop in the garden. The freestanding structure, which might seemed like an oddity in most art exhibitions, was built to display the lush portraits of artist Michel Lafleur, whose works regularly adorn Port-au-Prince’s beauty parlors. With relatively few barriers to entry, barbering is a mushrooming business throughout the city and barbershops often compete for attention. Lafleur’s paintings entice passersby with their brilliant hues and undeniably cool aesthetic. The salon installed at Pioneer Works, a collaboration between Lafleur and documentarian Richard Fleming of the Amazing Barbershop Project, was baptized Salon de Beauté Marie Rogère in memory of the artist’s mother, who passed away earlier this year.
Duval-Carrié explains that the city’s complexity and the exhibition’s scope necessitated narrowing their focus to selected neighborhoods and clusters. The principal hall on the institution’s ground floor features towering assemblages by the sculptors of the Grand Rue, the main avenue that bisects downtown Port-au-Prince into north and south. Seamlessly integrating meticulous woodcarving with car parts from the nearby auto repair shops and other flotsam, artists Guyodo (Frantz Jacques), Evel Romain, Jean Herard Celeur, and André Eugène construct chimerical hybrids that invoke death and eroticism in equal measures.
Yet organizing the show around roughly circumscribed areas of artistic production has its limitations, not least because there are intersections between the artists that inevitably transgress geographical boundaries. These subtle lapses in the continuity of the curatorial narrative produce rich exchanges that are as characteristically urban as the city itself. To create his expressive limestone busts, for instance, artist Ti Pelin must carve the massive rocks in the Rivière Froide river on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, where they are still soft and malleable. At Pioneer Works, his comparatively minimal works are installed next to the loaded assemblage sculptures of the Grand Rue; despite the physical distance that separates Rivière Froide from the city center, Pelin belongs to the Atis Rezistans, a loose artist collective founded in the 1990s by Grand Rue sculptor André Eugène and Jean Herard Celeur.
While some artists in this show have never exhibited outside of Haiti — such as the talented Katelyne Alexis, whose macabre sculptures repurpose severed doll parts pulled from the debris left by the earthquake — PÒTOPRENS is not categorically a survey of artists previously excluded from the international art scene. Several Atis Rezistans sculptors participated in the Haitian Pavilion of the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011, the first year the country was included in the prestigious global exhibition. However, the current exhibition represents a trailblazing effort to address their work on an individual level, according each artist his or her own voice and place even within larger categories and unifying themes. The tall, totemic figures of Jean Herard Celeur, with their pared down aesthetic, sunken eyes carved deep into wood, and headdresses made of scraps of tire rubber exquisitely wrapped like turbans or sheared to resemble tufts of feathers and hair, stand in stark contrast to the work of Guyodo, whose crafty use of found metal — including mattress springs swathed like netting, and limbs and wings made of steel bike rims — is comparatively improvisational and mechanical. It is telling that the Atis Rezistans label, though initially self-imposed by these artists, is now rejected by some of its members, who prefer to assert the autonomy of their independent practices.
Social commitment underlies the work of nearly all the artists, but their material strategies vary. Celeur hopes that his use of found objects will redress the world’s biased perceptions of the country: “Where I come from, tires are always burning in the street and polluting the air,” he explains. “People negatively associate them with Haiti. I use tires in my work to show that they are not just bad things, tires can be beautiful, tires can be art.”
Vodou was recognized by the Haitian government as an official religion in 2003, and its loa spirits surface both tangibly and metaphorically in Haitian art. Pioneer Works’s juxtapositions illustrate their many incarnations, through different techniques and media. In a slightly cramped gallery focused on art from the slum neighborhoods of Carrefour Feuilles and Bel Air, Ronald Edmond’s knife-bearing warrior of the Bizango army — the Vodou secret society and “police of the countryside,” in his words, which protected the crops after the Haitian revolution at the turn of the 18th century — stands across from an altar of uncanny sculptures by Jean Claude Saintilus, incorporating the physical remains of his family members to reimagine them as various saints. Hanging from the ceiling and surrounding walls, the sequined drapo or Vodou flags of Myrlande Constant and Yves Telemaque reveal two distinct approaches to the labor-intensive beading technique. Constant, who learned the craft from her mother as they worked side by side embellishing wedding dresses in a Port-au-Prince factory, is known for her large-scale, heavily encrusted flags that relay intricate narratives often played out by women. With their meticulous horror vacui and variegated palette, the flags call to mind Faith Ringgold’s storytelling quilts.
Pioneer Works has dedicated nearly all of its available spaces to the show. The second and third floors feature photography and a rotating film program, respectively. For the first time in the exhibition, we are confronted with literal representations of a trying existence in the capital, making the masterpieces on the ground floor all the more impressive. American documentary photographer Maggie Steber’s spliced panoramas of the Grand Rue area document the dilapidated buildings and urban landfills left by the 2010 earthquake, while Leah Gordon and Anne Parisio’s 1997 film A Pig’s Tale tells the story of America’s imperialist footprint on Haiti through its extermination of the Creole pig in the 1980s. Rachèle Magloire and Chantal Regnault’s Deported, a 2013 documentary that exposes the cruel practice of deporting Haitian immigrants back to their country, feels particularly relevant today, as the Trump administration continues to push back against efforts to maintain Temporary Protection Status for Haitians in the U.S. Perhaps the most poignant dialogue occurs between Noctambules, a series of photographs by Josué Azor that captures Port-au-Prince’s underground queer nightlife, and Anne Lescot and Laurence Magloire’s film Of Men & Gods, addressing homosexuality in Haiti, as well as its acceptance and even celebration within the Vodou religion.
PÒTOPRENS is an exhibition about Haitian artists that rebels against stereotypes that might surround Haitian art, particularly after the devastation of the 2010 earthquake. It is a testament to the artists’ technical skill and aesthetic inventiveness as much as to their grit, resourcefulness, an enviable sense of humor. When I noticed that the individual works are labeled with each artist’s name and a short bio, but not otherwise dated or titled, Duval-Carrié described the process of visiting the artists’ improvised, crowded ateliers in Port-au-Prince to choose works for the exhibition. He and Gordon would spend hours sifting through years’, sometimes decades’ worth of sculptures, which their creators could not always date. The priority had always been to protect their artworks, while cataloguing, archiving, and exhibiting them often had to take a backseat. PÒTOPRENS may change that. (Its curators are currently in conversation with different institutions about reprising the exhibition elsewhere.) “Sometimes, [the artists’] artworks are better housed then they are. Many of them had built tiny little sheds to put them in, to make space for art,” says Duval-Carrié. “I’m in awe in front of them — the way they persevere.”
PÒTOPRENS: The Urban Artists of Port-au-Prince, curated by Edouard Duval-Carrié and Leah Gordon and organized by Gabriel Florenz, continues at Pioneer Works (159 Pioneer Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn) through November 11.