Art: Review of Eric Jean-Louis


In “That Vodou that who do?” Natalie Willis discusses ancestry, heritage, memory and light in the work of Eric Jean-Louis (on view in the current exhibition, “Medium: Practices and Routes of Spirituality and Mysticism” at the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas).

Eric Jean-Louis (b. 1957) is an artist hailing from Haiti, well-known and much loved and it is easy to see why. His work is filled with the human and natural balance of light and dark, the duality we all struggle with and that we see in the world and in ourselves. Visually, his work packs a graphic punch with his style of shading blocks of dark and adding bright stripes and slivers of light – and they are really a stunning sight to behold. To those who find themselves cringing and shying away from the word Voodoo, as in the title of this piece “Ceremonie de Bois Cayman: The Voodoo Still Lives” (2007) by Jean-Louis, it would be remiss to deny and write off this practice of art and spirituality. There is light to be found in this form of spirituality, which is so often, and erroneously, deemed ‘dark magic’. As the current exhibition, “Medium: Practices and Routes of Spirituality and Mysticism” seeks to uncover the complexities of religious and spiritual practice in the region, so does this painting lay plain the crossovers and awkwardness of our relationship as Caribbean peoples to our African heritage.

There are many iterations and names of Voodoo (Vodou, Vodun, Vodum and so on) on this spinning ball of water and greenery we call home, but as Jean-Louis is Haitian, it might be best to focus in a little on Vodou. All these practices are rooted in West African spiritual practice, like its ‘cousin’ Obeah, and as such, we might want to reconsider just throwing the Voodoo-baby out with the Holy-Water. It is our Caribbean heritage and, more often than not, the negative depictions are what take the forefront of our minds for those unfamiliar with the truth of those practicing – we think of evil cartoon characters and conjured spirits and ill will toward others. There is, however, a much more positive and affirmative side to things, and with this ‘bois’ (forest) as the backdrop for Jean-Louis’ painting, the ties to clandestine practices in secret and nature are very much part and parcel of the history of Haitian Vodou and Voodoo in all nations who bear the weight of a history of the enslavement of Africans.

The mask-like faces give this allusion to secrecy, to an idea of illicit activities, but also perhaps to Christian-rooted carnival practices. All of this: the natural environment, the hidden quality of this religious practice in the painting, are illustrative of its beginnings. [. . .]

[Ceremonie de Bois Cayman: The Voodoo Still Lives” (2007), Eric Jean Louis, oil on canvas, 24 x 36. Part of the D’Aguilar Art Foundation Collection as seen in “Medium: Practices and Routes of Spirituality and Mysticism” on at the NAGB through March 11.]

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