The Transcendent Spirit of Haitian Contemporary Art


Curated by Edouard Duval-Carrié and Leah Gordon, the exhibition “PÒTOPRENS: The Urban Artists of Port-au-Prince” opened on September 7 and it is on view until November 11, 2018, at Pioneer Works (located at 159 Pioneer Street in Red Hook, Brooklyn, New York). [See previous posts here and here.] Valentina Di Liscia (Hyperallergic) reviews the exhibition in “The Transcendent Spirit of Haitian Contemporary Art”:

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. [. . .]

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. [. . .]

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. [. . .]

For full review, see

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