The Cultural Center of the Inter-American Development Bank’s boldly painted gallery walls of red and blue — Haiti’s current national colors — explode the art of “Vive Haiti! Contemporary Art of the Haitian Diaspora” into the visitor’s consciousness.
“Vive Haiti,” celebrating the bicentennial of the French-speaking Caribbean nation’s independence from France, focuses on the work of Haitian artists who fled the country’s modern history of social and political turmoil.
Conflicts and tensions have long existed in the arts and history of Haiti, part of the island of Hispaniola, which became, in 1492, Christopher Columbus’ first foothold in the New World.
Hispaniola remained a Spanish possession — at least nominally — until 1697, when Spain deeded the western third of the island to France, which named its new colony Saint Domingue. Ultimately it became the Republic of Haiti. Under the French, agriculture and trade flourished, and Saint Domingue became the wealthiest French colony in the Americas.
However, its prosperity depended on slavery. Three million West Africans were shipped to Haiti to provide forced labor for cultivating sugar, cocoa, coffee, cotton and indigo.
In “Survivance du Passe I” (Survival from the Past I), Marie-Helene Cauvin, a Haitian native living in Montreal, projects a moving and individual interpretation of the horrific slave shipments. The artist centers what the catalog describes as “the ghost of an African slave submerged knees-to-chest in binding strings of waves, pressed claustrophobically against the foreground of the picture.”
Miss Cauvin also inserts a head instead of a heart into the ghost to show what co-curator Felix Angel characterizes as the ghost’s despair. Flattened against the upper back of the gouache, charcoal and pastel on paper is a slave ship overflowing with prisoners.
Miss Cauvin portrays both past and present Haitian experiences. In “No Man’s Land” the emigre artist symbolically depicts the impossibility of repatriation. She places in a cage at right the figure who would return. Beyond, and obviously impenetrable, is a field with spikes and a grimacing guardian figure with a sword.
In 1791, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, Haitian slaves rebelled. To honor this historical event, the exhibit includes Edouard Duval-Carrie’s wonderful “Le General Toussaint Enfume” (General Toussaint Enshrouded in Smoke). And later Jean-Jacques Dessalines took over the revolt against their European masters. Their Haitian voodoo priests consulted their oracle and told the fighters how to win the battle. It must have worked, because Haiti became the first republic to be led by a man of African descent, Dessalines.
Although voodoo has gotten a bad name as sexually permissive and barbaric, it is an intense combination of African and Roman Catholic beliefs and forms. Followers of voodoo (derived from the African word “vodun,” meaning spirit) believe the universe is one.
The late voodoo priest Pierrot Barra created the vividly colored and textured “Cousin or Papa Zaka, or Azaka” (“Kouzen, Papa Zaka, Azaka”) figure at the exhibit’s entrance. The “Cousin” is an amusing figure with outsized hands and head covered with beads and sequins imported from Africa.
An important Haitian art form is the ritual voodoo flag, called “drapo veve” in Creole, and revered in Haiti and the Haitian Diaspora as a unique blend of African and French cultures. As associate exhibition curator Francine Farr writes in the catalog, “Drapo veve have [sic] military and religious associations derived from a variety of sources, such as Fon royal banners; Yoruba beadwork; Catholic processional banners; and Masonic flags, aprons and tapestries.” These glittering flags are characteristic of the work of Yves Telemak and his protege, Mireille Delice.
At first glance, African voodoo arts and those of European Roman Catholicism couldn’t be more different. Yet, like the blues and reds of the exhibit’s walls and the Haitian flag, they can be melded for extremely beautiful, individualistic works of art.
Don’t miss this serious, but also humorous, show.
WHAT: “Vive Haiti! Contemporary Art of the Haitian Diaspora”
WHERE: Cultural Center of the Inter-American Development Bank, 1300 New York Ave. NW
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays through Aug. 6