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Michel M. Obin, Combat de la Ravine a Couleuvres, 1991, Acrylic on chipboard, Permanent Collection, le Centre d’Art, Port-au-Prince, Haiti (Courtesy Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center)

The Exotic Strangeness of the Americas on display at CS Fine Arts Center

This month the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center premiers a modest collection of Haitian paintings and sculptures titled, “The Art of Haiti: Loas, History, and Memory.” Though the exhibit suffers from some organizational problems, it still provides a fascinating look into a country whose rich culture and fiercely independent people belie its difficult past.

Haiti: land of fire and land of mountains. The first black republic in the world and the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It is a country of extremes, colorful, noisy, in-your-face and uncompromising. That unsinkable spirit is reflected in its unique art, which is famous all over the world for its vibrance, joy, energy, and creativity.

The FAC’s “Art of Haiti” touches upon three common themes in Haitian art: voodoo (the “loas” mentioned in the title, which are voodoo spirits), historical scenes, and scenes of daily life around the island. There are paintings, sculptures, multimedia pieces, and installations, but unfortunately no prayer flags, which are probably the most popular Haitian art form currently on the market.

Strangely, The Art of Haiti works backwards from the most recent and modern art, ending with examples of artists who helped jump-start the Haitian Renaissance. Therefore it’s best to go against the flow set out by the curators and start the exhibit in the last gallery, gradually working your way back towards the beginning.

The Haitian Art Renaissance began in the mid-1940s, when an American watercolorist named Dewitt Peters opened a gallery, the Centre d’Art, in Port-au-Prince. What set Peters’ gallery apart was his collection of artists, which included both formally trained and self-taught, or “naïve,” painters.

It was these untrained artists who eventually became famous all over the world for their unique painting style. Like Japanese ukiyo-e prints, Haitian naïve painting captures daily life and events using simple lines, vivid colors, and flattened, patterned backgrounds. The charm and exuberance of these works feels at once very non-Western, and yet very accessible. The style appeals to a vast array of artists and collectors, from André Breton to Jonathan Demme.

You can see several pieces by some of the most famous Haitian Renaissance painters at the FAC (although the superstar of the bunch, Hector Hippolite, is not represented). Wilson Bigaud’s “Gede at the Graveyard,” and Antoine Obin’s “La Viste,” are perfect examples of scenes of daily life. Both Obin and Bigaud are able to tell a whole story in one non-narrative scene, contrasting a dark subject (death) with bright colors and a ton of movement and visual interest; or balancing a happy subject (a visit) with a softer palate and simplified, linear composition.

Michel Obin’s “Battle at the Ravine at Couleuvres,” meanwhile, is a visually complex history painting depicting a scene from the brutal slave rebellion that led to the nation of Haiti. His use of patterning in the trees and fields is particularly outstanding. That same technique and tradition is continued with a contemporary twist in the works of Tessa Mars, on the wall catty-corner to Obin’s piece.

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Also of note in this gallery are the metal sculptures placed in the corners of the room. These represent a unique Haitian art form, first popularized by George Liautaud in the 1950s, where artists hammer out old oil drums to create loas figures and crosses for graves.

The Haitian Renaissance artists like Hippolite and Philomé Obin didn’t follow a particular school or style of art. Instead, they creatively searched for ways to express themselves and their culture. Today some contemporary artists adhere to their “naïve,” linear, and hand-painted style, while others–called the moderns–reject the Cap-Haitien style of painting in favor of the art schools and styles of the US and Europe. Nevertheless, the work of the moderns has the same vibrancy of color, historicism, voodoo influence, and vitality that can be found in the art of the naïves.

One of these artists, seen in the next gallery down, is Edouard Duval-Carrié. His multimedia series called Memory Windows uses layers of colored glass and resin, along with images and objects, to create kaleidoscopic pieces that are like puzzle boxes of Haitian history and culture. “Memory Window #1,” for example, has portraits of Haiti’s native Taíno people decimated by disease after Christopher Columbus landed on Hispaniola. These portraits also include Toussaint L’Ouverture, the revolutionary general who’s considered the father of Haiti, who is kind of like the Haitian version of George Washington. Up close the Memory Windows reward viewers with details and surprises; farther back they take on the appearance of organic forms, like split cells or skulls.

Another modern artist with numerous pieces in The Art of Haiti is Ralph Allen. Although born in Haiti, he emigrated to New York at a relatively young age to escape the reign of Haiti’s Duvalier dictators, “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc.” Much of Allen’s work addresses the terror of the Duvalier years and the ongoing political, social, and environmental problems in Haiti. His pieces are lyrical, blending images together in a flowing pattern that pulls viewers in like a visual maze. Sometimes the effect is sensuous, as with “Mistress Erzuile;” at other times it conveys violence or horror.

Although laid out somewhat confusingly and in desperate need of better signage, “The Art of Haiti: Loas, History, and Memory” provides a good introduction to the art and creativity of this unique country and the indomitable spirit of the people who live there.

The Art of Haiti will be at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center February 10-May 20, 2018. For more information please visit www.csfineartscenter.org.

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