Caribbean Popular, Caribbean Contemporary: Current Artistic Practices of Port-au-Prince, Haiti

November 22, 2017

This discussion of contemporary art in Haiti is the second of a web series of three articles featuring commentary on the artistic communities of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; Port-au-Prince, Haiti; and Havana, Cuba.

Current artistic production from the Caribbean region vividly reflects, perhaps with more intensity than in any other part of the Americas, the rooted relationship between modern art movements and popular art traditions. The historically fluid nature of so-called high and low art in the Caribbean serves today as a platform for contemporary artists to discuss the limits of the art object, the social responsiveness of their practice, and the state of their local art field. Influenced by these contextual elements, the potency of their visual language evidences a bourgeoning artistic impulse, which resists historicization through non-permeable and hierarchical analytical categories. Instead, it invites us to think of interstices, hybridization and liminal spaces – all concepts well-established in post-modern and post-colonial theories – to better understand an aesthetic ethos with a shared presence in a region that is both geographically and culturally fragmented. Except for Tessa Mars, I encountered the artists and cultural agents from Port-au-Prince, Haiti included here during a summer 2017 sojourn in the Caribbean made possible by the support of the White-Levy Travel Grant from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.


According to Haitian artist Tessa Mars, the influence of a select group of fellow Haitian self-taught masters from the 1950s looms large and wide in contemporary art practices west of La Hispaniola–her own included. This assessment was confirmed in a recent panel discussion between Mars and artists Cybil Charlier and Shelley Worrell[1] at El Museo del Barrio, Harlem, NY, and strongly spoke to my own perceptions of the local art field in Port-au-Prince formed during a short but intense visit. Whether speaking directly to this tradition or proposing new visions, the selection of artists in this article are representative of a consolidating trend in Haitian art that acknowledges the social implications of the historically established conjunction between popular and modern art in Haiti. Under this lens, the work of artist André Eugène, as leader of the Atis Rezistans collective; of painters Killy and Mars; and of photographer Roberto Stephenson come together with powerful voices about the unresolved complexities of creating art within Haiti’s current artistic cultural field.

The work of André Eugène and Jacques “Guyodo” Frantz, two of the four founders of the artistic collective Atis Rezistans, has been a notable reference for contemporary Haitian art since the documentary film “Iron in the Soul: The Haiti Documentary Film of Leah Gordon” was released in 2008[2], followed by the announcement of the first iteration of the collective’s daring Ghetto Biennale in 2009.

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Artist André Eugène in front of a series of sculptures mostly representing Voudou’s Lwás, or spirits, and made out of used tires by one of the members of Atis Rezistans collective in Centre-Ville, Port-au-Prince. Photo credits: Julián Sánchez-González

 

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Sculpture by André Eugène in his art museum E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One) in Centre-Ville, Port-au-Prince. Photo credits: Julián Sánchez-González

After the earthquake that savaged Haiti in 2010, their artistic proposal, based on a generalized opposition to the taste of the bourgeois art market in Haiti, found even more reasons to stand up when confronted with cruder living conditions. To this day, even after significant internal schisms in the leadership of the group, the work of both figures, together with a school of artists creating in a similar style, still stands in the labyrinthine neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince’s Grand Rue. Politically, their presence today is the signifier of an unresolved social conflict characterized by stark wealth inequality and outward-looking elitism in the city. The perceived lack of attention by local collectors has led Eugène, Frantz, and others to cater discursively to international audiences who, though tourism is scarce, occasionally visit their unconventional exhibition spaces.

While aligned with their political stance, the Atis Rezistans collective’s artistic vision also speaks of a more profound story—that of the symbolic repertoire available in the cultural landscape of Haitian self-taught art. Even when the uses of readily found disposable materials—such as metal scraps, used tires, and coil springs—can be interpreted as a selection that responds to the collective members’ immediate industrial and residential context, there is also a legibly direct connection with the generalized uses of metal for sculptural work in the country. Promoted nation-wide and acclaimed internationally through the notoriety gained by Haitian sculptor Georges Liautaud in the mid-twentieth century, and then popularized as an artistic style in places like Croix-des-Bouquets, using found metal as an art material has been present in Haitian art for over half of a century. Furthermore, the use of human skulls, allegedly taken from local cemeteries or victims of the 2010 earthquake, connects in a spiritual, albeit non-religious, fashion with the widespread and also contested beliefs of Voudou in Haitian society. The closeness and consciously performative uses of images of death as encountered in the disposition of the sculptural work of Eugène’s museum E Pluribus Unum serves to both terrify and fascinate the visitor. This dual quality evokes the syncretic character of the artworks inasmuch as they take, without being one or the other, aesthetic qualities from modern exhibition design and from the display of representations of deities in Voudou temples. The interplay of eerie, whimsical, and oversexualized motifs, seen, for instance, in sculptural pieces with skulls intervened with Christmas lights, is the most exemplary reflection of the confluence of styles present in the modern and contemporary art historical development of Haiti.

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Sculptural work by André Eugène featuring a human skull decorated with Christmas lights and woven hats in the E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One) art museum at Port-au-Prince’s Centre-Ville. Photo credits: Julián Sánchez-González

Also represented in the contemporary repertoire of Haitian artists being exhibited internationally, the work of Killy (b. 1966), otherwise known as Patrick Ganthier, has for over a decade almost obsessively explored the precarious conditions of human life vis-à-vis the portrayal of the Caribbean as a paradisiacal region.[3][4]

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Patrick "Killy" Ganthier in front of one of his painting in his house-studio in the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photo credits: Julián Sánchez-González

Read formally in the juxtaposition of bright, flat colored backgrounds with the representation of disproportionate, stern figures, Killy’s subject matter has art historical and political implications relevant for understanding the direction taken by Haitian art today.

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Detail of a recent large-scale painting intervened with black ink in various printing techniques Patrick “Killy” Ganthier. Photo credits: Julián Sánchez-González

By daringly reformulating the one-dimensional treatment of space and perspective as it is iconically seen in the corpus of work by modern Haitian painters such as Joseph-Jean Gilles, the artist’s compositions both deviate from and comment on the stylistic trope that this compositional strategy has become in painting markets in the streets on both sides of La Hispaniola.

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Paintings market in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Photo: Julián Sánchez-González

 

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Paintings exhibited in the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photo: Julián Sánchez-González

Moreover, this bold color selection brings to the fore the intimate relationship Ganthier establishes with the aesthetically vibrant urban landscape around him, as it corresponds to the vivid painting tradition of public transportation, or tap-taps, and the façades of residential spaces in Port-au-Prince. In essence, this is a shared interest with Dominican artist Engel Leonardo’s recent work, i.e. Jimayaco or Cabirmota—a connection that further points to the sometimes overlooked parallel movements in the artistic communities of both countries, and the region as a whole.

On a more socially responsive dimension, however, Killy’s inclusion of naked, disfigured and decontextualized black men gazing directly at the viewer addresses, albeit indirectly, the irrational elements in the overarching sense of pride in Haiti for being the first black nation to gain independence from European colonial powers. In light of the ways in which Haiti’s current creole culture, as in many, if not all, countries of the Americas, perpetuates colonially rooted power structures of dominance, this perspective becomes pressingly relevant. Thus, by reminding the viewer of various of these instances, which range from the biased dynamics of the art market, to the dominance of French culture in the upper echelons of Haitian society, these decaying and defying figures evoke the eclipsing of the historical narratives on which the country’s national identity is built. As such, Killy’s body of work not only problematizes such claims but also calls for a reconsideration of the elusive location of self-identity within historically fraught discourses of cohesiveness and unity. Tangible in everyday life under a State whose legitimacy stands at the brink of collapse, the presence of contrasting elements associated with opposing emotions in the pictorial space seeks to demystify the idyllic fictions associated with the Caribbean region, and ground its external perception as a space of contestation where polarizing historical and symbolic forces are in constant interplay. [5] 

 Although stemming from a distinct yet interrelated personal background, the work of artist Tessa Mars (b. 1985) operates within similar compositional and stylistic structures to those of Killy. The frontal defiance of the naked human body in the form of self-portraits as either the figure of Tessalines, an alter-ego that combines Mars with the historical leader of the Haitian Revolution Jean-Jacques Dessalines, or as a semi-human character of demonic traits, keeps close resemblance to Killy’s oeuvre in its interest in creating a direct rapport with the viewer and, consequently, a frank, personal dialogue based on empathetic responses.

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Left: Tessa Mars, "Victorious" from the series "Tessalines Paintings" (2015). Acrylic on paper. Right: Tessa Mars, "Rèv libète, rèv lanmò I" from the series "Dream of Freedom, Dream of Death" (2016). Acrylic on paper. Photos courtesy of the artist

The color-blocked background that eclipses space is a characteristic present in three generations of Haitian artists. In this, one notes an interest in addressing the complex, overlapping processes employed in building a unified contemporary national Haitian identity, but, in this case, through the uses of more direct iconographic references. In contrast to her predecessor, Mars’ alter-egos, together with the work “Invite a Dictator to Tea” (2014) feature a powerful combination of art as a form of therapy and as a platform for political resistance by attempting to simultaneously heal personal traumas and aggregate historical ones.  

More relevant to the aims of this article is Mars’ series of public interventions titled “On the Way to School” (2014). These interventions, like in the work from the Atis Rezistans collective, engage in a humorous and macabre conversation with contemporary vernacular art from the streets of Port-au-Prince. According to the artist, this project uses a cynical visual language in appropriating and altering popular American cartoons for kids in the city’s public schools to raise lines of inquiry about how aesthetics are perceived in Haitian culture.

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Left: Tessa Mars, "Sponge Bob" from the series "On the Way to School" (2014). Right: Tessa Mars, "Dora" from the series "On the Way to School" (2014). Photos courtesy of the artist

Besides challenging lines of authorship and the hierarchical relationship between the original and its copy, this exercise on a double interpretation of the representation of the image also delves into a historically rooted process in the Caribbean looking to rethink aesthetic taste and the value of the restrictive categories of high and low art. This debate, introduced to the region through the travels of André Breton in Martinique and Haiti in the 1940s, was reinterpreted and popularized in Europe and the American continent years later by Jean Dubuffet’s Art Brut neo avant-gardist vision. Mars’ artistic interventions dealing with the liminal spaces of beautification through images become more critical and poignant in virtue of the historical conversation in which they are articulated, whether consciously or unconsciously. One element of that historical conversation is the catalogue L’Art Brut de Jean Dubuffet, aux origines de la collection, published only last year almost a half of a century after its original conception by Dubuffet. Of particular relevance are articles in the catalogue about the interest invested by cofounders of Surrealism André Breton and Benjamin Péret in the Haitian artist Hector Hyppolite (1894-1948) and the popular wall paintings of Pulquerías—taverns serving alcoholic beverages made with Pulque—in Mexico.[6]

The most recent working series of Haitian-Italian photographer Roberto Stephenson showcases one last perspective on the reinterpretation and two-way interplay of so-called high and low aesthetics in contemporary art. Entitled “Made in Haiti,” Stephenson’s project stems from the formal premise that the extraction of everyday objects from their environment in the streets of Port-au-Prince to photograph them against a white seamless backdrop will allow their compositional elements and inherent beauty to be better appreciated. Take, for instance, the careful elaboration of mobile pharmacies, a common sight in the streets of Port-au-Prince, in their ascendant rhythmicality and delicate, yet plentiful, balanced arrangements of brightly-colored prescription drugs and toiletries.

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Roberto Stephenson, Mobile Pharmacy (2016). Photo courtesy of the artist

 

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Roberto Stephenson, Mobile Pharmacy (2016). Photo courtesy of the artist

In its exaltation of the formal qualities of these objects, then, this photographic series could be linked to the historical roots of the controversial 1942 exhibition of a shoeshine box at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which further, and rightfully, problematized the boundaries of modern aesthetic taste within a canonical institutional setting.[7] When brought to the present day and Haitian locale, however, the appropriation of this strategy of decontextualization also establishes a conversation between the objects’ ingenuity as devices of survival and their culturally hybrid nature. Together with their weary conservation state, unusual shapes, and unpretentious materiality, these pharmacies, as seen through Stephenson’s photographic eye, reminisce of the “categorical transgression of (…) aesthetic order and harmonious design” embedded in the practices of the postcolonial grotesque discussed by Kobena Mercer in recent years. [8]

Besides juxtaposing elements from high and low aesthetics, these photographed objects also elicit sentiments of the uncanny through the union of the realms of the utilitarian or inanimate, and the totemic or animate (anima or soul). The everyday practices of African-based religious traditions such as Voudou and the spiritually perceived cultural landscape of the city—better seen in the work of the Atis Rezistans collective—set the basis for a formal connection between these street pharmacies and, for instance, late XIX century beaded masks native to certain tribes of West Africa, such as the Yoruba in Nigeria or the Bamileke in Cameroon. The pharmacies’ intricate ornamentation also poses a closer conversation with masquerade practices of the Caribbean, which aim to spur reactions of unsettlement and disturbance—a pathos typical of baroque practices of excessive decoration.[9] It seems more understandable then, that in Haiti, beaded art has been popularly reworked for the creation of decorated textiles depicting Lwás, or Voudou spirits, which are sold at popular art markets alongside papier-mâché carnival masks like those found in the neighboring town of Jacmel. It could be argued, following Georges Didi-Huberman’s[10] or Andrea Giunta’s[11] interests in the potency of recurring gestures in transtemporal images representing the masses, that the formal qualities and materials of these objects are reflective of the unconscious repertoire of images sitting in the nation’s collective mind. For Mercer, this conversation is shaped in the reflection of a Black Atlantic diasporic memory of the homeland surviving generations after the events of forced displacement to the Americas starting in the late XV century.[12] The artists discussed in this article are proof of this impulse since their practice places them as agents who, in the process of crafting their own identity and sense of location, join the contemporary movements of postcolonial appropriation and reconfiguration of cultural codes in the Caribbean.


[1] See Charlier’s condensed trajectory on the Center for the Humanities website and Worrell’s most notable project, the Brooklyn-based cultural platform CARIBBEING.

[2] A trailer of the video is available online in Gordon’s Vimeo account.

[3] Refer, for instance, to his solo exhibition at the artistic space Montréal, arts interculturels (MAI), 2008.

[4] I remain grateful to cultural promoter and artist Valerie Noisette, director of Kolektif 509, for introducing me to the work of this artist and making possible a visit to his house-studio in the mountainous outskirts of Port-au-Prince.

[5] For a more in-depth discussion and additional literature on some of the elements related to this argument, please see: Asquith, W. (2013). Haiti’s First National Pavilion at the Venice Biennale: Anachronism or Illuminating Opportunity? Open Arts Journal, 2.

[6]  Collection de l’Art Brut. (2016). L’Art Brut de Jean Dubuffet, aux origines de la collection. Barcelona: Grafos.

[7] For the press release of this exhibition associated with the ouster of Alfred Barr Jr. as Director of the Museum, see: https://www.moma.org/documents/moma_press-release_325358.pdf 

[8] Mercer, K. (2013). Postcolonial Grotesque. Jane Alexander’s Poetic Monsters. Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, 33.

[9] See Mercer’s 2016 conference on his latest publication at the Prizm Art Fair: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1fFDFRw0y50

[10] See Didi-Huberman’s 2016 conference on his recent work at the Warburg Institute: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wPbzta4zVqE&t=7s, and materials related to his 2011 exhibition at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, Spain: Atlas, How to Carry the World on One’s Back?

[11] See Giunta’s 2017 opening keynote conference at the Institute of Fine Arts’ Annual Symposium of Latin American Art: http://ifalatinamerica.org/symposium/symposium-2017/

[12] Mercer, K. (2016). Travel & See: Black Diaspora Art Practices since the 1980s. Durham: Duke University Press.