“Sisme (Earthquake),” 2010, by Evelyne Alcide. (Don Cole, Fowler Museum at UCLA / March 6, 2012)
The last decade has been a grim one for Haiti, the Caribbean country having endured hurricanes, floods, political turmoil and a massive earthquake. But amid the devastation, something rich and vibrant has emerged. “The horror of these years has inspired extraordinarily original and powerful art,” says Donald J. Cosentino, a UCLA professor emeritus and Haitian art specialist.
A new exhibition at UCLA’s Fowler Museum illustrates how the nation’s artists have responded to adversity by embracing and expanding on cultural traditions, especially the religion of voodoo. “In Extremis: Death and Life in 21st-Century Haitian Art” includes more than 70 of their paintings, prints, sculptures, installations and mixed-media pieces drawn mainly from loans as well as the museum’s holdings.
Cosentino, the show’s co-curator, says many works feature images of Baron Samedi, patriarch of a family of voodoo divinities, or his often capricious children, the Gedes, who embody not only death but sexuality and regeneration. “Death and carnival, sex and catastrophe — things you would never put together in our own culture jostle together here,” he says.
“The Gedes are a natural vehicle for seeing beyond the immediate disaster,” adds Patrick A. Polk, “In Extremis” co-curator and a Fowler curator. “Out of death comes life.”
The exhibition’s artists address death and disaster with a Haitian blend of the sacred and the secular. The havoc wrought by the 7.0 quake of 2010 is captured by Myrlande Constant and Evelyne Alcide in beaded tableaux that Cosentino calls “a development of voodoo-inspired sequined flags.”
Some artists also produce biting social and political commentary, notably the sculptors of Atis Rezistans (Resistance Artists) of Grand Rue, the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of junkyards, auto salvage shops and studios. Their renegade recycling is exemplified by André Eugène’s “Military Glory” (2010), a Gede built out of a human skull, metal parts and other castoffs.
Internationally, the Gedes have entered the realm of pop culture. In Haiti, renderings of the clan have morphed from the glorified Baron Samedi painted by André Pierre a few decades ago to the remote white-faced figures of Didier Civil’s 2006 Gede triptych.
Cosentino says the exhibition, which ends Jan. 20, demonstrates the resilience of Haiti’s post-quake art world: “We see how people made art out of extremity.”
“This is not a subtle show,” Polk agrees. “This is death. This is life. It’s the essence of what people face in both the human condition and the Haitian condition.”