Haiti, in extremis

(Version partielle française suit)

(A two-part series written for the Chronicle-Telegraph about Haitian art, one about the Haitian art exhibition at the Musée des civilisations here in Quebec (of which I also did a French version), and another going to the roots of Haitian sculpture at a Port-au-Prince urban collective.

My mother’s holy grail of Haitian art was not at the collective either. The sculptures were too large, and many were too macabre for what she was looking for. But. That is still to come. 😉

The spirits of death dance and party, the storm consumes everything in its path and somehow, life goes on.
“Haiti, in extremis,” the new exhibit at the Musée des civilisations, is a stunning artistic voyage into the vibrant contemporary life of a country that Canadians usually hear about for all the wrong reasons. In its 210-year history, the Caribbean republic, founded by the leaders of a slave revolt, has seen a succession of devastating hurricanes and waves of political violence, culminating in the January 2010 earthquake, which killed nearly 300,000 people,
The exhibition was conceived in 2008 at the Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles, which owns most of the pieces.
“As the situation in Haiti has gotten worse, the art has gotten continuously richer and more astonishing,” commented Marla Berns, director of the Fowler Museum. “Now both are in extremis. The title of the exhibition is meant as a tribute to the resilience and artistic brilliance of the Haitian people. “
“The exhibition is shocking, absorbing, disturbing,” said Musee des civilisations director Michel Coté. “You can’t leave it the way you came in.”
The gédé, skeletal spirits of death, are a common motif in the art, which ranges from oil paintings to brightly beaded cloth flags to larger-than-life sculptures made from scrap metal and real human skulls, which the artists of Port-au-Prince can buy legally from families or graveyards.
Normally, the gédé are pictured drinking, dancing and generally having a good time. “We celebrate death,” said Emmanuel Bonnet, a young Haitian musician who performed at the opening with his band, Chay Nanm. “We invite it to our houses to eat and drink with us. That’s the way it is.”
But in the enormous braided flag which opens the exhibition—mardi 12 janvier 2010 by the artist Myrlande Constant—even the gédé stand open-mouthed in shock, overwhelmed by the devastation.
The exhibition of mostly surreal art is shot through with some very real triumphs and tragedies—the memory of a mural destroyed when the earthquake flattened the Port-au-Prince cathedral or of an artist killed by right-wing paramilitaries, a schoolgirl who dreamed of becoming an artist dead in unknown circumstances. The stories that this art tells are sometimes hard to hear, but they are told with intense colour and vitality.
“What you see here is a drop in the bucket,” said Patrick Ganthier, a Haitian artist based in Montreal, referring to the depth and richness of his country’s art scene.
“I wonder how many things will happen to us,” added Marie-Hélène Cauvin, a Haitian-born artist who has lived and worked in Montreal since 1971. “Every time I think we’ve hit bottom, something happens and we go further down. The situation is very fragile, and even when we’ (Haitians) are not physically in the country, we’re all involved.”
The layout of the exhibition is in a whirlwind shape. Toward the end, there are two films by British filmmaker Leah Gordon, one where the school-age artists of the Port-au-Prince collective Ti-moun Rezistans (“children of the resistance”) talk about their dreams and show their own work, paintings every bit as gruesome—and spirited—as the works of their adult mentors, the collective Atis Rezistans (“artists of the resistance”). The other film shows a festival parade, with a marching band playing the haunting Duke Ellington song, “St. James Infirmary.” The song echoes throughout the exhibition hall. This disconcerting mix of mourning and celebration exemplifies the art displayed in “Haiti: in extremis.”

Haiti: in extremis” is at the Musée des civilisations until Aug. 17, 2014.

IMG_0325

Les esprits de la mort dansent et font la fête, le tourbillon emporte tout avec lui, et la vie continue, en couleurs vives, envers et contre tout.
« Haiti, in extremis », la nouvelle exposition de la Musée des civilisations, est un voyage artistique au cœur d’un pays singulier. Depuis ses origines révolutionnaires, l’Haiti a subi une succession de conflits civils et catastrophes naturelles. Le pays peine à se redresser des effets du tremblement de terre du 12 janvier 2010, qui a tué environ 300,000 personnes, et l’épidémie meurtrière de choléra qui l’a suivi.
« Au fur et à mesure que la situation en Haiti s’est empiré, l’art est devenu de plus en plus riche et étonnant, » a commenté Marla Berns, directrice du musée Fowler de l’Université de Californie à Los Angeles, qui a monté l’exposition en collaboration avec la Musée des civilisations. « Maintenant tous deux sont in extremis. Le titre de l’exposition se veut un hommage à l’endurance et la brillance artistique du peuple haïtien. »
« L’exposition est un fil conducteur qui va nous aider à mieux comprendre ce pays. C’est bouleversant, saisissant, dérangeant, » a remarqué Michel Coté, directeur du Musée des civilisations. « On ne peut pas sortir indemne. On ne peut pas sortir comme on est entré. »
Diane de Courcy, la ministre québécoise de l’immigration et des communautés culturelles, était présente au vernissage. « L’Haiti, c’est la perle des Antilles, et comme une perle, il peut être blanc, luisant ou noir, » a-t-elle dit. « Je suis fière que le Québec ait réservé une place spéciale pour cette perle et le collier de perles que représentent le peuple haïtien. »
Il y a environ 130,000 haitiens au Québec, principalement à Montréal. Selon la ministre De Courcy, au moins 5000 personnes déplacées par le séisme se sont enfuis au Québec. Elle a pris l’occasion pour les rassurer . « Pour ce qui est de la situation des 5000 haitiens à Montréal qui ont souffert pendant le séisme et dont un statut a été refusé par le Canada, on entreprend beaucoup de démarches…sachez que vous pouvez compter sur nous. »
L’exposition réunit des travaux de 31 artistes haïtiens. Les thèmes de la mort et la calamité sont omniprésents. La dévastation du séisme, que les Haitiens appellent souvent bagay la (« la chose ») se fait sentir dès le début, avec le drapeau brodé et perlé, créé par l’artiste Myrlande Constant, qui ouvre l’exposition. Les gédé, les esprits qui commandent la mort, se tiennent au milieu du carnage du lendemain du désastre, désemparés par l’ampleur du travail qui les attend. Dans la suite de l’exposition on voit les gédé en train de boire et fêter dans des nombreux tableaux et drapeaux brodés. On les voit aussi dans les sculptures couronnés de vraies cranes humaines, que les artistes de Port-au-Prince peuvent obtenir en toute légalité.
Le parcours de l’exposition est en forme d’un tourbillon. Sur un écran télé, des enfants artistes des rues de Port-au-Prince racontent leurs rêves, montrant des tableaux tout aussi macabres—et amusants—que ceux de leurs mentors adultes. Sur un autre écran, un orchestre dans une ambiance festive joue « St James Infirmary, » une chanson de deuil.
« On fête la mort, » a remarqué Emmanuel Bonnet, un jeune musicien haïtien installé au Québec qui a joué au vernissage avec sa formation, Chay Nanm. « On l’invite à manger et à danser avec nous. C’est la vie. On est habitué à toucher à la mort. »

Marie-Hélène Cauvin est une peintre d’origine haïtienne installée à Montréal depuis 1971. « Je me demande combien de choses vont nous arriver, » dit-elle. « Chaque fois que je pense qu’on a touché le fond on descend plus bas. On ne sait pas ce qui va nous arriver. C’est très précaire. »
« Les visiteurs peuvent voir ce qu’ils veulent voir, dans les œuvres, » a-t-elle remarqué. « Les miens sont seulement mon opinion sur ce qui se passe. »
Bien qu’elle habite Montréal depuis 40 ans, elle revient souvent en Haiti pour se ressourcer et voir les membres de sa famille. De Montréal, elle observe l’evolution de son pays. « Même si nous ne sommes pas sur place, nous, les Haitiens, sont tous impliqués. »
L’exposition « Haiti : in extremis » sera au Musée des civilisations jusqu’au 17 aout, 2014.

IMG_0255

Everywhere else, the skull and crossbones means “Keep out.” But on this busy Haitian street, it’s an invitation. Welcome to the workshop-museum-village of the Atis Rezistans—“Artists of the Resistance” in Haitian Creole. Much of the work in the exhibition Haîti, in extremis, currently at the Musée de la civilisation, was created in this Port-au-Prince collective.
Dozens of homemade wood-and-tin shacks house art galleries, workshops, supply depots and even rooms for the dozens of artists and family members who call this vast vacant lot home. Cats and chickens run in all directions, families do laundry and cook dinner. School-age children take a break from building a door to their new gallery to guide a visitor through a labyrinth of narrow, muddy pathways.
Near a giant woodpile, a woman sits carving and varnishing wooden bowls. The newly varnished bowls are the only dust-less, mud-less objects for kilometres around.
Carving a life out of this urban chaos has never been easy. Unemployment in Haiti is close to 40 per cent. Tent cities and giant construction sites around the city attest to the country’s slow but steady recovery from the 2010 earthquake. There is no garbage collection, and cholera and malaria continue to claim lives. Many families scramble to afford health care and primary education, which are not free.
« We want electricity all the time, we want education, we want health care. Artis resizstans is resistance to everything. Life is resistance, moving is resistance. » says sculptor Céleur Jean Hérard, a founding member of the collective.
Sculptor André Eugène is a founding member of the collective.
“When we started (in 2001), people thought we were crazy, but now things are changing,” he says. Since the beginning of the collective, the group’s imposing wood and metal sculptures have traveled the globe.
“Every time we get interest, that encourages us,” says Eugène, surrounded by his own sculptures in a shady, cave-like gallery that he has named the E Pluribus Unum museum. Made of scrap metal bought from mechanics’ shops, carved wood and bone—taken legally from the city’s eerie, overgrown main cemetery—the sculptures tell stories from Haitian and Christian mythology, current events and the artists’ own imaginations.
Hérard observes that much of his and his colleagues’ art revolves around sex and death.
“When kids talk about sex, for example…people laugh at them and say they weren’t well-raised or they’re being stupid. Well, society says it’s stupid, but it’s thanks to this ‘stupidity’ that we’re all here. And as for death, well, everyone has to die!”
The artists don’t see the use of human bones in their work as desecration, but rather as recycling. “I call this guy the Section Chief,” says Eugène, pointing out a skull on his workshop wall with glowing Christmas lights for eyes. “We were invited to a show in 2004 in Miami. My visa application was refused, so I couldn’t go, but the skull went! Maybe when he was alive, he couldn’t have done that, but now he has, and I gave him that opportunity…I recycle everything.”
The artists’ visa problems were the catalyst for the Ghetto Biennale, an art festival held every two years. “If we can’t go there, we should invite foreign artists here to exchange ideas.” The most recent edition, in early December, drew 45 international guest artists.
Eugène and Hérard use the collective as a workshop and exhibition space, but they no longer focus exclusively on their own work. Near the entrance to the lot, several school-age children are busy hammering a door to fit on their own newly constructed gallery. They are the Ti-moun rezistans—“Children of the resistance” in Creole.
“I started working with two or three kids and now there are 60 (total artists),” says Eugene. “That’s good for the next wave. A society which does nothing for the next wave is a lost society. When we leave, these young ones are going to come in and take over, and the movement won’t be destroyed.”
“Eugène showed us how to paint, he showed everyone here,” says Rovinscky, a 10-year-old aspiring artist hard at work on the new gallery.
“I do this because I like the atis rezistans, but also because I want to sell pieces and help my family. When I sell something, I give (the money) to my parents to help pay school fees.”
“You don’t need to sign up, you just need to start,” adds Steevens Simeon, 23, a video installation artist who works with the children. “They’re really happy to be artists.”
“I do sculpture because I love it,” adds Billy, 12. “But I want to be a doctor; that’s my real dream.”
André Eugène dreams big as well. “I’d like to do a big school here, with a library, a dormitory and food for the kids,” he says. “Right now, all the money we make goes to the artists; they have no permanent jobs. I’d like to build a bigger gallery and build the youth facility. That’s my goal.”
“We need to fight for the kids.”

IMG_0321

6GAMINS

Advertisements

About msmarguerite

Young Quebec City-based freelance journalist. once and future nomad. I blog about life, about travel, about things I notice and every so often about work. I enjoy language learning, singing, swing dancing, skating and...other stuff, sometimes. My heart is somewhere in East Africa, Haiti or Eastern Europe. English, français, русский, malo slovensko, un poco de espanol, um pouco de português ndiga ikirundi, mwen ap aprann kreyòl...
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Haiti, in extremis

  1. Ossenkop says:

    Hello, we are a publishing house in Switzerland and would like to use the picture of Myrlande Content (1st picture above) on a bookcover. We would need a high resolution file and the correct credits. Is there anything available or can you pass a link?
    Thanks for your help
    Heike Ossenkop
    (book production)

    • msmarguerite says:

      First of all, thank you for reaching out to me and I’m kind of amazed you even found my little photo album. Hmmm, that’s a tricky question because it is my photo but it’s certainly not my artwork 🙂 I will look and see if I have the right to hand that photo around. I think I may have a higher resolution file than that somewhere though. Are you paying contributors?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s