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Carnival of Souls

Island Art is a World Apart

By John Barry | Posted 2/20/2002

Madison Smartt Bell: Haitian Art & Literature

Paper Rock Scissors through March 31

It's opening night of the Madison Smartt Bell-organized exhibit of Haitian paintings at Hampden's Paper Rock Scissors, and the Baltimore-based novelist and Goucher College professor is getting peppered with questions about the two unmarked floor displays at opposite corners of the gallery. Between giving brief lessons in Creole and signing copies of his books, Bell--who has written two volumes in a projected trilogy of novels based in Haiti ( All Souls' Rising and Master of the Crossroads)--explains that these are vaudou altars, each representing a separate strand of the Haitian religion.

One small setup, including religious figurines and crosses, is for "devotional" rites. The other altar, which includes a large broken cigar and the jawbone of an unidentified mammal, is for "manipulative" rites, which worshippers use to entangle, extort, bewitch, debunk. The dichotomy is important. In this exhibit of 51 small but intensely rendered paintings, there are wild variations in subject and style. In Bell's words, there are elements of "sweetness and light." There are also elements that are best left alone.

For the last five years, Bell has been importing sackfuls of brightly colored oil-and-acrylic paintings by Haitian artists such as Guidel Présumé, Armand Fleurimonde, Edouard Jean, Emales Délis, Gary Dorcinville, Fabien, Casimir, Alen Rey, and others from the Haitian artists cooperative AJAPCA. He resells them at "fair price" and sends all the proceeds back to Haiti. It's a drop in the bucket, he admits, given the desperate conditions in a country where the decline in tourism has dried up the art market. But "if you don't give up, you can do something for them," Bell says

None of the Haitian artists is present, and there's little background information on them, which makes it difficult to figure out where to place these painters in the context of Haitian art. But these paintings have elements that distinguish Haitian art from that of its Caribbean neighbors: "the hard strength of culture developed in isolation," as Bell says, and the "direct-connection impulse," which has its roots in Haiti's vaudou beliefs.

Présumé's "Damballah ak Demons" is a striking introduction to that impulse--a twisting convolution of snakes and human heads growing out of a red altar. As the first painting in the exhibition, it's a warning sign: The range of subjects and approaches in this exhibit is intimidating for anyone who attempts identifying personal styles. "If you were Haitian, maybe art was less about individual self-expression and aggrandizement of the artist's ego and more about doing whatever work most needed to be done," Bell says. The sparkling white cotton fields of Présumé's "Recolte du Coton" bear comparison to van Gogh. Meanwhile, his "Flora del Sol" offers a naked woman on a rooftop, a blossoming plant growing out of her decapitated upper body. There are Présumé scenes of whippings in the dark ("Affair de Nuit") and conventional landscapes ("La Citadelle"). Some you would want on your wall, others you wouldn't. "Equilibre" offers a precarious middle ground--against the peaceful background of a village street, a small boy balances on a stone in the road. Behind him stands a crouching man, and behind the man a young girl in red dress.

While other artists in the show limn gentle landscapes and village scenes, a few cross the line into depictions of people in the grips of spiritual possession. Regis' "Tabons Grande Excorcis" occupies a violent, disembodied world, a vortex of shapes and energies. Fabien's painting "Les Anonymes" is a melting, swirling mixture of figures and demonic stares that seems to take shape in front of the viewer, a little like some of Arshile Gorky's work or Marc Chagall's petty demons. Also striking is Casimir's two-part work "Scene de Marche Imaginaire," a mix of colorful crowd scenes and haunted, wide-open eyes.

The effect of these carefully rendered paintings can get a little confusing at points, but one old Haitian saying stands out: "All things are possible, if God wishes them so." These Haitian painters--with their crossings and re-crossings of the division between the worlds of the living and the dead, the altars of devotion and manipulation--are stretching the realm of what we call possible.

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