Haiti, in extremis an exhibition that grabs you
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Haiti, in extremis an exhibition that grabs you

November 6, 2013

Haiti, in extremis
An exhibition that grabs you

Step into Haiti: In Extremis at Québec City’s Musée de la civilisation and leave behind the familiar image of a country mired in natural catastrophe, poverty, and political upheaval. This Haiti is a world of politically committed artists and creative works nurtured in a culture where life and death mingle together with disarming casualness. A powerful exhibition from every point of view, running from November 6, 2013, to August 17, 2014. Adapted by Musée de la civilisation from an idea by the Fowler Museum at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). 

Musées de la civilisation executive director Michel Côté is delighted to bring a lesser known side of the “pearl of the Caribbean” to light through the unusual avenue of its art. “This truly is a hard-hitting exhibition, both because of its subject matter and the works on display. Visitors will be struck by our approach and gripped by the power of these Haitian artists’ work as it brings this living and still too little-known culture home to us. No one can be unaffected by what they will experience here. It questions us, challenges our preconceptions, and surprises and moves us—everything an exhibition ought to do.” 

Minister of Culture and Communications Maka Kotto remarked that “Musée de la civilisation never fails to astonish, and always in the smartest way. Creating a bridge to Haitian culture through 21st century art plays to Haiti’s strengths and lets us get past the stereotypes too often applied to Haitian culture. It also makes for a dazzling demonstration of the way creativity is essential to life. No one who creates can ever really die.” 

“And works by young Montréal artists of Haitian origin in this exhibition,” added minister of Immigration and Cultural Communities Diane De Courcy, “allows Musée de la civilisation to artfully show how Québec society provides opportunities for immigrant artists to develop their potential and become full-fledged artists on the international stage.” 

Forceful works and artists
Close to a hundred contemporary Haitian works by some forty creators are ingeniously laid out in a spiral, drawing us into a world we never dreamed possible. The Gede, divine Vodou spirits representing death through skulls and skeletons as well as life through their exaggerated sexual attributes, predominate and inspire works in a variety of genres including textiles, painting, sculpture, mixed media, and multimedia. A glance at the texts shows how Haitian culture embraces the intimate connection between life and death. “Without death there is no life; without life there is no death.” Even matter gets a shot at reincarnation, with many works made from recovered materials. 

Alongside established artists such as Mario Benjamin, Maksaens Denis, and Frantz Zéphirin, the exhibition features emerging artists of this decade, such as Mirlande Constant, David Boyer, and members of the Atis Rezistans ¬Collective (resistance artists collective), better known as the Sculptors of Grand Rue. Grand Rue is the main street of downtown Port-au-Prince and is adjoined by a warren of back streets where life and creativity abound amidst a bounty of recyclable materials. Atis Rezistans was founded by André Eugène, Jena Hérard Céleur, and Frantz Jacques, aka Gyodo, later joined by Jean Claude Saintilus, Alphonse Jean Junior, aka Papa Da, Jean Baptiste Gétho, and other artists from the area. 

What drives all of them is the urge to make art meaningful and accessible to more people, often through irony and humor. Old auto parts, medical supplies, discarded electronic devices, and the occasional corpse are used for sculpting astonishing visions of the lwa. Often their works are highly sexualized and controversial, and Bawon Samdi and the Gede are favorite subjects. 

Their environment and creative approach is showcased in a short video by Leah Gordon. In another video, the same filmmaker looks at young artists and Atis Rezistans’s Ti Moun Rezistans workshops for children where they can acquire a sense of purpose as well as a livelihood through artistic expression. 

Port-au-Prince to Montréal: Manuel Mathieu, Marie-Hélène Cauvin, and Killy
Musée de la civilisation wasn’t about to miss the opportunity to present the work of these three Haitian-Quebec artists. Manuel Mathieu loaned his oversized Vodou doll head, entitled Spooky. Spooky is also a mask he wears in various situations as part of a free-form project exploring his cultural heritage and the stereotypical responses it provokes. Painter and engraver Marie-Hélène Cauvin’s work tackles youth, violence, and Haiti’s harsh living conditions, while that of painter and sculptor Patrick Ganthier, aka Killy, evokes themes such as impermanence and “the tragic and sorrowful reality of the solitary man,” which echo the precarious living conditions in Haiti. These artists of the shadows are now enjoying increasing international recognition. 

The last word in the exhibition however belongs to Bawan Samdi who, in a glittering work by Edouard Duval-Carrié strolls through an idyllic landscape with an enigmatic smile on his face. Is it just au revoir —or a terrible farewell? Visitors will have to decide for themselves. 

Québec City: Agnès Dufour, 418-528-2358; adufour@mcq.org
Montréal: Rosemonde Gingras, 514-458-8355; rosemonde@rosemondecommunications.com

Sources:   n.a.

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