It was dark as we entered the grounds of Fonds Saint-Jacques Cultural Centre in Sainte Marie. The grass was damp and the historic stone buildings were lit by flood lights. Once a 17th century sugar plantation and factory, the buildings in Domaine Fonds Saint-Jacques have been repurposed for the Centre’s mission: research, preservation and reflection on contemporary Caribbean creation, historical sites and Creole oral production. After Paris and Venice, the exposition “Haiti, Royaume de ce monde” has made its stop in Sainte Marie; tonight Brice Ahounou, an anthropologist and art specialist of Haiti, would elucidate the creations in this exposition.
Visiting an art gallery at night is absolutely worth doing. The lighting is accentuated and it gives the room an air of drama—not that this display needed it. I was at first struck by the chaos of some pieces in the gallery. Traditional Rara played, the sounds of women singing in Kreyòl over the sounds of vaksen (a kind of trumpet), drums and maracas. The music was coming from a video of older Haitian women in white dresses playing synthesizers, turntables, and mixers—an excerpt of a film called Mange ceci est mon corps (2008) by Michelange Quay.
The video spoke to the misery and solitude that people in Haiti often experience; the images and music combined entranced me. I looked at all the sculptures, paintings, photographs, installation and video rooms, and felt primed to watch the documentaries that would elucidate the inner workings of the artists whose art we had just experienced.
In the middle of the field a large viewing screen was set up with a number of white tents sheltering chairs for seating and a table for serving food. We sat down and were welcomed by the director of Fonds Saint-Jacques followed by an introduction from Mr. Ahounou. The first documentary, “Mario Benjamin” by Irène Lichtenstein, presented the work and creative process of artist Mario Benjamin.
He moves away from Haitian “art naïf”—a style popularized by André Breton after 1944 characterized by depictions that are undisciplined and disregard the rules of perspective, dimensions, colour intensity, and precision. He talks about his creative process and describes it as a trance that one might see from Haitian artists who practice Vodou. In reality, he lives with bipolar disorder and rather than using drugs to create, he channels the energy he obtains from this disorder to craft his works.
We had a short break and were offered fish soup, bread and traditional Christmas savoury patés. The second documentary, “Atis-Rezistans, les sculpteurs de Grand Rue” by Leah Gordon, shows where Haitian art falls within the scope of contemporary art.
By interviewing the sculptors and artists of the collective Atis Rezistans, we are introduced to a prominent artistic movement of Haiti. Creatively influential yet miserably poor, both intellectuals and vagabonds can be found side by side in this “ghetto” of Port-au-Prince. The artists from these neighbourhoods collect materials and metal from the streets for their creations. The sculptures are often in human form and incorporate human skulls which are a reference not to death, but Vodou and the continuity of life. One sculpture was composed of shoes donated from America and scrap metal.
André Eugène points out that the shoes were discarded because they were inappropriate for the Haitian terrain. As a product of the streets of Haiti, their art reflects the social realities of the country that can only be illustrated by those experiencing them.
Haitian art is often informed by Vodou, a syncretic religion composed of different elements of West African spiritual practices, Amerindian beliefs, as well as European influences. One of the sculptors, featured in the gallery and in the documentary, Guyodo, explains that his works are magical. He represents the lwa (spirits) of death, Guédé, and Bawon Samdi (leader of the Guédé) in his sculptures.
The Guédé are phallic and mischievous, they mount (people say ‘possess’ but this is the proper terminology ) the chosen person and tell salacious stories, dance lasciviously, and act obscenely. This eccentric behaviour of turning death into derision is represented in much of Atis Rezistans’ sculptures. In describing his scrap metal sculpture of men trying to understand why a dead man has an erection, Guyodo explains that representing phalluses is not sexual but rather a reference to the symbiotic relationship between life and death—one cannot exist without the other. In fact, these artists refuse to accept that death is the end. They believe that because they have created, they will live on in their work.
Though the subjects of each documentary use different mediums and have different conceptions of art, they follow the tide of Haitian art. Both Benjamin and the Atis Rezistans attempt to transcend—whether it is the popular artistic wave of the moment or life and death themselves. Though the sculptures of Atis Rezistans are often light-hearted, they are meant to be powerful in the same way that Vodou is aggressive, powerful, and strong.
The same is true with Benjamin’s work—he does not believe that what is pretty is beautiful; to him, beauty is found in the darkness and space in his pieces. What one misses in this artistic collective is the presence of women. Ahounou explained that he doesn’t entirely know why women are not found in this neighbourhood, but he suggested it could be due to the difficulty of working with the materials; however, this observation should not detract from the importance of the role of women in Vodou ceremonies.
Overall, a lovely evening for one of the last events in this journey to Haiti at Fonds Saint-Jacques. If you are looking for some more contemporary art in Martinique, Albert Chong, a Jamaican photographer, is showing his contemporary art and an interactive installation at the Andre-Arsenec Gallery at the Atrium in Fort-de-France. Also at the Dillon Distillery, Canadian artist living in Martinique, Timothy Ferguson is showcasing his visual art called “It’s Time for Africa”, works inspired by the likes of Angela Davis, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, and of course, Aimé Césaire.
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