The common image of Haitian art is one of primitive, block-coloured paintings and voodoo-like sculptures. But the works in “Haiti”, a new show at the Grand Palais in Paris, go far beyond these archetypes. And it’s about time. The Centre d’Art, Haiti’s first official art school opened in 1944 by the American watercolourist Dewitt Peter, brought some recognition to the country's art scene. But there is much more to learn.
The exhibition showcases 60 artists from the last two centuries—since Haiti gained independence from France in 1804—and politics is in the air. There are caricatures of presidents, shantytowns overflowing with inhabitants, animal carcasses and ghostly barbed wire. Unrest emanates from the paintings, a sense that nothing is static, that the world is ephemeral. It all feels perennially contemporary, whether a 1961 crayon drawing of a grotesque “tadpole man” by Robert Saint-Brice, or a 2013 acrylic and tar work called "Attaque" by Sébastien Jean. Arranged thematically—“Untitled”, “Spirits”, “Landscapes”, “Chiefs”—instead of chronologically, the viewer can see the art as storytelling without the pedagogy of “that was then, this is now”.
The most thrilling works are the Basquiats ("King of the Zulus"). Even though he was American and never visited Haiti, Jean-Michel Basquiat was the son of a Haitian accountant, so they claimed him as their own. It is always breathtaking to look at a Basquiat, like witnessing an exuberant child’s obsessive and unerring vitality flowing through words, doodles, bold lines and chalky crayons, begging for someone to listen. In “She Installs Confidence and Picks His Brain Like a Salad” from 1987, the lines are less chaotic. The grotesque figure looks wanton, open, bared teeth and all, and her arms stretch out towards a single word: “ideal”. But we know the painter is beyond help. Despite great success, famous friends and fabulous talent, Basquiat succumbed to his inner demons with a fatal drug overdose later the same year at the age of 27.
Marie-Helene Cauvin’s diptych “Bullet Proof Vest”, painted 19 years later, has a similar urban style. The painting depicts a young sinewy man wearing Haiti’s colours; surrounded by skulls, a halo glows above his head and he holds a scythe while a small penitent figure looks up at him and a half-naked girl waits behind. He could be a Junot Díaz character, a young, rapid-fire man ready to enact violence even though he means well, even though he’s really an angel.
Since independence, Haiti’s struggle for unity has seen more coup d’etats and exiled presidents than seems possible. For the artists, picking out which one to revile is like shooting fish in a barrel. The Duvaliers ruled with tyranny from 1957-1986, and their legacy lives on. Sasha Huber’s 2004 portraits of the Duvaliers—“Papa Doc” and “Bébé Doc”—are fashioned out of thousands of staples on board. Like tally marks on a prison wall, they seem to represent an entire country counting the days until its sentence is over.
During the colonial period, the French imposed a three-tiered social structure: white elites (grands blancs), freedmen (affranchis) and black slaves (noirs). President Lescot assumed that being a freedman and a mulatto rendered him untouchable, but he was forced to flee when the predominately black military Garde rose up against him. Philomé Obin’s “La Démocratie en marche” (1946) depicts this moment: it is a flat rendering of President Lescot being escorted out of the country, watched over by a heaven full of black and white angels—typical of Obin’s allegorical work.
The themes of outer conflict and inner turmoil pulse throughout this exhibition. A 1965 oil by Max Pinchinat (a founding member of the Foyer des Arts Plastiques, a school that split from the Centre d’Art) resembles a head tipping over and exploding in menacing drips of green and spews of red, eyes unseeing. With swooping lines reminiscent of Egon Schiele, the piece is at once violent and sensual. The viewer must decide whether they are witnessing the pleasures of release or the pain of assault.
As Haiti’s struggles continue (the 2010 earthquake took a devastating toll and uprisings against the current president continue), this show is a way of viewing the country through the eyes of its artists—commentators on all that is politically and socially wrong with the country, but also all that is beautiful and strong.