The cultural wealth of the most impoverished nation in the Western hemisphere
While there exists a global appreciation for Haitian art, there is also, for Haitian artists, an ongoing struggle to establish autonomy and to be appreciated for the quality of their work, not simply for their national or socioeconomic background. With this in view, however, artists from Haiti do produce artwork that explores themes of identity, in terms of culture, gender and race.
Vodou Riche: Contemporary Haitian Art was an exhibition at Glass Curtain Gallery, Columbia College. The exhibition included a panel discussion, held on October 4. The event sparked dialogue about the abundance of creativity in Haiti, the allure and significance of Vodou iconography, and the struggle Haitian artists face when trying to establish themselves first and foremost as artists, and not simply “Haitian artists.”
Participating in the discussion were Lisa Page Lieberman, head of Columbia College’s [C]Space galleries; Haitian artists Patrick Boucard and Veronique Leriche Fischetti; art collector and Haitian art enthusiast Laurie Beasley; and Marilyn Houlberg, a professor in the Department of Art History at SAIC. The title of the show, Haiti Poor, Voudou Riche, is a pun coined by Lieberman, who said, “I am sick to death of always seeing Haiti defined as the poorest country in the West.” According to Lieberman, the show is a celebration of Haiti’s “wealth of art and culture… if you look at their limited resources economically, there is a disproportionate amount of art being produced.”
During the discussion Boucard presented a slideshow of his artwork, which addresses a multitude of issues and encompasses a wide range of media, including sculpture, painting and performance. The themes of his work range from his battles with cocaine addiction to his struggle to find a social identity as a multiracial, multicultural artist of Haitian birth. “Art for me has really been a search of identity. Not being black. Not being white. Exploring each. I’ve become a chameleon. Now, I feel comfortable as an ‘other,’ ” said
A notable piece by Boucard was a sail constructed from several of his own aintings, woven together in a tribute to Haitian seamen. Boucard said, “Haitian fisherman never have enough money for a sail made of one piece of cloth. They use patches of multiple pieces cloth.”
Fischetti is a Haitian-born artist now based in New York. While she feels that she was “born an artist,” Fischetti commented that females are under-represented in the Haitian artistic community. It was not until she moved to the United States that Fishetti felt she could realize her dream. Fischetti incorporates a variety of media into her work, using contemporary materials and methods to elebrate her cultural heritage. For example, Fischetti has made use of dolls discarded by her daughter. For the piece, Mermaid, Fischetti paid tribute to the Vodou deity Lasiren, attaching a doll—which had been manipulated to appear like a mermaid—to a cloth Vodou flag. According to Fischetti, “Lasineu is the mermaid spirit. She brings luck and money from the ocean’s depths where she creates other-worldly music.”
According to the panel, the general public in Haiti is largely unaware of their nation’s contemporary art scene and the many emerging Haitian artists. Boucard stated, “With an illiteracy rate of 77 percent, art is thought to be a ‘foreign’ or bourgeois’ thing… the Haitians are not aware of the richness of Haitian culture produced by artists.”
Houlberg commented that the domestic art market in Haiti is virtually on-existent, and that most people are “collecting (Haitian) art in Europe and the United States.” The work is appreciated by international art collectors for its perceived “exotic” qualities. In western art contexts Haitian art it is frequently labeled “outsider art,” a term unanimously frowned upon by the panel. “Outsider art. Insider art. Who makes that distinction?” asked Boucard.
This is only one of the many issues Haitian artists face. A common theme in Haitian art, and an integral component of Haitian society, is the Vodou religion. Producing work that references Vodou deities and practices has proven lucrative for some Haitian artists. For artists such as Boucard, the expectations placed on populists artists can depersonalize their artwork. “People try to make a living as painters… Vodou is a commercially successful subject to depict. But I think it’s more important to emphasize the importance of the self.”
It is remarkable that such creativity can flourish in the face of such adversity. Beasley observed, “Studying the golden age of Irish literature going through the greatest sorrows… 250 years of extended periods of sorrows… People need a means of transforming and transcending their misery.” Art provides that.
In response to the exhibition Haiti poor, Vodou riche: Contemporary Haitian Art, which exhibited at Glass Curtain Gallery of Columbia College through October, the college’s students have initiated Vodou Tou: Student Response, an exhibition that runs through January 2, 2008, at the C33 Gallery, 33 East Congress.