Haitian Vacation

AMOA's Downtown Exhibition Offers a Cool Getaway

Birds, Flowers, and Pink Basket
, Oil on Masonite,
c. 1947, by Hector Hyppolite

Summer stretches ahead like an uncharted desert, shimmering with the promise of a brilliant, slow death. You pray for an oasis, respite from the heat and boredom and the "I don't have anyone to playyyy with" chants from the children. If you're there -- this side of "What are we gonna do between now and the day school starts back up in the fall?" -- let me suggest a cool afternoon at the Austin Museum of Art. Take the kids. Or leave them at home and take yourself. The current exhibition at 823 Congress, "Masterworks in Haitian Art," includes work from the collection of the Davenport Museum of Art in Iowa. It's a delightful show, a whimsical assortment of art created under the auspices of Le Centre d'Art in Port-au-Prince. Le Centre "provided an exhibition space and gathering place in an environment supportive of creativity for Haitian artists, who had been working in relative isolation." It was clearly an environment that nurtured and encouraged artists to rejoice in native culture, colors, and religion without sacrificing craft. Midway through my walk of the downtown galleries, I was struck by how good it felt for a change to wander through an exhibition of beautiful objects and figurative paintings and sculpture with complex patterns and pleasing surfaces. Fanciful flora and fantastic animal tableaux (penguins partying on a Haitian beach with monkeys!) beckon in every room.

I was also enamored of the trees, rendered in every color and style under the Haitian sun, especially in Le Cimetière (The Cemetery) by Bien-Aimé Sylvain. The focus of the painting, as you might suspect, is the lively cemetery scene in the foreground. In Haiti, women are the "principal ritualizers." We see them laying floral wreaths, planting flowers, lighting candles, and leaving food offerings for the spirits. Though simply rendered -- some without facial detail -- the women display individual purposes, each with her own style. So it is with the trees. They wear green foliage and pink and blue. They dance on brown legs and orange, even aquamarine. Their leaves are painted one at a time, or blended into puffs of color. In between the trees and the women, a village comes alive. We see multi-hued houses, a church and the symbol of the cross, hillside vistas, and busy walkways. The composition is dense, filled with color and characters, and yet I found it a delightful, peaceful place to be. As with many of the images in the exhibition, Le Cimetière depicts the influence of both Catholic and Vodou traditions in a painting that appears at once simple and complex. Other images in the show are more playful, some are more political, and others tell stories that we may or may not have heard before.

Jasmin Joseph's pastel animals (Haitian giraffes and penguins?), Daniel Orelus' Crocodiles, and Pierre Edugene's Le Saveur de Monde (Savior of the World) hint of tales told to children late at night. They are both scary and amusing. Rigaud Benoit's cast of characters in Bal du Carnaval (Carnival Ball) shimmy and shake, wearing outrageous costumes and masks. Hector Hyppolite's Birds, Flowers, and Pink Basket and Le Président Florvil Hyppolite seem the most polished of these masterworks. Hyppolite's portrait, birds, and flowers, painted with strident brush strokes and colors, wordlessly embody the spirit of Haiti as I imagine it to be. On the other hand, I love Robert Saint Brice's Two Spirits for reasons that are visceral and direct. Those yellow-gold and brown-black and red dabs of paint on canvas please me enormously, energize me.

Paul Claude Gardère's The Throne and the Kingdom portrays a simple chair that's been painted with scenes. Is it a painting of a painting? The viewer wonders if the landscape on the slatted wood was Gardère's invention or that of another artist whose canvas was the chair itself. The viewer also begins to wonder, despite the folksy style of much of the work, just how untrained or naïve the artists represented in this exhibition might be. In fact several of them, like Gardère, moved away from Haiti in response to issues both political and economic or have at least studied European and American art. The style of the work and the subject matter appear naïve, but the artists are not.

Edouard Duval-Carrié is represented by the triptych Azaka, Agro Rex (Azaka, King of Agriculture) and a small painting, Elizabeth von Hanhalt Berlescht, Princesse Saxone, Visitant les Cotes d'Haiti (Elizabeth von Hanhalt Berlescht, Saxon Princess, Visiting the Coasts of Haiti). Both offer layered commentary on Vodou myth, the ecological crisis in Haiti, and art historical references (Duval-Carrié was apparently fascinated by Renaissance painting). No doubt a background in Haitian politics and religion would bring much to the complete understanding of these works and to the entire show, but, on the other hand, the visitor has no difficulty connecting with this work for lack of context. There is no painting in the exhibition that is unapproachable, no image so distant or complex (or minimal) that the casual visitor will be put off. For visitors who do want more detailed information, a lovely color catalog, Tracing the Spirit: Ethnographic Essays on Haitian Art, published by the Davenport Museum of Art, is available in the gift shop.

Gran Brijit, Oil on Masonite, 1964, by Salnave Philolipe-Auhuste

The sculptures in the exhibition -- iron cut-outs by Serge Jolimeau, Gabriel Bien-Aimé, Murat Brièrre, George Liautaud, and others -- prove as accessible as the paintings. Images melt into each other, figures twist and turn, men turn into women, women transform into animals, a magical thicket surrounds children with birds, and birds take flight. The works are both large and small, almost all created out of single pieces of metal cut into intricate patterns and coated with a patina. They are familiar and yet much more complex and beautiful than the simple cut-outs you're likely to find elsewhere, including the museum shop.

The Austin Museum of Art gift shop has learned a thing or two from big museums -- marketing to the exhibition at hand. "Tell them to come," said the gift shop director as we passed in the galleries. At first I suspected she wanted me to invite the community to come buy the handmade jewelry, glittery Haitian flags and bottles, art books, and other goodies she has in the shop. But no. She was pointing to the broad expanse of empty gallery around us at the museum. "Tell them to come," she said again, meaning that I should to invite the public to visit the galleries before July 20 when the exhibition closes. The previous week I'd visited the museums in Fort Worth where, on a Thursday afternoon, the Kimbell and Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth galleries were both pleasantly populated with visitors enjoying the permanent collections and temporary exhibitions. What will it take to get the Austinites in the habit of visiting the museum on a weekday afternoon? Better parking would certainly help. And, of course, presenting a quality exhibition is a good way to entice visitors to the gallery, especially on dollar day (Thursday).

"Masterworks in Haitian Art" is such an exhibition. Austinites can compare and contrast the Mexican narrative tradition (with which we're more familiar) and the Haitian perspective on Adam and Eve. Art history students might consider Duval-Carrié's red horse and what may have been his affection for the Fauves or think about whether Henri Rousseau whispered in Jasmin Joseph's ear as he arranged all those peaceable kingdoms. Maybe you might just want to identify all the funny animals with your children, and make up stories about what's going on inside each picture frame. In any event, park your car as best you can, or park your skateboards under the front desk, and hide from the heat for an hour or so. It's a cool show. Enjoy.

"Masterworks in Haitian Art" is on display at the Austin Museum of Art, Downtown, 823 Congress, through July 20.
Rebecca S. Cohen is an arts writer and recovering art dealer.

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