Nottingham Contemporary is hosting a new exhibition centred on Haitian artists. Haiti’s credentials as the only nation born out of a successful slave revolution certainly sets the tone for the robust, frank visual language found throughout the galleries.
Across all media, whether painting, sculpture or sequined flags, the work is steeped in the symbolism of the spiritual Vodou religion – a possessive belief system based on West African ancestral worship, Catholicism, Islam and European Folklore. Getting to grips with the complexity of the imagery and historical contexts of the work is no mean feat but they are organised chronologically across the Contemporary’s four main galleries and grouped into ‘movements’ to soften the challenge.
However, it is perfectly possible to enjoy the works at their aesthetic face value if time and patience are scarce. The paintings are intensely colourful, the intricacies of the sequined flags shimmer alluringly while steel sculptures leer hauntingly. There is a richness that really excites and intrigues; Haitian art has a truly unique personality and it is refreshing to see our local, international gallery step outside of the euro-centric comfort zones of art. It would be nice to say that all those thoughts of slave brutality, poverty and disaster associated with the island can be put aside, but these form the vital backdrop before which the images and objects play. These grave facts are the depth and success of the exhibition. Gaining independence seems to be the extent of Haiti’s good fortune, of which the country’s economic segregation has caused deepening poverty.
Often the more popular Haitian artwork is said to have a ‘naive’ quality that art collectors and dealers also seem to find attractive. That the work lacks perspective and realism in its technique is not to say that the artists themselves are lacking in the skills to deliver it. It is worth mentioning that although Haiti does have a strong culture of keeping skills in the family and teaching them down the generations, many of the artists in this show did have a formal art school education.
Either the artists prefer to express themselves in a style more akin to their heritage, or the art world is comfortable in its preconceptions of Haiti being a savage, backward nation, the exhibited work’s style is as such validated by this attitude. The latter notion may seem cynical but, in truth, all artists work for a living – who can blame them for recognising where the money is and producing pieces that will sell, especially in an economy as unstable as Haiti’s?
The curatorship at Nottingham Contemporary for this show claims to “reflect the richness of Haitian history and culture” but the typical aspects of Vodou feature quite heavily and it doesn’t feel like it delves deeply into the soul of Haitian culture. It is the sculptures from the Atis Rezistans movement which engage with a larger audience and give this show its true social significance. The pieces by Andre Eugene and Jean Herard Celeur are exemplary of what is currently emerging from the scrapyards of the Grand Rue (the main road through downtown Port au Prince to La Cimetière and Carrefour). Since the earthquake in 2010 caused many industries to collapse, the art market included, people have been obligated to reinvent their lives in more creative ways, and this work reflects well on that.
If you are looking for challenging artwork with an engaging socio-political context, Kafou is certainly the exhibition for you. There is plenty of information on the walls to help you to decipher the basic codes within Haitian Vodou as well as free Spot Talks for individual galleries on offer.
In a broader sense, this exhibition addresses the commercial aspects of a creative ‘industry’ and how economic mechanisms drive, push or pull artists in certain directions. There is a lot to think about here, but you have got until 6th January to see it.