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The exhibition In Extremis: Death and Life in 21st-Century Haitian Art featured thirty-four artists, most of whom live in Haiti, and, according to the accompanying exhibition catalogue, over “70 of their paintings, prints, sculptures, installations and mixed-media pieces drawn mainly from loans as well as the museum’s holdings” (8) representing a richer and complex set of cultural and spiritual histories. The well-illustrated catalogue, edited by Donald J. Cosentino (professor emeritus of World Arts and Cultures at UCLA), presents a rich analysis of the power of the visual and the complex relationships among regeneration, spirituality, and the livability of death.
As a Haitian art specialist, Cosentino has created an exhibition catalogue that showcases writings by renowned scholars, visual artists, and literary figures including Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, Edwidge Danticat, Claudine Michel, Patrick A. Polk, Leah Gordon, Katherine Smith, Stephen C. Wehmeyer, and Jean Claude Saintilus, a member of the artists’ collective Atis Rezistans. In Extremis honors Gede, the living spirits of the dead who rule the Haitian spiritual universe. In particular, it honors Bawon Samdi, master of the Gede family, and of life and death, who dwells in the liminal world between the living and the dead. Interwoven through all of these thought-provoking essays is the dynamic and visceral relationship between the spiritual and the secular and between the public and the private.
In the beautifully illustrated introductory essay, “Gede Rising,” Cosentino explores the German word doppelgänger in describing “the invisible grandees of Vodou” (26). It is as the double of a living or dead person that the lwa were able to syncretize themselves with the Catholic saints that occupied Hispaniola. This powerful syncretism brought about the principal actor of the catalogue, Bawon Samdi, the “Lord of the Dead.” Cosentino presents the visual manifestations that Bawon Samdi has taken, with a focus on the majestic painting by Andre Pierre, Vodou Pantheon, circa 1980 in which Bawon Samdi presides over the Vodou lwa. In classic Pierre style, a detailed, meticulous, painterly form within a tight composition amid colorful ball gowns, tiaras, elaborate vévé, and lush foliage, Bawon Samdi rules his Gede family in this highly spiritual pictorial space. Perhaps his perfect doppelgänger was, as Cosentino argues, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who in the same couture as Bawon Samdi—“top hat, dark glasses, tailcoat . . . and humorless, implacable, intimidating, mien”—ruled Haiti for fourteen years through his astutely pernicious manipulation of the religiosity and spirituality of Haitians as well as his “unparalleled depravity” (29). Possibly the most interesting section of this visual history is Cosentino’s introduction of “Vodou Chic,” which he describes as “a surprising new cultural development” that fascinated the U.S. imagination during the 1980s (34), as in, for instance, Blondie’s music video for her 1981 hit, Rapture. A dark-skinned Bawon Samdi donning an all-white suit with tailcoat, top hat, and sunglasses “pimp rolls” throughout the video as the “fleshing eating Man from Mars” leading a group of club goers who are in this world, but perhaps enjoying the rapture of another (36). Cosentino mentions Jean-Michel Basquiat who “disclaim[ed] any knowledge of Vodou” yet “incorporated Bawon Samdi’s iconography into his paintings” (37). Incidentally, Basquiat appears in the Rapture video, making Cosentino’s comment all the more fascinating.
Cosentino signals “Vodou Chic” as part of a “black Atlantic creole aesthetics” that “moves beyond celebration and into the prophetic,” as in the work of lesser-known artists such as Stivenson Magloire (37, 40). Cosentino explores the multiple visual iterations of Gede in textile arts, painting, and sculpture. In particular, he discusses the work of the celebrated artist collective Atis Rezistans, co-founded by André Eugène, Guyodo (Frantz Jacques), and Jean Hérard Céleur, whose works range from a large sculpture of Bawon Samdi that greets guests as they enter their atelier on Grand Rue, a main street in Port-au-Prince that surrounds one of the most economically-deprived neighborhoods, Cité Soleil, to smaller mixed-media pieces that are part of what Cosentino, elsewhere, has called the “black Atlantic aesthetic of assemblage” (Donald J. Cosentino, “Baby on the Blender: A Visual History of Catastrophe in Haiti,” Small Axe 15, no. 36 (2011): 142). Cosentino concludes with a section titled “The Morning After,” which includes richly colored photos of a badly damaged Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption after the 2010 earthquake, as well as a discussion of the sparse line drawings of Pascale Monnin; the frenetic, dark portraits of Mario Benjamin; and the richly detailed painting Le Baron triumphant, 2011 by Miami-based artist Edouard Duval Carrié.
Smith’s “Genealogies of Gede” details a particular way of knowing the world, and of knowing Gede, who, according to her, embodies “liberation, generosity and benevolence” and rises “from a relatively minor spirit specific to the Port-au-Prince region at the end of the nineteenth century to be the vox populi” (85, 86). Smith’s historiography begins in the eighteenth century and explores the etymology of the word Vodou and its connection to the French word Vaudoux, which denotes “‘an omnipotent, supernatural being,’” as employed by Martiniquan Médéric Louis Elie Moreau de St. Méry, and the Fon word vodu, “‘a general term for ‘spirit’ or ‘sacred’” (86). Smith’s essay outlines Gede’s presence on the U.S. national stage during its occupation of Haiti from 1915–34 and details what she titles “The Belle Epoque (1934–1957)”—when Haiti was in vogue and ethnographers and tourists sought (and saw) in it a pure African modernism. Smith concludes her essay with an exploration of Gede’s popularity during the Duvalier era (1957–71), during which François Duvalier capitalized on the “symbols and other emblems from the Vodou imaginary” (95). Smith’s historicizing essay is an illuminating read that charts Gede’s evolution from a “minor regional spirit” to one who is “the closest and most revealing personification of pèp ayisyan (Haitian people)” (98).
Polk’s “Remember You Must Die! Gede Banners, Memento Moir and Fine Art of Facing Death” includes morbid nineteenth-century engravings, affecting twenty-first-century cartoons, dazzling twentieth-century drapo vodou (vodou flags/banners) and worked-iron graveyard crosses, and ceremonial photographs that honor and celebrate the wickedly sexual Gede. Vibrant and wide-ranging in its use of visual material sources, Polk’s essay draws from disparate artistic materials to reveal the intense connections between death, dying, and the materiality of the physical body. He situates his essay by exploring artworks produced after the 2010 earthquake, what Haitians on the island have called, in a derisive fashion, goudougoudou, the sound that the buildings made when the earth shook. Polk discusses Barron Criminele/Bawon Kriminel circa 1980s, the sequins and beaded drapo vodou of Clotaire Bazile, in which black and silver beads form a diagonal pattern at the edge of the cloth. In the middle Bazile has placed an image of a skeleton accompanied by his “illuminated candle, spirit bottle, cross-adorned tomb, and the punishing whip of retribution” (120). According to Polk, Bazile has “lifted from the mélange of sacred and secular iconographies that inform Vodou,” allowing the sèvitè (devotees) to “beg, banter, or barter” with the lethal and wild, Bawon Kriminel (120). The richly patterned and designed drapo vodou of Roudy Azor and Yves Telemak are also featured in Polk’s essay.
Gordon’s essay reinforces Gede’s role as the transatlantic “quick-witted and dirty-mouth . . . spirit of spectacle,” appearing in “cyberpunk; Afro sci-fi; and films including Hollywood B-movies . . . and politically correct Disney fairytales” (101). He is, Gordon argues, the ultimate mischievous vagabond/trickster. Wehmeyer’s takes readers to the heart of Faubourg Tremé in New Orleans, making astute and necessary connections between rich Vodou aesthetics and the skeleton mask and dress used in Mardi Gras costumes. As with most of these essays, Wehmeyer emphasizes the process of creolization that has at its foundation an aesthetics of spirituality, oftentimes with Gede as its lwa met tet.
Finally, and perhaps the most poignant essay in the catalogue begins with a brief prayer for Gede written by Michel, followed by a reflection on Gede written by Michel and Bellegarde-Smith. The prayer honors “fanm vayan, fanm ki se fanm tout bon, steadfast women, women who are women in the full meaning of the Kreyòl term,” specifically anthropologist Karen McCarthy Brown and Mama Lola (aka Alourdes Champagne) (13). McCarthy Brown’s 1991 groundbreaking book, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), a collaboration between her and Champagne—a Vodou manbo (priestess)—chronicles over thirty-five years of friendship and Gede celebrations. McCarthy Brown died in March of 2015. Her spirit is honored and celebrated throughout the catalogue.
January 12, 2015, marked the five-year anniversary of Haiti’s cataclysmic earthquake that claimed over 300,000 lives, an event depicted in Myrlande Constant’s “immense and utterly brilliant earthquake tableau” (141) Haiti madi 12 janvye 2010 (Haiti, Tuesday, January 12, 2010) using fabric, beads, and sequins. While Haiti is not “at the point of death,” it continues to operate valiantly at the tethers of in extremis. Perhaps what ultimately frames the catalogue and exhibition is the reality of a livability buried deeply in the works of these artists. Also central to the visual aesthetics that undergird many of the essays’ themes is Haiti as a signifier of an Afro-modernism engaged in a delicate and all-too-familiar balance between the “primitive” and a Caribbean artistic avant-garde. This beautiful catalogue expands what Paul Gilroy conceives as black Atlantic expressive culture to broaden an understanding of the conditions of global artistic production; for Haiti that expressive culture seems to emanate, in part, from the vibrant, sophisticated, and complex Vodou tradition that as in similar exhibitions such as Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou (1995); Kafou: Haiti, Art and Vodou (2012); and, now, In Extremis—precariously navigates an art world tantalized by the objectification of difference yet mostly unable to include it as part of the deeply policed world of contemporary art. Like the exhibition catalogue for Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou (Los Angeles: Fowler Museum at UCLA, 1995), Cosentino has edited another essential collection for anyone seeking to explore and chart new intellectual and artistic pathways that begin at the crossroads of a black Atlantic visual aesthetic that insists that the ways of knowing the world of the living and the world of the dead might reside in a visual creativity imagined through Gede. Ayibobo!
Associate Professor, American Studies Department, Dickinson College
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