For practitioners of Haitian Vodou, death is embodied in art and ritual through the character of Baron Samedi. In "Global Caribbean III, Haiti Kingdom of this World" at Little Haiti Cultural Center, the boogeyman can be found wrestling with many contemporary Haitian artists.
Even though 80% of Haitians are Roman Catholic, most of them have strong ties to Vodou and its pantheon, and some would deny any conflict between the two. Vodou is at the root of Haiti’s historical and cultural identity, yet it still remains an enigma in other parts of the globe. "Global Caribbean III, Haiti Kingdom of this World" serves as a reminder of that country’s cultural contribution, creativity, resourcefulness and tragedy.
According to BBC News there are conflicting reports on exactly how many died during Haiti’s recent earthquake disaster, but the country’s government claims approximately 316,000 were killed. The number of homeless, still living in makeshift camps, ranges from two to four times this estimate. However illogical this may be considering Haiti’s proximity to “the land of plenty,” the threat of starvation lurks like the infamous Baron. Élodie Barthelemy points to these conditions in an installation entitled Terre Nourricière. The title translates as “the nourishing earth” or “nutritive soil.” The piece consists of eight silver platters, elevated on a platform, each piled high with cakes made of mud and straw. It recalls post-quake media imagery of bakeries in Port Au Prince selling cakes made of clay, sugar, and oil to those that could afford nothing else. These items have no nutritional value, only the ability to stave off the hunger as people tread through life as the poorest in the western hemisphere.
However downtrodden Haiti might be economically, it is rich with imagination and ingenuity. Proof can be found on Grand Rue where a revolution transforms garbage into art. Jean-Hérald Celeur, Guyodo and André Eugene, inspired by their neighborhood, have become leaders in the movement and representatives of Haiti to the international art world. Their work is born from an abundance of discarded material and trash. Celeur states in his biography, “My work has social aspects, intellectual aspects and represents the people's demands for change. I live in the reality that deals with poverty every day which informs my work all the time.” He is one of many assemblage sculptors in a collective referred to as Atis Rezistans. These artists represent a form of radical unity and transformation within the context of a broken economy, organizing community-building workshops and creative social activities. In 2009, Atis Rezistans participated in the first "Ghetto Biennale," an art exhibition held in their neighborhood. In 2011, Jean-Herald Celeur, Jean Claude Saintilus, and André Eugene were featured in the first Haitian Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale with an exhibit called “Death and Fertility.”
The complex themes of death and sexuality are personified by characters called Gede within the iconography of Vodou symbolism. The Gedes are a group of spirits, the boss of which is referred to as “The Baron,” also known as Papa Gede. One of the responsibilities of Papa Gede is to bury the dead and guide their souls to the underworld. For "Global Caribbean III, Haiti Kingdom of this World," Sergine André aka "Djinn" created an installation called Gede Gateway no 3. To enter the installation, one must pass through lace curtains of bright purple, the color associated with Baron Samedi. Dimly lit by white string lights hung against dark, billowy lace, the room is occupied by an altar to Gede. To the left is a red couch surrounded by hand-crafted images of the skeletal figures that represent the Gedes. Djinn has created a space to be occupied by those who revere death and sexuality as the opposing and contradictory forces that make life what it is. It is not considered morbid to practice devotion to these forces. On the contrary, it is a celebratory display of appreciation for all that makes us fragile and human. To place oneself amongst the spirits of Gede is to share the vital energy of life itself and to pay respect to those that have passed through it.
All of us have to some day face the Baron. Our languages, our cultures, our religions, our values determine how we perceive him. The reality for artists living in Haiti is the same as every other person that is struggling to survive there, and those that are born outside of Haiti, still remain citizens of the Diaspora. There has been some mild criticism of this emergence of Haitian artists on to the international scene as elitist and exploitive within the context of the earthquake of 2010, but it is a generally accepted fact, that without a presence on the world stage, there may not exist awareness of the richness of Haitian culture and its potential for global influence. "Global Caribbean III, Haiti Kingdom of this World," which was also exhibited at Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice, counteracts the uprise of “racialized pity” through work that is empowering, political, radical and inspirational on a universal level.
Images: Entrance to the 1st Ghetto Biennale; Andre Eugene, detail sculpture; Sergine André aka "Djinn", Gede Gateway no 3; Élodie Barthelemy, Terre Nourricière.