From the Directors
We begin with beginnings. The media’s coverage of the horrendous 2010 earthquake evoked the dominant frame for seeing and thinking about Haiti in the Americas. As Haitians grappled with the consequences of the goudou-goudou, many colleges and universities attempted to educate their communities about the historical and contemporary realties of Haiti. Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design held forums on Haiti and the former sent medical assistance. From these forums it became clear that interdisciplinary approaches and a course which reframes the art, history and politics of Haiti was needed. From this course emerged this exhibition, Reframing Haiti: Art, History and Performativity.
For many in the Americas, to speak of Haiti is to imagine a strange, unfathomable country where awful things happen and we are asked to deploy our humanitarian largesse. In these frames the extraordinary history and culture of Haiti is viewed as deficit. Aware of this fact, we decided that this exhibition of Haitian art should reframe Haiti as a human place where human lives are lived often against great odds.
How then to reframe?
In the first instance we recognize the centrality of the Haitian Revolution in the making of the Americas. Secondly, Haitian Art has a unique history which was dominated in the 19th century by portraitures and historical paintings. However it is the complexities of Haitian history which influences its art. After the Revolution and independence (1804), Henri Christophe established schools of art in Cap Haitien and Port–Au–Prince. However, as art historian Michel Philippe Lerebours notes, the “artistic traditions which developed following independence” ran into difficulties because of economic conditions. Today there is narrative which claims that Haitian Art in the 20th century begins with the founding of Le Centre D’Art in Port–Au–Prince. Like many other narratives about Haiti this elides and erases the ways in which Haitians contributed significantly to the cultures and history of the Americas. Edwidge Danticat observes that many Haitian painters, bring “forth another canvas beneath the one we see ….” This other canvas troubles many of the labels used to describe a significant portion of Haitian art: the so-called, naïf, the primitive, sometimes called in Caribbean art, the intuitive. These terms invoke a dualism in artistic practice as well as a racial logic reducing all complexities of Haitian culture to a monochromatic gaze. This exhibition works against this gaze.
Reframing Haiti offers an opportunity for critical reflection as the international community considers how best to support Haiti’s efforts to rebuild. Our starting point is that the past shapes both the present and the direction of the future. There are other sources and frames which exist for us to understand Haiti’s history and its present condition. This exhibition acknowledges that not all records are written; not all archives are on paper stored in dusty places. The images here have been created by several generations of artists. They do not speak of a unified history, but rather represent a range of voices, aesthetic styles, ideas and narratives. Haitian art cannot be reduced to reactions against prejudices. The aesthetic scope of the exhibition is expansive and many of these images are narratives about Haiti’s history for a Haitian audience.
From the surrealist dreamscapes of Celestin Faustin to the regal Vodou pantheons and portraitures of André Pierre, the artists featured here complicate our views of Haiti and its history. Three prominent themes emerge from this exhibition : history and revolution; daily life; and religion. These themes offer opportunities to recalibrate historical biases that are in the imaginations of many of us in the Americas.
Ultimately, if there is a potential for Haitian art to influence the future of the country then it may be found in the role it performs in everyday life. The term performativity encapsulates the idea that images act upon the world and constitute a language of the imagination. Images work to define who we are and, by extension, who we are not. As viewers we have the power to choose which images, narratives and ideas we use in reframing our construct of Haiti and of the world.
Anthony Bogues, Harmon Family Professor, Department of Africana Studies
Katherine Smith, Mellon-Cogut Postdoctoral Fellow, Departments of Africana Studies, History of Art and Architecture
Karen Allen Baxter, Managing Director, Department of Africana Studies/Rites and Reason