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5449: Migration defines Haiti and this spirited artist (fwd)
Published Sunday, November 5, 2000, in the Miami Herald
Blend of old and new: Migration defines Haiti and this spirited artist
BY ELISA TURNER
With his quick wit and deep, infectious laugh, Edouard Duval Carrié
would be a perfect fit as a social director on a Caribbean
cruise. You can imagine him introducing guests to one another, cajoling
people to share a drink or tell a story and chatting up an audience in
English or French -- or even in the Spanish he learned as a teenager
living in Puerto Rico. He became an artist instead, although he aims to
make plenty of introductions these days. He indicated as much to a
standing-room-only crowd at the opening of his latest exhibition, New
Work: Edouard Duval Carrié, Migrations, an exploration of Haitian
culture, Vodou spirits and the current desperation on the
island now on view at the Miami Art Museum. But these introductions
concern desperate travelers in rickety flotillas and vivid
migratory Haitian Vodou spirits of love and death, not tanned
passengers sipping rum on multimillion-dollar ships.
``Here is this whole culture that you might not be aware of,'' said
Duval Carrié, a worldly and jocular figure dressed in a natty black
suit. ``But it may be heading your way, so let's get accustomed to each
other.'' Presented in a tour de force combination of painting and
sculpture, Migrations is a spirited encounter made for South Florida, a
community of immigrants suffused with much of the Caribbean. (Another
collection of Duval Carrié's work, Edouard Duval Carrié: Landscapes,
Real & Imagined, is showing at the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery in the
Miami Design District through Dec. 7.) And fittingly, the MAM show is
scheduled for its own significant encounter. In the spring of 2002,
Migrations will meet up with three of the artist's previous
installations that probe complex African, American and European strands
interlacing Haitian culture and its history, born from Middle Passage
horrors. The quartet is uniting for a show organized by the Davenport
Museum of Art in Iowa, a venue known for its large collection of Haitian
art, and the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach, which owns the artist's
caustic portrait of deposed Haitian dictator Jean-Claude ``Baby Doc''
Duvalier and his family, a seminal riff on European court painters.
Duval Carrié's first traveling museum exhibit will mark a milestone in
a prolific career, and both Migrations and the traveling show should
solidify Duval Carrié's reputation as a major voice sifting the New
World-Old World mélange of the Caribbean with the inventive materials
and international outlook of contemporary art.
The just-published Oxford History of Western Art, in fact, is already
linking Duval Carrié's art to the blend of European Modernism and
Afro-Cuban rites forged by Cuban master Wifredo Lam. ``It's very second
millennium,'' MAM senior curator Peter Boswell says of the
artist's work. ``He's a great synthesizer. He's bringing in those
influences from other countries. ``This is really a dominant trend in
art right now, with artists who are global but also regional at the same
time.'' And the polyglot, Caribbean-colored landscape of Miami, Boswell
adds, ``is very good at fostering that type of sensibility.''
``It's so refreshing to have a voice like Edouard's, that openly talks
about Vodou and treats it with the respect it deserves,'' says Leonie
Hermantin, executive director of the Haitian American Foundation, which
today is co-sponsoring a round-table discussion on issues raised by
Duval Carrié's exhibition. ``His art shows that when we move to another
land we used our memories of religion to help us adapt.''
As Duval Carrié spoke at MAM, subdued laughter rippled through the
crowd. The artist may be a clever charmer, but the urgent reasons behind
his get-accustomed offer are close to the surface.``In time, God knows,
the island will get its act straight,'' but for now, he continued, ``the
crisis in Haiti seems unending.'' The artist puts it more emphatically
in an interview in his Design District studio, a work space lined with
art books, antique maps of Port-au-Prince and an orange I-Mac computer.
``The Vodou spirits are splitting! I am having the whole pantheon pick
up and leave,'' he says of the premise driving Migrations, in which the
Vodou spirits flee the island. ``It's funny, but at the same time it's
very tragic. I decided to address the problem of Haiti losing itself, of
dying. ``People are in total dire straits.'
During Duval Carrié's visit to Port-au-Prince five months ago, a gunman
fatally shot his cousin, a prominent radio newscaster critical of the
Duvalier regime. That violent scene -- and many others -- are rendered
in the MAM show in painted panels that includes a faux marble wall
relief reminiscent of a Roman Catholic altarpiece.
In one panel, a lush tropical forest smolders while in others a
tattooed goddess dances in a South Beach strip joint and a warrior
spirit in gold epaulets mans a tank in the Gulf War. They deliver
bittersweet stories of a besieged country, represented by rural spirits
migrating into new urban contexts. The spirits are testament to the
fluid energies of Vodou that Duval Carrié has always admired. He calls
Vodou -- with its syncretic assortment of African and Roman Catholic
deities -- ``a guerrilla religion. ``It refuses to have strict canons,''
he says. ``You have new gods coming in, other gods forgotten. It
recovers anything that might be of use to survival of the people.''
Loosely reminiscent of a Vodou temple, Migrations is perfumed with
lilies strewn on the floor like offerings and fraught with the rococo
curves of crumbling colonial French architecture, replicated in ornate
urns laden with more offerings of glazed fruit.
Throughout is the festive sparkle of Vodou altars to ``Mistress'' Ezili
Freda, the vampish light-skinned goddess of love and luxury. A devotee
of pink cake, lace hankies, and Anais-Anais perfume, she is a poor
country's fantasy of ravishing wealth -- and emblematic of colonial
Haiti's vanished natural resources. At MAM, she's the dominant voyager
in a peculiar flotilla of boats suspended from the ceiling, their hulls
glistening in melting pink shades of mock marble and inscribed with lacy
ritual drawings that invoke Vodou spirits. And like the
glowering, scar-faced Bawon Samedi, a Vodou spirit at home in
cemeteries but tucked here in a listing skiff, Ezili is heading for the
exit and away from Haiti.
Their uprootedness is familiar to Duval Carrié, 45. He is, writes Latin
American art historian Edward J. Sullivan, ``acutely aware of the
disorientations caused by migration [which is] the defining issue in the
history of the islands.''
After spending his boyhood in Haiti and his adolescence in Puerto Rico,
the artist shipped out to college in Montreal to study urban planning,
though he was more engaged by painting than planning. In the 1980s he
returned to Haiti to help manage his father's construction business,
where he witnessed the 1986 downfall of ``Baby Doc'' Duvalier and the
chaos that followed. Two years later the French government invited him
to a formative residency at the Museum of African and Oceanic Arts in
Paris. In 1992 he traveled to Benin, home to Haiti's African ancestors,
for an international reunion of Vodou cultures, and a
year after that he settled in Miami with his second wife Nina, an
English film producer, and their sons, now 8 and 10. Along the way he
has exhibited at the contemporary art museum in Monterrey,
Mexico, biennials in Sao Paulo and Havana, and the 1996 Cultural
Olympiad in Atlanta. Raised Roman Catholic in an upper-middle-class
family that typically finds his interest in Vodou ``off the wall,''
Duval Carrié recalls constant drumming coming from the mountains
surrounding Port-au-Prince. ``You got to know it, if you liked it or
not. There's no way you can be shielded,'' he says. ``When I was a kid
the maids took me to something that was supposedly church-related, but
it was really a pilgrimage to Ezili. . . . It was just like a party,
and they would serve you a Coke. ``You could even visit the temples and
go into the back rooms where the sacred objects are. There would be
tables full of cakes for Ezili, and you'd have rows of perfume bottles,
some appropriated from my mother. Visually, it's very stunning.''
SCARRED BY BRUTALITY
Affected by the flashy panoply of altars and fantastic colors of
traditional Haitian painting, the artist was also scarred by brutalities
of the Duvaliers, who jailed his brother Robert for more than a year.
And while he is not unique among Haitian artists of his generation in
reinventing his country's intensely visual heritage, Duval
Carrié is a leader in this trend, says Veerle Poupeye in the 1998 book
Caribbean Art. ``His work evokes,'' she writes, ``the magic and mystery
of the Vodou universe and comments on Haiti's history and sociopolitical
realities with sharp, surreal wit.' In his first show in 1980 at the
Centre d'Art in Port-au-Prince, his evocations went too far. Centre
director Francine Muerat advised him against adding his portrait of
Baby Doc in lacy drag with a pistol pointed to his head, a nod to
rumors that the iron-fisted dictator was gay and to Ezili's patronage of
homosexuals. ``Do you want to have us all disappeared?'' Duval Carrié
remembers Muerat asking. ``That would be signing our death warrant.''
Six years later, the portrait finally surfaced as a poster celebrating
Duvalier's flight from power. Vodou scholar Donald J. Cosentino says it
shrewdly indicated how Duvalier's lavish kleptocracy kept itself afloat
by playing into Ezili-inspired fantasies of Haiti's poor.
Given his view of Haiti's current fortunes, Duval Carrié says migration
is a more pressing issue than ever. But by devising a scenario in which
even the country's spiritual essence is departing, the artist has
delayed his own dream of painting murals in a Vodou temple in Haiti.
The stay is only temporary, he promises. As icons of Haitian culture,
the spirits are, he insists, international and can return to the island
just as easily as they left. ``They can travel back and forth,'' he
says. ``That's the state of things these days. Nobody's stuck in one
Elisa Turner is The Herald's art critic.