(The following is a review I wrote for Nottingham Visual Arts in December 2012.)
Hector Hippolyte, Papa Zaca Papa Ogoun, c.1947
Kafou is the Creole word for “crossroads”, explains Alex Farquharson in his video tour to Kafou: Haiti, Art & Vodou. It is an important term in African and Haitian belief systems, symbolizing a meeting place between the vertical realm of the spirits and the horizontal realm of humans. It is at this threshold that the boundaries of life and death, visible and invisible become hazy.
“Kafou” in the context of the exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary has another meaning. The story begins, as we are told, in 1940, with the establishment of the Centre’ D’art in Port-au-Prince: the meeting of modern art with Haitian art practice. Kafou: Haiti, Art and Vodou documents the mutual influence of modern art from Europe and Haitian culture. It also marks the moment Haitian culture met the modern art gallery. The nature of this particular crossroads, and what happened there, is what comes into focus in this exhibition.
In 1976 Brian O’Doherty presented an essay, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, that was the first known attempt to verbalize the developing affects of the modern art gallery space on the production and reception of art. While this endows the object with a sense of worth or value, the art “exists in a kind of eternity of display, and though there is lots of ‘period’ (late modern) there is no time. This eternity gives the gallery a limbolike status; one has to have died already to be there.” This is true, he said, both for the art and the spectators.
A house of the living dead is something you might rather relate to vodou temples than the modern art gallery. The two may be more similar than previously considered. O’Doherty was possibly the first to trace the modern method of display back to ancient histories of religion and the establishment of ritual “ultra-spaces” that facilitated a symbolic connection between heaven and earth through an engagement with objects. Speaking earlier this year, Marina Warner recalled this connection. “Tempus and temple,” she explained, share the same root …They function socially in comparable ways (‘temples for atheists’), providing an occasion for assembly, for communal experiences, for finding meanings.”
In the modern art gallery, as in a church or temple, the space itself is primary in the process of establishing meaning. O’Doherty believed that the insistent construction of an apparently unchangeable space was an attempt to impose meaning and identity, both in terms of social values and aesthetic. In its over-definition of itself, and resistance to change, modernism purposefully neglects difference. Its rigorous laws separate inside from outside, the eye from the body. With this, “Modernism’s transposition of perception from life to formal values is complete.”
As the years have progressed since the 1970s, the certain distinctions between subject and object have become less tenable. Postmodern criticism was among other interested parties to compromise hierarchies of space/ power/ knowledge. “It would appear”, wrote Harry Garuba in a recent article for E-Flux, that the boundary between Nature and Society, the world of objects and subjects, the material world and that of agency and symbolic meanings, is less certain than the modernist project had decreed.” However these challenges to modernism, in opposing its formalist ideologies, still assumed its knowledge systems to be somewhat unmovable. O’Doherty’s essay was a significant attempt to reflect critically on art-making at the time that manipulated the picture plane and the white cube to varying degrees. But postmodernism’s reactionary tactics tended to assume a dominance in modernism’s strategies. “Contesting its authority is a fine thing,” writes Garuba, in his assay “On Animism, Modernity/ Colonialism and the African Order of Knowledge: Provisional Refelctions,” “but it is much more difficult to overturn its legacies.”
What these commentaries also rather problematically assume is that those who are colonized by modernity are then drawn wholly and inevitably into its regime of knowledge/power. What if the lines are less distinct? Garuba supposes another angle of enquiry: “What are the epistemic legacies of this regime of knowledge, especially in areas of the world … seen as outside of the modern? Have they been largely untouched by the dualist episteme of modernity or have they been captured by it?” This historic survey of visual art from modern Haiti may be an opportunity to consider such negotiations with modernity. Haiti is, after all, the only independent republic to have been formed by a successful slave revolt.
Préfète Duffaut Maitre Carrefour 1951. From the collection of Dr Robert C Bricston, San-Diego.
Much of the text that accompanies the art works in the exhibition is from essays written by modern or contemporary American or European commentators, all of which express a great admiration for both the art and the artists. Two great quotes appear together next to one painting, Les Generaux (1988) by Madsen Monpriemier. The first from Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 reads, “Rid me of those gilded Africans, and we shall have nothing more to wish.” The second, from André Breton, written in the visitor’s book of Centre D’Art in 1948, reads, “Haitian painting will drink the blood of the phoenix. And, with the epaulets of Dessalines, it will ventilate the world.” Placed side by side like this, these quotes represent the kind of mutual fear and awe felt by foreign observers of Haiti’s vodou culture. Vodou had a defining role in Napoleon’s defeat, the independence of slaves and the establishment of Haiti. For Breton, as a founding member of the surrealist movement, Haitian art quite possibly represented radical forms of artistic expression.
Truman Capote found the work of Haitian painter and vodou priest Hector Hippolyte admirable for its unwillingness to compromise, “there is nothing in his art that had been slyly transposed, he is using what lives within himself, and that is his country’s spiritual history”. It would seem that the transposing quality of Modernism described by O’Doherty was not a complete process when crossed with Haitian art, but its influence is still felt, albeit very selectively. As I walked around this show I could not fully distinguish what might have been a surrealist influence on the Haitian artist, or the signs of an influence upon surrealism. Farquharson himself also makes reference to Matisse in describing one of Hippolyte’s paintings, and the comparison is very clear. Hippolyte painted on pieces of board with enamel paint. His paintings, along with the others that are on display in this room, combine a kind of narrative history painting with the presence of vodou mysticism, in what appears to be a unique collection of spiritual history painting.
The paintings of Préfète Duffaut in Gallery 2 adopt a curious negotiation with another modernist pictorial technique. He brings a unique geometric form and symmetry to his symbolic depictions of vodou lwa, with bright colours. I am left thinking that, in response to Harry Garuba’s enquiry—whether cultures considered non-modern have been untouched by modernity or captured by it—when it comes to Haitian art there is no straight answer either way.
O’Doherty identified an established tendency in the modern art of Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to isolate works, excising them from their context, the living world and beyond. Reality, however, does not always conform to rules of etiquette. Meanwhile, the vernacular art practices of the time were surpassing themselves and transgressing their established habitats. Memento mori photographs incorporating symbolic gestures of hair or jewels, predated Symbolism and Surrealism, and ultimately caught the eye of these movements. Similar magical, symbolic gestures in Haitian art similarly inspired them.
While many scholars have considered art as a matter of representation and communication, the anthropologist Alfred Gell saw visual art as a form of instrumental action: the making of things as a means of influencing the thoughts and actions of others, intended to make an impact upon social life. Artworks are social agents that perform a social role. Gell also recommended that anthropological understandings of art from countries other than their own should be applied to the contemporary art of anthropologists’ home countries
In an essay for the London Review of Books Marina Warner considered the work of Damien Hirst in this manner. Concerning his most recent piece “For the Love of God”—a diamond-encrusted skull—, Hirst declared “I just want to celebrate life by saying to hell with death.” Warner concedes that Hirst’s “limitations as an artist are bound up with the transparency – you could say the obviousness – of his symbolism.” Apart from this obviousness, she also attributes this short-falling to Hirst’s individualism as an artist, the influences of the modern gallery space and the financial markets on his production.
For effective communication and personal expression though symbols, Warner argues, there is a need for mutual exchange between the art and its community. A mutual exchange is necessarily a dialogue. The agency enacted by an artist is rarely self-sufficient; it is not simply a ‘product’ or end-point of an action, but rather an extension of the artist received by others. Rather than being too literal, anticipating their own redundancy in the process, artworks should tantalize, even frustrate the viewer for dialogue to occur. The most oblique, perhaps most exciting, paintings in this regard are those made by the Sans Soleil artists, an isolated community living in the mountains of Port-au-Prince, who were both guided by avant garde principles and yet protected from the market value buzzing around the modern art gallery. In their work contorted and obscure figures swirl around in abstract space. They are somehow neither directly representative nor symbolic of anything in particular.
In his books Art and Agency, Gell argued that aesthetic appreciation alone is insufficient for understanding art, as he believed it failed to engage with the specificity of art objects themselves. But you don’t have to become an anthropologist in order to engage with art in this way. Kafou’s co-curator Leah Gordon was quick to explain in a recent gallery talk that she is not an anthropologist, that she offers no definitive explanations to the practices of Haitian vodou, and that her engagement with the vodou art of Haiti comes from her point of view as an artist. Yet her excellent film in the final gallery space of this exhibition adopts an anthropological approach that follows Haitian art practice to its place of production, predominantly the ghettoes in the cities of Haiti. The sculptures seen in this context seem to possess a liveliness and vitality that is somehow missing here in the gallery. Here again we see the lines of distinction between disciplines productively blurred.
In her film, Gordon visits an art gallery in the heart of one of Haiti’s ghettoes. The man who owns this gallery remarks on the importance of this space to his community. Spaces for art, after all, are still desirable, but what defines them is more open to question; who uses them and how is crucial. Garuba observes Marx’s idea of the commodity as both a material object and a “mysterious thing” simultaneously. He then remarks that, instead of opposing one, or defending one against the other, this co-presence must be recognized for the possibility of a genuinely alternative order of knowledge to emerge; understanding the world not as if it were already a dead object for analysis, but as something vital and alive.
There is one particular painting in this exhibition by Wilson Bigaud from 1952 that depicts a beach scene. The vodou lwa Larisen is advancing from the sea towards the beach. The intensity of this presence is causing bathers to flee in panic. One figure remains kneeling on the sand, facing the lwa, with an easel in his lap and a brush in hand. Not only does this seem to suggest how difficult the task of pictorially representing vodou is, but also how brave and bold an effort it is to attempt to do so. It is this painting that therefore seems paradigmatic of this exhibition as a whole. There is a risk at the crossroads: you cannot know for sure whether the kafou will let through good or bad spirits. Even if it inevitably upholds certain epistemic structures of modern knowledge production (in the white cube), this exhibition is a bold move, and very compelling.
Vodou is “the one thing foreigners don’t know about,” proclaims the Haitian artist in his interview for Gordon’s film. If they did then Haiti would have fallen long ago. While this may well be the case, Kafou: Haiti, Art & Vodou is testament to a moment when foreign artists came to Haiti and were enchanted.