Few exhibitions in 2012 caught my eye and imagination as much as ‘Kafou: Haiti, Art & Vodou’, a large show swarming with gods and zombies, revolutionary heroes and artists-cum-Vodou priests. Documenting the emergence (at least to Western eyes) of contemporary art in Haiti since World War II, ‘Kafou’ operated on one level as a beginner’s guide to the religious and cultural life of the nation, the former French slave colony that, in 1804, became the first Caribbean nation to gain independence from its colonial masters, a century-and-a-half before the rest of the world experienced decolonization. But it was also a sophisticated statement about globalization, modernity and the status of Vodou – the island’s popular religion is a fusion of African beliefs, Catholicism, freemasonry and other traditions – as a contemporary rather than a historical or anachronistic practice.
It’s significant that ‘Kafou’ was staged in a gallery of contemporary art, rather than a museum with a permanent collection of ethnographic artefacts. One such institution, The Fowler Museum in Los Angeles, concurrently hosted ‘In Extremis: Death and Life in 21st-Century Haitian Art’. But where the latter show defined Haiti’s art through the base of political oppression (‘Papa Doc’ and ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier) and natural disaster (the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people), the focus here was on the agency and creative superstructure of Vodou.
‘Kafou’ (which means ‘crossroads’ in Creole, from the French Carrefour) did not shy away from the complexities of the nation’s syncretic cultural make-up. Curated by Nottingham Contemporary’s director Alex Farquharson and filmmaker and curator Leah Gordon (who co-founded Port-au-Prince’s Ghetto Biennale in 2008), the exhibition explored how Vodou allegorizes and abstracts the nation’s troubled history: slavery under the Spanish and French; the 1804 revolution; and the ‘disaster capitalism’ following the catastrophic earthquake. The first gallery featured works by key Haitian artists of the 1940s and ’50s, a period known as the ‘Haitian Renaissance’, including Hector Hyppolite, Wilson Bigaud, Castera Bazile and Rigaud Benoit. This period dovetails neatly into a globalized reading of Modernism: Surrealists such as André Breton, Maya Deren and Wifredo Lam were drawn to Haiti to see its art; Haitian artists were evidently also inspired by the Surrealism of the West. A video showed scenes from Port-au-Prince’s Centre d’Art in the 1940s – often credited with kick-starting Haiti’s international reputation – in which its American founder drives around the bucolic countryside delivering pots of paint to the country’s impoverished artists.
But, of course, art in Haiti wasn’t an American import, and there were plenty of works that cut against the grain of deeply held stereotypes about Haitian culture. Hyppolite’s 1946 painting Zombis depicts a parade of white-robed zombies tramping besides a neat-looking church and attendant Catholic priest. Pitiful rather than the menacing cannibals of Hollywood legend, the zombie is better understood as a codified record of slavery: in Haitian myth, zombies are created when a sorcerer enslaves the living, putting them into a state in which they have no will of their own, creating a kind of living death. The fact that Hyppolite was also a Vodou priest, or houngan, looms large in such works. Other pieces made it clear that the story of Haitian art is also more than that of Vodou: Sénèque Obin (of the Cap-Haïtien school, which often depicted scenes from daily life) was represented by the revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture (c.1950).
Much of the work included in ‘Kafou’ centres on depicting the lwa – that is, the spirits that intervene in human affairs, and who must be appeased through ceremonies, possessions and rites. The most familiar of these figures to a Western audience is Baron Samedi, the smartly dressed father of the Guédé family. But the panoply of spirits include more heterogeneous personalities such as the Maitre Carrefour – a four-legged, four-armed and four-faced humanoid – painted by Préfète Duffaut in 1951, or the human-serpent figures in Rigaud Benoit’s Damballah Wedo and his Consort (1967). The lwa’s intercession in everyday life appears to be a mixed blessing: one artist here, Célestin Faustin, died of a drug overdose after feeling oppressed by Erzuli Dantor, the spirit of maternal love (his paintings are an erotic nightmare, oddly redolent of 1970s heavy metal album covers), while Camy Rocher drowned at the age of 21 after feeling censured by Agwe, the admiral of the ocean.
A subtext of ‘Kafou’ was the commodification of ‘primitive’ art by Western collectors, art institutions and tourists. Indeed, for a gallery such as Nottingham Contemporary, the project of locating the ethnographic in modernity is marked by as many controversies (exhibitions such as MoMA’s ‘Primitivism’ in 1984 and ‘Magiciens de la terre’ at the Centre Pompidou in 1989 both loom large) as successes (Okwui Enwezor’s 2012 Paris Triennale, say). ‘Kafou’ fared well in this regard, and did so in part by locating Haitian groups who had themselves resisted exoticization: for example, the Saint-Soleil movement of the 1970s onwards was represented by a room of mysterious, crepuscular works depicting lesser, unnamed, spirits floating in watery or cosmic space that do not at all fit into the gothic clichés of Haitian art. While artists from this group – such as Prosper Pierre-Louis and Louisiane Saint Fleurant – painted globular figures with defined outlines, the image that struck me the most was by the lesser known Clermont Julien: Green and Black Figures (1994), which I can only falteringly describe as somewhere between Juan Miró and Hieronymus Bosch.
The final gallery brought us up to date, with works by Frantz Zéphirin and Edouard Duval-Carrié (whose best work here was a bitingly satirical poster of ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier dressed in his wife’s wedding dress and apparently about to shoot himself). Large sequined flags by Myrlande Constant (one of the few women artists included) and Yves Telemaque, who update the tradition of ceremonial flags displayed earlier in the exhibition, also filled the space. The more urgent works came from Atis Rezistans group, who are based in the Grand Rue area of Port-au-Prince: dusty looking assemblage-sculptures made from cheap consumer imports, which can be read as protests against the post-colonial condition of poverty and the disaster capitalism that followed the earthquake of two years ago. ‘Kafou’ pointed to the insight – important in the wake of the financial crisis – that economic impoverishment does not necessitate cultural poverty.