Art Review: Haiti artists reveal revolution, ritual, remembrance
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Alix Dorleus of Haiti often takes two or three months to complete a single painting.Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette photos
"Parrots in the Breadfruit" is one of the pieces by Alix Dorleus that's part of the exhibition.
Click photo for larger image.
'Revolution, Ritual, and Remembrance: The Art of Haiti'
When: Through March 17. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, until 8 p.m. Thursdays.
Events: Friday, 4 p.m. -- Marcus Rediker, Pitt historian, "The Joyous Surrealism of Haitian Art"; Feb. 23, 6 p.m. -- open-mike event with host Nathan James; March 1, 5 p.m. -- talk by Ian Rawson, chief executive officer, Hopital Albert Schweitzer Haiti, and Lucy Rawson; March 15, 5 p.m. -- Bill Bollendorf, director Galerie Macondo, "Images of Haiti: Dumpster Deities and Other Paradoxes."
Information: 412-648-2423 or http://vrcoll.fa.pitt.edu/uag.
First he composes a mental image. He never makes pencil-on-paper sketches -- he takes the image direct to canvas.
That's because he doesn't have any pencils. Or paper.
Dorleus lives near Hopital Albert Schweitzer Haiti, founded by the late Dr. Larry Mellon, once of Pittsburgh, and his wife, Gwen Grant Mellon. By Dorleus' admission, this hospital is the only reason people continue to live in the economically depressed valley.
The hospital has started some side ventures -- water pipelines, animal vaccination clinics and the like -- but there's certainly no place to buy art supplies. Artists rely on Lucy Rawson, president of Friends of HAS Haiti, a fund-raising auxiliary for the hospital, who delivers canvases and paints to Dorleus and about 10 other artists during periodic visits.
Once Dorleus gets those canvases, he can't waste any. He has a reputation to uphold: He is considered his region's leading painter since the death of his mentor, Ismael Saincilus, in 2000.
So he painstakingly paints his boldly colored work, which ranges from intricate compositions of the activities of town life to decorative arrangements of local flora and fauna.
Dorleus' and Saincilus' paintings, as well as those of many other Haitian artists, are on display at the University Art Gallery, University of Pittsburgh. Eighty paintings, mixed-media pieces, flags, ironworks and other items help to tell the story of the Western Hemisphere's only independent black nation to rise out of a slave revolt.
Dorleus is here for the exhibition. On a recent gallery visit, he sat on a bench, gazing intently at a wall of paintings. Rawson noted that Haitian artists don't often see each other's work because of lack of infrastructure in Haiti. She said Dorleus has probably seen more of his countrymen's work here than he'd ever seen at home.
Four of Saincilus' works illustrate a similar point. The earliest is "Cock Fight," a relatively primitive, almost-stencil-like painting. The three later works are radically different, done in a Byzantine style. Saincilus' style shift occurred after Dr. Mellon gave him a book about Byzantine art -- a rare outside influence.
Curator Josienne Piller has grouped the exhibition into five rooms, each dealing with a different topic. Each room contains a variety of pieces, but there are notable highlights and common themes:
Vodou: Gerard Valcin's "Baptism," for example, captures the blending of Vodou (West African ancestral religious traditions; not "voodoo," which is a Creole tradition) and Catholicism in Haitian life. White-robed people in a river are receiving Christian baptism. But in the foreground, a traditional feast to Agoue, the water god of Vodou, has been laid out.
Dorleus also has two works in this room: "Petit Riviere" and "Sault d'Eau," depicting colorful religious rituals. Through a translator, he explained that "Sault d'Eau" shows an annual festival in which people wade into a river, bringing their petitions before a statue of the Virgin Mary placed beneath a waterfall. A man holds a passport, wanting to travel; a pregnant woman pleads for a safe delivery; a young woman wants to get married; and many others trail behind them.
The room also contains sequined Vodou dolls.
Village life: Dorleus' "Hopital Albert Schweitzer Haiti" shows the front entrance of the hospital, bustling with human activity, including four travelers bringing in a patient on a chair-stretcher.Gerard Valcin's "Baptism" captures the combination of West African Vodou and Catholicism in Haitian life.
Click photo for larger image."Carnival" by Andre Normil
Click photo for larger image.
"Wedding Feast" by Rigaud Benoit (1963) shows a lavishly spread banquet table with empty chairs around it. Piller notes this may be a fantasy scene -- a loaded table that a poor Haitian might dream of.
However, Yves Michaud's "Funeral Scene" is no fantasy -- it depicts real life. A coffin is surrounded by mourners in open grief, but in the foreground, people drink, laugh and play dominoes. The implication: Death is simply part of life in this culture.
Revolution/history: The largest and arguably most important room in the exhibition chronicles Haiti's tumultuous political history. Piller notes that some of the paintings depict animals rather than people -- a common means of cloaking political implications to avoid punishment.
In Andre Normil's "Carnival," revelers enjoy a festival, but a guard stares out of the canvas, on the lookout for political infractions.
The rule of Francois Duvalier is satirized in Jean Venet Senatus II's "The Power of the Hat," which shows Duvalier standing on a balcony wearing his trademark black hat, throwing more hats out into the street to disrupt an election. The idea is that Duvalier could incapacitate you with a mere touch of his hat.
Dumerlus Jeune's "Rise Up Against the French" (2003) shows less recent history -- slaves massacring the French in one of many bloody battles that culminated in Haiti's declaration of independence in 1804.
Several paintings by the prolific Frantz Zephirin contain intricate political references, many expressing anti-U.S. sentiment.
Flora and fauna: Because of deforestation and soil erosion, Haiti has struggled ecologically. But many artists paint lush, fantasy-like scenes.
Celestin Faustin's "Garden of Eden" (1974) depicts Adam and Eve figures in dense greenery, with animals more likely to be found in Africa than in Haiti. Dorleus' "Parrots in the Breadfruit" shows colorful birds snacking on fruit-laden trees. This work captures a recurring thread seen throughout the exhibition: The unquenchable desire for abundance in a politically volatile, needy country.
The Friends of Hopital Albert Schweitzer Haiti office in Point Breeze has additional paintings for sale; call 412-361-4884.
First Published February 13, 2007 12:00 am