The State of Haitian Art
What is Haitian art? This was the question raised at the Haiti 2012: Dreams and Reality—Pays Reve, Pays Reel conference. Rather than zeroing in on the state of the post-earthquake Republic, the conference aimed to raise awareness of the thriving arts culture that has shaped Haitian history.
Haitian art, in spite of the loss of many historical pieces, is alive and well. The four-day conference showcased artists, authors, and filmmakers and brought an international, bilingual dialogue to Milwaukee. The city was selected to host the event due largely because of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Richard and Erma Flagg Collection of Haitian Art, one of the largest collections of Haitian paintings, sculptures and objects d’art in the world. A well-rounded group of academics, linguists, and art collectors, came together around that collection.
Pays Reve, Pays Reel kicked off with a presenter’s dinner and the opening of Haiti and the Midwestern Imagination at the Lynden Sculpture Garden. Michigan artist Orville Bulman painted those works, after travel postcards from Haiti enchanted him. They are part of the Bradley family’s collection. He visited Haiti, the object of his fantasy, just once, for 12 days. After that trip, he’d seen enough and never returned to Haiti.
The event was warm, and the show (on display at Lynden until May 13th) served to anchor the conference. I caught my first glimpses of the Haitians, a welcoming group walking with arms entwined against the cold. Over the next four days, I would accompany Louis-Philippe Dalembert, Edouard Duval-Carrie, Yanick Lahens, Mireille Perodin-Jerome, Lyonel Trouillot, and Arnold Antonin as they discussed (and sometimes argued) the meaning and future direction of Haitian art.
Polly Morris, the Lynden’s executive director, gave an overview of the sculpture collection. She, David Uihlein and Marie-Anne Toledano (Cultural Attachee at the Consulate General of France in Chicago) introduced the works of Orville Bulman and the goals of the conference. Amidst a flurry of French and English, we stayed late into the night with new friends and old.
The conference resumed at Marquette University with a look at Haitian film wit,h award-winning director Arnold Antonin. Documentary shorts and the Milwaukee Premiere of Antonin’s full-length feature, Les Amours d’un zombie (The Loves of a Zombie, Presidential Candidate) gave viewers a taste of Antonin’s style while providing a forum for discussion on other cultural topics, including libraries, writer’s retreats, and the Sainte Trinite School of Music, Port-au-Prince. Antonin riled the audience with his passion for the subject matter while asserting himself in the style of an artist wanting only to share his story with an audience willing to hear and take action.
Thursday brought docent-guided tours of the MAM’s Flagg Collection of Haitian Art, with Miami-based Haitian artist Edouard Duvall-Carrie and Mireille Perodin-Jerome, curator and educator at Les Ateliers Jerome. The exhibit houses work by some of the most historically important Haitian artists, including Hector Hyppolite and Philome Obin, while incorporating the juxtaposition of political turmoil, revolution, and the catholic-voodoo blend that tempers it all. Among the viewers were ambassadors and dignitaries from France and Haiti; Duval-Currie and Perodin-Jerome spoke with knowledge and respect for the pieces, sharing personal commentary and historical context. Themes of revolution, family, and making the most with what one has run deep in the collection. Brady Roberts, MAM’s chief curator, said that the tours, given in French and English, were the most thorough talks ever given on the Flagg Collection.
The final day of the conference focused on current Haitian literature, with writers Louis-Philippe Dalembert, Lyonel Truiollot, and Yanick Lahens. The event occurred at UW-Milwaukee, with real-time translations from Sarah Dupee and Sarah Puchner. Moderated by Gabrielle Verdier and Dr. Sarah Davies Cordova, the conference became more of a dialogue amongst the Haitians than anything else. The audience listened as the speakers took the direction of the conversation toward a space of self-determination for the artists, writers, and filmmakers creating work at a crucial point in Haiti’s tumultuous history.
All in all, Pays Reve, Pays Reel provided a forum for the international community to see beyond the rubble of poverty and corruption, right to the soulful heart of Haiti, through a diverse group of zealous creators voicing their love and concern for the homeland. While the world may believe Haitian art ceased to progress in the 1950s, every day men and women of the diaspora continue to create from a base of Haitian identity. “It’s more than just literature from inside or outside,” said writer Trouillot. “Time will tell what Haitian art is.”
Pays Reve, Pays Reel gathered support from UW-Milwaukee, Milwaukee Art Museum, Marquette University, Lynden Sculpture Garden, David Barnett Gallery, Milwaukee Peace Corps Association, Alliance Francaise of Milwaukee and Chicago along with the Cultural Services of the General Consulate of France (Chicago- and New York-based offices) and the French Institute of Paris. For more information on the event, or to learn more about viewing Haitian art currently housed in Milwaukee, click here.