PÒTOPRENS: The Urban Artists of Port-au-Princeby Maureen Catbagan and Amber Jamilla Musser
PIONEER WORKS | SEPTEMBER 7, 2018 – NOVEMBER 11, 2018
PÒTOPRENS is a feast for the eyes. Occupying three floors at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, the show brings together twenty-five contemporary artists working in different mediums in order to showcase Haitian art, much of which has not previously been displayed in the United States. This breadth is a deliberate curatorial choice; it reflects the city’s geography and the resultant microcosms of artistic communities, and is a confirmation of the vigor and aesthetic prowess of Haiti’s artists.
By focusing on art from Port-au-Prince (the title is the city’s name in Creole), the show explicitly rejects readymade ideas of Haiti. In other words, it refuses to traffic in familiar, outdated tropes or “misery porn,” and steers away from commodities purchased by tourists—painted market scenes, landscapes, or other small trinkets. Making Port-au-Prince the focal point highlights the city’s hybridity and ability to thrive after the devastating 2010 earthquake, and the country’s economic plight occasioned by having to pay reparations to France after a successful slave rebellion in 1791 led to its independence. What is most striking is that the art displayed here is uncontainable in relation to a stagnant Western-Haitian mythos. We are immersed in the unification of art-making and living which is fundamental to Haitian culture.
The dazzling skulls and monumental sculptures greet you first. Towering above viewers, as a combination of found objects, wood, and paint many of them take the shape of humans. The exhibition path winds its way though totem-like structures made of discarded car parts, limestone heads, and a sharp Madonna alongside skeletal soldiers textured with nails. Carved snakes populate the wall, turning into a parade of stunning sequined flags above the entry to the next room. The room is occupied with trios of soft humanoid dolls, their bodies speckled with mirrors suggesting alternate depths and openings. Others spill out of a floating ship. There are wall hangings of elaborate scenes made out of beads and sequins.
This show not only introduces us to contemporary Haitian artists, but also to questions of cultural specificity as to what a work of art is (many of these pieces have not been displayed as art in Haiti). The majority of the works are constructed from used and discarded materials. A particularly haunting sculpture is comprised of shoes, rusty chains, and metal discs nailed to a wooden X. Near the base of the sculpture, the colors are faded and the shoes appear especially flattened and worn, while at the top, the shoes have more structure and the colors are brighter. The stain of the wood darkens along the same axis. The effect is evocative of maritime scenes. We might imagine part of the sculpture representing something that is (or was) underwater; these lost soles as lost souls. What Walter Benjamin terms “aura” is very much in evidence, manifested in the traces of physical handling of the objects by the artists. In other words, every object is nailed to the wood just so in reflection of the artists’ sensibilities.1 But here we see how Benjamin’s notion of aura has been transformed by decades of capitalism; each object’s aura coexists with mass-production. These sculptures, we are informed, are from a community of artists at the southern end of the Grand Rue, who use recycled and readymade objects. Though assemblages have a long history within contemporary art practices, here the effect not only calls attention to the art of ordinary objects—restoring aura through reuse—but it also brings our attention to the conditions that make materials available for art use. In this case, we are given occasion to reflect on Haiti as repository of a vast economy of secondhand items from the United States and other countries so we feel the affective haunting pull of the sculptures and Haiti’s geopolitical status simultaneously. In other words, the imbrication of these items in capital is an essential part of what makes up their aura, not what removes it. This is a transformation of capitalism’s debris into an alternate economy that refuses to be refused. These artists not only imbue new life into these recycled materials, but they also resist a system of capital that positions objects (and we might argue countries) as disposable.
In many of the pieces in this show it is difficult to separate the religious and spiritual from the artistic. Allusions abound from the prickly Madonna to the sequined flags of the Bel Air neighborhood depicting Voodoo gods surrounded by vivid geometric shapes. The co-existence of both Western (via Catholic) and Afro-Caribbean iconography is indicative of the forms of religious hybridity that arose from colonialism and slavery. The soft sculptures can be traced to religious iconography from Benin—since the mirrors are meant to attract the spirits of the dead. Sometimes, the allusions to religion are more subtle, such as the presence of carved snakes—symbols of Damballa, the primordial creator—or the arrangement of nails in wooden statues, which recall Nkisi, an object imbued with spirit, made in the nineteenth or twentieth century by Songye nganga in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as part of a religious practice to communicate with ancestors and ward off misfortune. Taken together, these objects allow us to understand Voodoo as the product of migratory—largely because of slavery—negotiations with multiple African religious traditions (in addition to Catholicism), thereby demystifying the religion by grounding it in the specifics of history. Here, we especially see the multiple cultural influences at work in Haiti. Further, through the lens of voodoo, we can imagine these objects’ dual role in both art and religion. In addition to iconography, the presence of nails and mirrors indicate specific functions in relation to gods and spirits. This is art that is engaged with multiple spiritual traditions, simultaneous to its assertion of a history of resistance—legend has it that the slave revolt that led to independence began at a Voodoo ceremony.
But PÒTOPRENS is not just about Haiti’s engagement with its past—on the second and third floors, we also see images of Haiti and Haitians now. Josué Azor’s photographs of queer nightlife fill one wall. In these images, we see a close up of a rainbow bowtie, eyes in a rearview mirror, and torsos dancing skin to skin. These chronicles offer evidence of the existence of queer Haitian life—in contrast to prevailing narratives which imagine the country to be entirely homophobic. In addition, these images underline the idea of engagement with life through their emphasis on sociality. The figures are seldom alone; they, too, are part of Port-au-Prince’s vibrant life. Likewise, Maggie Steber’s photographs of the destroyed buildings on the Grand Rue and Roberto Stephenson’s images of the interiors of homes offer glimpses of quiet beauty amidst the precarity and turmoil of everyday life. The film program, which toggles between documentaries and art films, increases this polyphony of Haitian voices and experiences. But the most poignant and direct engagement with Haitian life is the presence of a barbershop that has been built in Pioneer Works own garden. Modeled after barbershops in Port-au-Prince, the unisex salon is open for business. While the outside features portraits of Rihanna, Haitian singer Rutshelle Guillaume, and the artist Michel Lafleur, there is also art happening inside the simple shack, where men and women can sip beer, gossip, or charge phones as they wait their turn. The inclusion of a local commercial structure augments the breadth of experiences that PÒTOPRENS puts on display while also underscoring the inability to separate the aesthetic from the art of living and the entanglement between the social and the work of making art. But most importantly, PÒTOPRENS is a welcome celebration of living acts of decolonization, resilience, and resistance to the very extractive techniques of slavery and global capitalism the country has suffered through since its inception.
- In 1936, Walter Benjamin famously argued that the aura of an artwork was evacuated in the era of film and photography because these modern technologies challenge the concept of an original and mechanical reproduction, itself a product of capitalism, shifted our relationship to art. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”
Maureen Catbagan is a Filippino-American, multi-media artist based in Brooklyn whose work engages social collectivity and examines relations between identity and experience. Collaborative projects include ZAPT zine, Abang- guard, HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? Collective, and experimental music groups Bloodflames and PXALM.Amber Jamilla Musser
Amber Jamilla Musser is Associate Professor of American Studies at George Washington University and the author of Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (NYU, 2014) and Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance, which was published by NYU Press in November.