sun 23/11/2014

Kafou: Haiti, Art and Vodou, Nottingham Contemporary | Visual arts reviews, news & interviews

Kafou: Haiti, Art and Vodou, Nottingham Contemporary

Edible enjoyment and surreal surprises in a magical feast of art

Madson Mompremier's ‘Les Generales’, 1988, Gassen Collection

I’ve rarely come across an exhibition as loaded with context as this one. Voodoo – or Vodou, as the show has it – is a massively complex and contested phenomenon, from the pin-sticking and zombies of legend and fantasy to the no-less colourful reality. Haitian history is tragic and dramatic, fraught with misinformation stemming from the country’s creation in an 18th century slave revolt. The religion, the history and the art produced from them feed in and out of each other in fascinating ways which the exhibition’s promotional material presents as a great slab of facts and ideas that have to be negotiated before you can even get your foot in the door.

What we see when we actually get inside is more modest in scale and ambition than you might expect, but often beautiful. It is also highly revealing, not only about Haitian culture, but how we choose to present and think about art from outside the Western mainstream.

The initial impression is of a kind of magic realist folk art

Vodou, we are led to understand, is a blend of African and Christian beliefs incorporating  elements of native Indian religion, Western occultism, freemasonry and whatever else takes its adherents’ fancy. Its iconography draws equally promiscuously from the imagery that comes its way, from baroque religious art to Princess Diana, Nastassja Kinski and Fred Flintstone, all of whom have appeared on Vodou altars in recent years. You won’t, however, meet this unlikely trinity in this exhibition. Apart from a few examples of sequinned and embroidered ‘secret flags’, none of the images and objects here are religious artefacts. While everything – or almost everything – here has been inspired by Vodou, it has all been created as ‘art’ of one sort or another.

Curated by Nottingham Contemporary’s director Alex Farquarson and photographer Leah Gordon (creator of the superb book Kanaval), the exhibition’s time frame begins in the 1940s, when Dewitt Peters, an American artist and teacher created the Centre d’Art, a gallery and informal art school in the Haitian capital Port au Prince. While the Centre d’Art was initially designed to promote Haitian Modernism, it became associated with so-called "naive art", the paintings of untutored peasants and artisans, such as Hector Hyppolite, a house painter and Vodou priest, and Benoit Rigaud, originally Peters’ driver. When the Surrealist leader Andre Breton visited the island in 1945 his enthusiasm for this work piqued the interest of international dealers and collectors, and a full-scale Haitian "primitive renaissance" was under way. This is the tradition, rejuvenated by subsequent movements, such as the 1970s Saint-Soloeil group, that this exhibition explores.

The first room looks at the original Haitian art superstars, from Hector Hyppolite, still the best-known Haitian artist, to Philome Obin, a Baptist and Freemason, who eschewed Vodou subjects and created his own history-based sub-genre. The initial impression is of a kind of magic realist folk art in which certain subjects predominate: Vodou deities, Haitian history, scenes from peasant life or sometimes all three at once.

Hyppolite, technically perhaps the least adept, gives the greatest sense of getting Vodou ritual raw onto the canvas. Some of the other’s efforts – such as Wilson Bigaud’s wonderful Africaine Carnivale (pictured above) correspond so closely to what Andre Breton would have liked, you can’t help feeling they must have been influenced as well as promoted by him.

Princess Diana, Nastassja Kinski and Fred Flintstone have all appeared on Vodou altars in recent years

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