What the world needs: Kafou: Haiti, Art and Vodou at Nottingham Contemporary

By Mark Sheerin | 23 October 2012
Colourful painting showing a vodou ceremony in which a bull is sacrificed
Gerard Fortuné, Service Mystique (1991)© All rights reserved. Courtesy Collection Galerie Nader, Port-au-Prince
Exhibition Review: Kafou: Haiti, Art and Vodou, Nottingham Contemporary, Nottingham, until January 6 2013

One way or another all successful artists need a break. But when Hector Hyppolite got his visit by a rep from the influential Centre d’Art in Port au Prince, he wasn’t fazed. The Haitian painter was also a vodou priest and, according to him, spirits or lwas had already predicted his career.

For those familiar with zombies only through movies or fancy dress, it is quite something to see them painted from a position of genuine belief. Hyppolite is one of many painters in the current show who depicts the undead. But what else might one expect a show of Haitian art, one of the largest ever no less?

Hyppolite’s Zombis, painted in 1946, is a vision few western zombie fans would today recognise. His living dead are mournful shades, circling a churchyard, orchestrated by a priest.

They wear shrouds. They do not appear to be decomposing. They are slaves rather than marauding predators. As such, their proliferation throughout Haitian culture can be linked to the country’s colonial independence.

Haitians threw off the shackles of slavehood in a ten-year revolution prior to 1804. It was the first black republic and their victory owed plenty to vodou as their mortal military leaders were identified with various lwas. Many have fought wars in the name of God, but few must these days feel that deities are in command of strategy.

Nottingham Contemporary has itself performed a bit of curatorial conjuration to assemble some 200 works by 40 artists from 18 collections around the world. And this is the first time that many of these works will have appeared in a mainstream art world context. As such, visitors may feel they have walked into an exhibition of little-known surrealists.

Folk style painting of a military leader with a floral border
Hector Hyppolite, Henry Christophe, 1946© All rights reserved. Courtesy Nader Collection, Haiti
Indeed, the art of Haiti found fans in the Western avant garde, but the likes of André Breton, Maya Deren, Wildredo Lam and Michel Leris can seem a little joyless next to the likes of Rigaud Benoit or Wilson Bigaud.

The former paints a ceremony with a bull with an eye as cheery for the peasantry as Breugel. The latter paints a clown suited man with a crowd in khaki balaclavas and the effect is one of celebration rather than menace.

Images such as these cannot diminish the strangeness of vodou. The religion proliferates across all Haiti with an endless supply of different lwas, most of whom correspond to colours, symbols, offerings, Catholic saints, favoured trees and, of course, forms of possession.

But having said that, the current show does lessen the more sinister aspects of this religion, which has to some extent been demonised in Western cinema. Just think of the "voodoo" scenes in the Bond film Live and Let Die.

True, Haitian artists may become possessed and work with human skulls. But even present day vodou celebrants and bone sculpture collective, Atis Rezistans, come across as genial sorts.

One minute they are in a trance, the next minute chatting to co-curator Leah Gordon. Surrounding the viewing cabin is a small army of their sculptures. These dusty figures have a power that surely comes from the other side.

Haiti may have been the first country to throw off the colonial shackles, but nowadays it can be found in the same bracket as many of its neighbours. Its stability is dependent on the US and half the island’s wealth is owned by one percent of the population. The catastrophic earthquake of 2010 has not helped.
 
But if the lwas came to the rescue once before, perhaps they can do it again. Globally speaking, we need a little vodou, now perhaps more than ever.

  • Open Tuesday-Friday 10am-7pm (6pm Saturday, 11am-5pm Sunday, closed Monday). Admission free.

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.

More pictures:

Colour photo of an array of stonelike figurative sculptures
Celeur Jean Herard, Societe (2010)© All rights reserved. Courtesy Nottingham Contemporary
Colourful painting in a folk style which shows a sleeping woman at the feet of another
Prospere Pierre-Louis, La Maternité (1986)© All rights reserved. Courtesy Collection Galerie Nader, Port-au-Prince
Colourful painted or textile work depicting a crowded ark on the sea
Myrlande Constant, Agwe (circa 2005)© All rights reserved. Collection Bourbon-Lally, Beziers/Port-au-Prince
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