Curator’s Choice: Group Africain Carnival Troupe at Nottingham Contemporary

Leah Gordon interviewed by Mark Sheerin | 25 October 2012
Coluor photo of a curator standing in front of a folk art painting
Curator Gordon in front of Bigaud's painting© Culture24

Curator’s Choice: In their own words… Artist and co-curator Leah Gordon gives Culture24 the background of a 1951 Wilson Bigaud painting in Kafou: Haiti, Art and Vodou.

“This is a painting by Wilson Bigaud. Bigaud does paintings that represent vodou but he's also a social documenter, almost like a painted photojournalist of the time. This is representing Haitian carnival which takes place every year from the Sunday leading up to Mardi Gras every year.

I don't know which town this is supposed to be in, but it does look like a very typical small Haitian town. These are not the sort of houses you get in the city; these are small Haitian houses with a bit of a veranda and a walkway in front.

In the haitian carnival you have the mask which is the déguisement. It's a very, very big thing and carnival is very different from, say, Rio. It's not got all the feathers and sequins and the spectacle and it doesn't even really have the parade.

Different groups have different sets of costumes and then they all set off at different times. Sometimes when you're trying to photograph it, you think ‘Oh, I've got the wrong day’, and then you go round a corner and you come across a donkey which seems to be wearing trousers and talking on a mobile phone and you know you've got it again.

They all set off from their neighbourhood and meander around, so it's like a carnival of flâneurs. This one troupe is called the Indiens and often whenever you see the troupe of indiens you get small skirts. strange shaped spears (often made out of papier-mâché).

This is interesting because it says here African Carnival, but they are representing the Taino indians who came before them. Even the name Haiti comes from the Taino language. It seems prevalent among Haitian culture, after the revolution, to remember the indigenous tribes that died before them at the hands of the Spanish.

What’s quite interesting is that you've got a member of the police sitting there watching, you have an old couple, a child running to see it, but finally right at the back you've got this one figure, Baron Samedi.

He's jaunty in one way; his hat is at a tilt. But in another way this is supposed to recall the fact that even though people are enjoying themselves he is also the grim reaper and his appearance is to say that even at carnival there will be deaths and the implication is that someone in this painting will die before carnival ends.

Wilson Bigaud was an early artist who was with the Centre d'Art some of his paintings were acquired  by MoMA as well. He was involved in a big project to paint murals in Sainte-Trinité cathedral, the Episcopalian cathedral.

The story behind that is first they were commissioned for the Catholic cathedral, but because a lot of the Haitian artists involved in the Centre d'Art were vodou priests and were open vodou celebrants, the Catholic church refused to let them paint.

It was actually said of Wilson Bigaud that the task exerted huge mental pressure on him. You've got his Last Supper in there, and that's got everyone being black, which was very radical at the time. You have quite a lot of the stories from the bible, but you have vodou drums in there you've got the setting (rather than being in the Middle East you've got a Haitian environment)

It seems as if Bigaud found a really big disconnect for him trying to paint a biblical scene and trying to bring his knowledge of Haitian culture and that pressure was too great. He did have a nervous breakdown, you know. He didn't paint for the next five years.”
  • Kafou: Haiti, Art and Vodou runs at Nottingham Contemporary until January 6 2013.
Visit Mark Sheerin’s contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.

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