The LSU Museum of Art is celebrating Haiti, its main galleries filled with the joy of the Caribbean nation’s culture and tradition of everyday life as seen through the eyes of its master artists.
To many, the scenes in “The Carnival, the City and an the Sea: Haitan Art from the Perry Smith Collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art” exhibit will evoke comparisons with New Orleans.
“There are connections between Haiti and New Orleans,” says guest curator Sarah Clunis, who also is the art historian and director of African-American and Diaspora Studies at Xavier University, New Orleans.
It’s there in the architecture, the juxtaposition of voodoo and Catholicism and especially in Haiti’s carnival celebration, which is where the exhibit opens.
Paintings depicting Haiti’s version of Mardi Gras cover the entry walls. They’re joined by a beaded banner, which could be carried or worn during the celebration. The bead work is intricate, somewhat reminiscent of the detailed work in costumes worn by New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indians.
“Carnival isn’t just a celebration,” Clunis says. “It’s found in all parts of Haitian life.”
Clunis divided the show into categories established by the show’s titles and had gallery walls painted in colors reflecting not only the subjects, but colors within the paintings.
Walls in the show’s “City” portion match the pink of houses, much like those found in the French Quarter, segueing into a green background for the rural people who live near the sea.
Windows, shutters and other three-dimensional props, borrowed from the LSU Theatre Department, complement the artwork.
And that artwork is filled with color and excitement.
There are students gathered for class in an old school building in Phanel Toussaint’s 1977 painting, “Classroom,” and a bride and groom watch a roomful of guests celebrate in Eugene Jean’s 1978 piece, “Marriage Reception.”
“Most of these paintings are dated in the 1970s because that’s the time the collector, Perry Smith, was there working as a Christian missionary,” Clunis says. “He started buying their artwork, then commissioned pieces. He knew these artists, and he accumulated this impressive collection of their work. Now they’re considered world-class artists and Haiti’s masters.”
Smith’s collection adds up to some 60 pieces now part of the New Orleans Museum of Art.
“I used about three-quarters of that collection for this show, and I decided to stick to paintings,” Clunis says. “The show was planned to coincide with LSU’s Haiti Initiative.”
The initiative is led by the LSU/Haiti Task Force, an interdisciplinary collaborative group made up of the College of Art & Design, the AgCenter, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and the Office of International Programs Academic Programs Abroad, which focuses on specific projects with a goal to align what it does with what universities and institutional partners are doing in Haiti.
Haiti has long suffered from poverty, but the museum’s exhibit takes a different look at the country, highlighting the joy and camaraderie of its people.
It can be found in Antoine Obin’s 1977 biographical father-son painting “Philome Obin et son Fils, Antoine”; the rural, open-air party scene in Joseph Jean Franklin’s 1978 “Night Club” and in the way neighbors come together to create their annual community garden in Franklin’s 1978, “Kombite.”
The rural scenes finally give way to the show’s “The Sea” category, which takes a look at Haiti’s whimsical and intrinsic spiritual culture of Vodum, or voodoo.
Haitian Vodun also is connected to the sea and “bois” or Haitian jungle or forest.
“Within these elements, as with the mountains and the sky, the Loa, or Haitian deities are found,” according to the exhibit information. “But it is the sea which is the starting point, the clear viscous line that separates the living and the dead. The sea was the site of the middle passage and holds the bodies of the African ancestors that did not make it through that voyage alive.
The sea is also the realm of many important Loa and therefore it becomes a primordial and diasporic liminal site, haunted and ghostly, life-giving and affirming.”
Vodum dieties are depicted in this part of the show, including the familiar cemetery guardian Baron Semedi with his top hat and cane, and the voodoo priestess, known as a mambo. She also carries a cane.
“The cane is a symbol of power,” Clunis says.
Felix LaFortune’s surreal paintings dominate this part of the show, his work depicting deities and scenes of the religion. Some deities may reflect Christian icons, a result of Vodum’s adopting some Christian symbols into its practice.
The show finally comes full circle, ending where it started in the Carnival gallery, awaiting the celebration that begins on the 12th day of Christmas.