We launch The Scholars' Corner with an essay by anthropologist and artist, Gina Athena Ulysse. It explores the impact of Haitian art as a lens to see Haiti's promise
Editors’ Note: This essay was originally published in 2010, by Denkmalschmiede Hofgen / Studiogalerie – Edition Waechterpappel, Grimma-Kaditzsch, in Germany.
…as long as there is art and there are artists of all kinds, Haiti will remain a place full of life, love and will. A place where every single breath is, actually, a promise. — Gina Athena Ulysse
Years ago, as a translator for Haitian refugees, I found myself getting attached to certain words spoken by men and women seeking asylum in the United States. These words took me into unfamiliar places. Uncomfortable places. Dangerous places.
The paintings in this collection, like those morsels of words, also took me on a journey. They took me to a different place. A beautiful place. A regenerative paradise. A place that I did not want to leave. They gave me breath, exposed me to a limitless imagination and reminded me, once again at a very crucial moment, of Haiti’s undeniable and unbeatable spirit of creative survivalism. And because of their location — in a village four kilometers from Grimma, in Germany, they forced me to further expand my notions of community. In that sense, like the words that I have written about, the paintings in this exhibition gave me: a little of this country that I used to know, a little of this country that I never knew, a little of this country that I wish I knew.
Art in Haiti is complex. Haiti is the country that produced the only successful slave revolution in the world and as a result became the longest neocolonial experiment in the history of the West. Haiti, once the enfant terrible of the Americas who defied the great European powers has endured external and internal pressures of all kinds to become the world’s Bête Noire. To paraphrase anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot, the more that Haiti appears weird, the easier it is to forget that it represents this aforementioned past.
Art historians and critics tend to view Haitian art from specific perspectives. Central to many of their frameworks is the idea that Haiti is first and foremost, according to Bill Bollendorf, a land of poverty and deprivation from which art — expression of joy and richness of the human spirit derives. Or, as Donald Cosentino says, that Haiti is actually a wreck of a country — with a people who are simultaneously the economically poorest, and artistically richest culture in the New World. Such notions rest on a particular juxtaposition that disavows the presence of Haitian artists while undermining their agency.
The fact is that while the social economic conditions undoubtedly do impact the country, they certainly are not the only things that define it. Associating Haiti solely with its materials conditions is a discursive practice, an exercise in hermeneutics — an act of interpretation. These perceptions actually incarcerate Haiti — restricting it to dystopian narratives of desperation that obscures the Republic’s complexity. In so doing, these views come dangerously close to dehumanizing Haitians.
Indeed, Haiti cannot escape its main tagline as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Yet, it is so much more than that. It is much more than a series of markers and quantitative indices. Haiti is, and has always been, a country of extremes, as Catherine Hermantin puts it. And nothing reveals this as much as the art world. Who makes art? What kinds of art? Who appreciates art? Who views art? Who sells art? Who imports art? And ultimately who owns it. It is no wonder that those looking to explain where Haiti fits within the order of things are continually puzzled by Haitians who make art and why they actually do so.
I was not born into a family that appreciates paintings. We did not go to museums. But creativity was always all around me. My father habitually sculpted anything that he could manipulate into self-portraits, whether these were pieces of wood, metal or even plastic. Mother sewed and baked cakes that took on life of their own. Making something with anything was simply a way of our daily life. Almost everyone around us did the same. Part of it may have been lack, but part of it was certainly wonder. Thus, it is not surprising that years later, my two sisters and I are professionals who also sing, dance, write, and yes, even paint. When we reach the limits of one form of expression, we simply take on another.
The point is to answer the call to give voice to that which words alone cannot fully express. As artists, we turn to the arts because we are as filled with need as we are with the torment that will eventually bleed onto canvases in the shape of forms and lines. The desire to pick up a brush is response to a visceral demand. An answer to a cry to document outwardly that, which boils within instead of remaining trapped, archived in our minds and bodies where no one can see them.
I prefer to think of these works on similar terms, putting less emphasis on economic determinism and the social conditions that sprung them than on the verve stirring within the artists who created them. In so doing, I bring the artists to the center as active agents, revelers who are interpreters of their world. Indeed, in spite of a history of confrontation, recent ravage and devastation, as long as there is art and there are artists of all kinds, Haiti will remain a place full of life, love and will. A place where every single breath is, actually, a promise.
Gina Athena Ulysse is the Associate Professor of Anthropology and African-American Studies at Wesleyan University. She is also a performance artist; for more on her work, visit ginaathenaulysse.com
– Michel-Rolph Trouillot. The Odd and the Ordinary: Haiti, the Caribbean, and the World,” Cimarrón: New Perspectives on the Caribbean 2, no. 3, 1990, 3–12.
– Bill Bollendorf, http://www.artshaitian.com/
– Professor Donald Cosentino, World Arts and Cultures, University of California-Los Angeles, http://www.yoonsoo.com/ghetto/files/about.html 2/5/2010.
The views expressed in this essay are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Haitian Times.