Baton Rouge

The Carnival, The City, and The Sea at Louisiana State University Museum Of Art

Curated by Xavier University professor Dr. Sarah Clunis, The Carnival, The City, And The Sea seeks to introduce the university’s community to the rich history of 20th-century Haitian painting as it evolved within the Centre d’Art of Cap-Haitien in the 1940s and ’50s, and to the eclectic constellation of styles and aesthetic intentions that continue to shape cultural production in the region.[1] Comprising works on loan from the New Orleans Museum of Art—in particular the archival collection of the Christian missionary and Haitian art collector Perry E. H. Smith—the exhibition orders the paintings and painted decorative objects into three themes: works that depict the celebrations and ceremonies of Kanaval, celebrated in the days before Lent; representations of the bustling streets of Haitian cities where commerce, cultures, and urban sprawl collide; and works that mark the Haitian people’s unique relationship with the waterways that flow in and around the nation, specifically the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.[2]

Antoine Obin. Philomé Obin et son Fils, Antoine. 1977. Oil on board. Image courtesy of the New Orleans Museum of Art and the LSU Museum of Art.

Antoine Obin. Philome Obin et son Fils, Antoine, 1977; oil on board. Courtesy of the New Orleans Museum of Art and the LSU Museum of Art.

The selections from the Smith collection are vital examples of the self-conscious representation of Haitian spiritual subject matter through a vernacular, representational, and intentionally simplistic style led by Philomé Obin in the city of Cap-Haitien (eighty-five miles north of the more commercial Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince). Obin worked to represent the daily life, secular experiences, and religious traditions of Haiti that scrape against the commercial initiatives and explosion of the Haitian art markets during the middle of the 20th century. The stark organization of composition within Obin’s style becomes more embellished in the hands of the second generation of artists at the Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince, who experiment with the flattened figures, great exaggerations of scale, and a shared desire to represent the more isolated northern city. Works play with Western traditions of perspective; Volvick Almonor’s Le Bal (1976) constructs a scene that dramatizes encounters between dancing couples and destabilizes the physical and spatio-temporal boundaries between inside/outside, public/private, culture/nature that often structure non-Western cultures with strong connections of ancient forms of worship and ritual practice, specifically Haitian Voudou. These traits are further expanded in Préfète Duffaut’s extraordinary work Imaginary Landscape (1979), a painted box of lush, melting vegetation and picturesque views of sea and Haitian countryside, in perfect harmony with humankind, spread in infinite continuity across the surface: an imagined utopia far from the real conditions of Haiti.

Prefete Duffaut. Imaginary Landscape. 1979. Oil on cedar wood. Image courtesy of the New Orleans Museum of Art and the LSU Museum of Art.

Prefete Duffaut. Imaginary Landscape, 1979; oil on cedar wood. Courtesy of the New Orleans Museum of Art and the LSU Museum of Art.

And yet, as I meandered through the galleries, the weighted presence of Haiti’s history seemed to howl at me over the distracting, tropical colors of the gallery walls, and contradicted the pervasive paternalistic language used by the LSU Museum to describe these works (and subsequently, the artists who created them). Works that reference the sea are described not by their engagement with the trauma that the Middle Passage journey inscribed in the national consciousness of the Haitian people, but the “whimsical and intrinsic spiritual culture of Vodun in Haiti”; colors and forms are interpreted as innately vibrant and scripted, unearthing “existing patterns that exist within the magical … landscape of Haiti”; while “vibrant colors … serve as a way to seduce the viewer” and “embrace the playfulness and joyous spirituality of the Haitian experience.”[3] The viewer is asked to revel in the joyous “rhythms” of Haitian imagery and the life-affirming, playful, magical attributes of Haiti—and thus reproduce the essentialist, racist rhetoric and projections that often accompany diasporic Black artists and art. Such a view demands that this art be forever suspended in the intensity of the present, viewed as permanent life-affirming celebratory acts that transcend the depraved conditions that structure Haitian life, and even mirror first-world projections and fantasies about Haitian people and their culture.[4] With these contradictions in mind, I asked questions about the museum’s perspective on this collection of art.

Volvick Almonor. Le Bal. 1976. Oil on panel. Image courtesy of the New Orleans Museum of Art and the LSU Museum of Art.

Volvick Almonor. Le Bal, 1976; oil on panel. Courtesy of the New Orleans Museum of Art and the LSU Museum of Art.

As the only republic founded on a successful slave revolt, Haiti’s history has struggled to achieve its rightful place of significance within histories of colonial imperialism, revolution, and the nation–state despite its tremendous symbolic importance to the ongoing history of Black emancipation and social justice across the world. While the surface of the exhibition seeks to make connections between the hybridity of ethnicities and communal cultural practices of New Orleans, and the spectacular public performances of these practices as they are enacted in the city’s Mardi Gras festivities, the historical specificity of Haiti is abstracted, even disavowed in this exhibition.

As an arts institution located in a city that is continually confronting its fraught history with slavery, segregation under Jim Crow, the civil rights movements of the 1960s, and the mass incarceration of African Americans within its prison system today, I had hoped to see LSU’s museum honor its role as an academic institution by unpacking the true relationship between New Orleans and Haiti: the traumatic catastrophe of colonialism across the African diaspora. While the introduction of Haitian cultural production to Louisiana audiences is undoubtedly important, it seems that LSU’s museum missed an important opportunity to create a wider conversation about race, identity, and the history of Black achievement. The absence of this conversation is too large to ignore.

The Carnival, the City, and the Sea is on view at the Louisiana State University Museum of Art in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, through March 20, 2016.

[1] Thank you to Dr. Sarah Clunis for sharking her great knowledge of this collection of work, her tireless advocacy for its presentation to the Baton Rouge public, and her answers to all of my questions and reservations.

[2] E. John Bullard, Director Emeritus of the New Orleans Museum of Modern Art in Louisiana, had this to say about the history of the Perry E. H. Smith collection of Haitian Art: “In 1979 NOMA presented a major exhibition of Haitian art organized by the Brooklyn Museum. One of the principal lenders was Perry E. H. Smith, who attended the opening in New Orleans. A relief aid coordinator for an international welfare agency, Perry was stationed in Haiti in the late 1960s and early ’70s. While there, he began to collect dynamic and colorful Haitian paintings and sculpture, a native school of basically self-taught artists that emerged in the 1940s. Since his work kept Perry moving around the world, he had no place to display or store his collection, so he offered to place it on long-term loan to NOMA. Over the years he has generously given the entire collection to the Museum, nearly one hundred paintings and sculptures.” Accessed at: https://noma100.wordpress.com/2010/10/13/great-collectorsgreat-donors-the-making-of-the-new-orleans-museum-of-art-1910-2010/

[3] See the promotional description published by the LSU Museum of Art for the exhibition The Carnival, the City, and the Sea, which can be accessed here: http://www.lsumoa.org/content/carnival-city-and-sea

[4] Ibid.

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