Conjuring up Haiti, especially one year after the earthquake that killed around a quarter of a million people and displaced many more, seems more likely to inspire nightmare visions than uplifting dreams.
Consequently, the work of 18 artists in “Re-Imagining Haiti: Le Projet Nouveau” at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts comes as a surprise. The show, which opened with a lively reception Thursday night, provides a vibrant, imaginative tour of many facets of the country, focusing not just on its tragedies but on its vigorous culture.
References to Haiti’s history of French colonization, slavery, corrupt leaders, the AIDS epidemic, poverty and violence do inform much of the work. But the artistic responses to the show’s theme draw upon the energetic, defiant and mystical spirit of Haiti’s people, suggesting hope for a different future.
Nelson Caban’s graffiti-style paintings, “Les Duvaliers” and “Haiti 207: Dessalines,” boldly combine recognition of Haitians’ resilience (“207” refers to the number of years since the country achieved independence from the French in 1804) with political critique, caricaturing the greed and corruption of post-Cold War dictators like Papa and Baby Doc.
At the other end of the spectrum, Adrienne Wheeler’s mixed-media sculpture, “Ayiti/Haiti Before and After the Earthquake,” dangles feathers and shells on fabric strips to promote healing and end Haiti’s “oppression of racism, sexism and human suffering” through the work’s symbolic objects.
Every artist’s offering in the exhibition contributes something imaginatively and aesthetically unique, creating a diverse show as informative as it is invigorating.
One of the most curious pieces, Aaqil Ka’s altar “Gathering/Feast of the Builder,” collects a cornucopia of Haitian history, with allusions to dance, colonization, revolution, Francois Duvalier (aka Papa Doc), prominent Haitian women and even rum. But the sculpture doesn’t stop there, inviting viewers to participate in the feast by adding their own offerings — “coins, flowers, pictures or well-wishes” — to the altar, in remembrance of earthquake survivors and victims.
Shante’ Cozier curated “Le Project Nouveau,” which goes hand-in-hand with the other half of “Re-Imagining Haiti,” a show called “Standing with Papa Legba” at the Caribbean Cultural Center / African Diaspora Institute in Manhattan. While the exhibit at MoCADA highlights the response of artists to Haiti’s turbulence and their visions of its future, the 12 artists in “Standing with Papa Legba” (curated by Shantrelle P. Lewis) investigate the spiritual system, including Vodou, that underpins Haitian culture.
“Papa Legba” opened last Thursday, a week before the reception for “Projet Nouveau” — a good excuse for two parties. At MoCADA’s opening, the DJ was spinning, the scent of hot food curled down the entrance corridor (where an exhibition inspired by post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans still hangs), and at least as many people were viewing the artwork as crowding the wine table.
The work of art that seemed most likely to have been inspired by visits to the wine table was Edouard Steinhauer’s “Starship Model #2,” a six-foot-long spaceship model made of cardboard and wood that bobbed, suspended by wires, in the airstream of the AC vent.
Whatever the piece lacked in aesthetic execution, it made up for in sentiment.
“In the event that dreams are not enough to take us out of our desperate situation, then perhaps a starship might,” Steinhauer writes in his accompanying description. “Somehow the future of Haiti needs to be as unconventional and audacious as the dreams and aspirations of the Haitian people.”
“My starship is about traveling to places you can only get to in your dreams.”
“Re-Imagining Haiti” remains on view at both MoCADA and CCCADI through May 8.