By Karen McCarthy Brown
Reviewed by Robert Lawless
[The following is forthcoming in Journal of Third World Studies]
Brown, Karen McCarthy. Tracing the Spirit: Ethnographic Essays on Haitian Art. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995. 111 pp. $29.95 paper.
If there was ever an occasion for a reviewer to suggest that the reader simply skip the review and get the book, this is one. No review can adequately describe this beautiful book with its 70 or so full-color illustrations and the beautifully precise, concise, and often almost lyrical accompanying text.
This volume was published in conjunction with the national tour of Masterworks in Haitian Art from the Collection of the Davenport Museum of Art, from February 1995 through March 1997. Probably coming as a surprise to most people, the Davenport Museum of Art in Davenport, Iowa, holds one of the most comprehensive collections of Haitian art in the United States. It was started in 1967 when Walter E. Neiswanger, a Davenport physician and patron of the arts, donated 19 Haitian paintings to the museum. Since then the trustees and staff of the museum have regularly traveled to Haiti to augment their collection, and the museum now has more than 150 Haitian works.
Professor of the Sociology and Anthropology of Religion at the Graduate and Theological Schools of Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, Brown is well known to academicians through her many scholarly writings and to the public for her superb 1991 book on voodoo in Brooklyn Mama Lola. Her essay on "The Art of Transformation: An Exploration of Vodou Cosmology and Vodou Aesthetics" (pp. 12-35) is by itself well worth the price of the book.
Much of the essay is a treatise on the relationship between Voodoo and Haitian art. As Brown explains, "The issue is not an artist's religious ideology, but the influence of something broader which, for want of a better term, I will call a Vodou ethos. Life in Haiti (and, to some extent, in the Haitian diaspora communities) is quite simply saturated with Vodou. Vodou is thus a way of thinking, a way of seeing things, a way of configuring the world" (p. 35). What she comes to call the Voodoo aesthetic contains such components as a focus on "what lies beneath the feet and pushes up from down under" (p. 35), subtle and indirect communication, "the taste for overloaded, terse, multi-referential images" (p. 35), including visual puns, "a preoccupation with the processes of binding and loosening" (p. 35), "a fascination with transformations, malevolent and benevolent" (p. 35), and a "tendency to fill up a visual space" (p. 35).
In a section titled "Highlights from the Collection" Brown discusses in detail 17 works with the text conveniently on the left and a full-page color reproduction of the work on the right (pp. 37-71). In the following section nine pages are devoted to interviews with two Haitian artists, Edouard Duval-Carrie and Paul Claude Gardere.
The next to last section of the book "A Visual Forum: Haiti's Political Murals, October 1994" features 11 full-page color photos of murals relating to the return to power of the popularly elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on October 15, 1994, when "thousands of murals appeared throughout Haiti" (p. 85). According to Brown, "an overview of the 1994 murals provides a fascinating glimpse into the way contemporary Haitians think about and with their history. At the same time, it also reveals the shifts and changes in their views of history occasioned by increasingly dense and active exchange networks between the Haitian homeland and its diaspora communities in the United States and Canada" (p. 87).
The last section is an interview with two members of an artists' collective called the Association des Artistes Peintres Survivant de Coup d'etat (Association of Artist-Survivors of the Military Coup). There is also a catalog of the works in the Davenport exhibition, a glossary, and a bibliography.
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