By Karen McCarthy Brown
University of Washington Press, Seattle
1995. ISBN # 0-295-975040-0
Some comments by Bob Corbett
One of the great collections of Haitian art is in the Davenport Museum of Art in Davenport, Iowa. This collection which has at least 78 pieces on display contains a wide variety of paintings and iron sculptures. Karen McCarthy Brown's book uses that collection, presenting some 48 paintings and sculptures in color plates, many of them full page reproductions.
However, this is much more than just a catalogue of the Davenport collection. Brown, widely known for her powerful book on Haitian Voodoo, MAMA LOLA: A VODOU PRIESTESS IN BROOKLYN, and other essays on Voodoo, accompanies and organizes these paintings and sculptures with essays on the interrelationship of Voodoo and Haitian art.
The general thesis is that much of Haitian art, though not all, can be seen to reflect the unique cosmology of the Voodoo religion. Brown argues this thesis even for painters who are quite outside the Voodoo religion, like Edouard Duval-Carrie and Paul Claude Gardere, but whom are nevertheless influenced by the presence of Voodoo cosmological features which are part and parcel of Haitian culture.
Brown's short essays detail several features of this cosmology and then illustrate each amply with examples of works in the Davenport collection. She begins with the veve and poto mitan, explaining their place in Haitian Voodoo, then showing how both the geometric shapes of the veve and the centering axis of the poto mitan are constant recurring devices in Haitian art. Next she moves to the use of the cross as a centering image, even when it is the off center cross of Petro Voodoo.
Some of the most interesting material for me to read had to do incredible subtleties that occur in even primitivist Haitian art, as art imitates the double entendre process of "throwing point," often a way of communicating a rather double edged message which may be taken in a direct and literal manner, or in another rather hidden fashion. Brown is excellent at demonstrating this fact of Haitian art and religion.
Another whole section of her essay show us Voodoo and its representations reflecting the give and take, binding and loosening, construction and destruction of forces in the world.
Haitian art, on Brown's view, is deeply tied to Voodoo, and Voodoo is not merely religion. "Vodou is thus a way of thinking, a way of seeing things, a way of configuring the world."
The structure of the book is varied and offers lots of bits and pieces. First comes the long essay which details the Voodoo cosmology and demonstrates it in art. Then there are treatments of 17 different artists represented in the collection with a full page color plate of each author's work. This is followed by lengthy interviews with two contemporary Haitian painters, Edouard Duval-Carrie and Paul Claude Gardere.
The next part of the book goes far beyond the Davenport Museum, and is a section I found extremely interesting. It is a treatment of Haiti's political murals, especially from the 1994 and following period. Brown provides 17 of these murals in color photos, all but one by Martha Cooper. Brown provides commentary which place the murals in the political battles which were going on at that period. What was exciting for me were the murals themselves. Brown's analyses of where they fit in the political scheme of things are quite straight forward and lack the depth of treatment that she provided on the Voodoo themes.
This intriguing section is followed by yet another interview, this time with two of the mural painters, Charlemagne Celestin and Vladmir Ronald Moliere.
The book concludes with several pages which list all of the works which are in the Davenport collection at the time of this book, some 73 pieces.
I was intrigued by the central thesis, and Brown's handling of the details of Voodoo cosmology and her well-chosen illustrations. I've read many "art books" about Haiti and most of them are historical in approach, showing the developments of people and styles in a chronological fashion, or they are merely "picture books" of major paintings and sculptures. This book offers a very specific focus, an engrossing one at that, and in the process, presents a wide sampling of the very impressive Davenport collection.
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