photo credit Fowler Museum, UCLA

I visited In Extremis: Death and Life in Haitian Art when this fascinating exhibit opened at the Fowler Museum a few months ago. (It closes on January 20th.)  It’s truly a show worth seeing, so if you haven’t seen it yet, go now!!

But don’t expect to see Haiti as Haitians see it, here.

The exhibit features the rough, sexualized, scabrous, naughty and death-loving world of the Gede, diabolical little childish fiends who are offspring of the darkest of the Vodou spirits.

Any sized penis you’d like to see, see it here at the In Extremis exhibit. And I mean ANY size, especially extra-extra-large. Have a person you buried long ago in Port-au-Prince? Perhaps his skull is featured here in one of these artworks. (I object entirely to the use of real human bones in fine art works, unless the dead provides written permission: find me the contract that does that!)

Ever since Graham Greene wrote about Haiti, the Gede and their family, which includes Baron Samedi, the Vodou god mimicked by Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier, have been the archetype of the Vodou pantheon — for outsiders. Greene couldn’t resist the graveyard dance of Baron Samedi, and you could perceive the death dance of the Gede behind the political operations of Duvalier’s brutal and capricious secret police, the Tontons Macoute.

How the visiting anthropologists, ethnographers, writers, artists, actors, and dancers love these dark, violent, unpredictable gods and minigods! These fickle and volatile spirits conjure up for us boring one-goddists all the things impermissible in our public lives and religious practices. While we sit rigidly and kneel and daven and cross ourselves and eat wafers and pray and bow down, forehead to the ground, the Gede (in the form of worshippers possessed by Gede) supposedly flirt, fuck, masturbate, shit, and do all the weird depraved natural things the species is known to do when not dressed in Sabbath or Sunday finery. They are like changeable, destructive forest sprites, only worse. 

I was a little surprised that the Gede were so prominent in the show. I’ve been to many and many a Vodou ceremony and never have I seen the Gede appear, except at the party on the roof of the Fowler museum after the opening of In Extremis, where the Gede were part of a hired performing band. I’ve also seen them played by actors in a wonderful Haitian film, a dark comedy called The Loves of  a Zombi, by director Arnold Antonin (a Haitian). But anecdotally the Gede are just not very often the featured gods at ceremonies, though there is a serious spirit of mischievous rebellion that can be seen in some Haitian behaviors, not to generalize.

I did once (only once) see Baron Samedi possess a celebrant. He’s the lord of the dead and ostensible progenitor of the Gede, and I saw him appear at a ceremony in a Haitian-American’s living room in Brooklyn, but… that was in Brooklyn. 

One of the many difficult issues underlying In Extremis is the confounding of ethnography with fine arts, which has been the result of a long stretch of outsider fiddling in the world of Haitian religious arts and traditional crafts. You feel as you walk through the beautifully curated halls of outlandish and sometimes gorgeous works at the Fowler exhibit, that you are seeing something made by Haitians within their own culture, but much of the time, that’s not the case.

A lot of the sculpture comes from the by now super-sophisticated, worldly Grande Rue school of artists, and several of the more impressive larger works were commissioned by the show itself (including Edouard Duval-Carrié’s glittery night scene of Baron walking down a dark path, and Myrlande Constant’s earthquake memorial Vodou flag/tapestry, both absolutely worth seeing).

For me the best objects in the show are precisely those that are largely or completely untouched by outsider influence and ambition for fame or money. Thus, the iron figure of a little demon Gede with horns and a tail, offering up a present that looks like a small casket; another similar one of Baron Samedi on horseback; every detailed, crystalline painting by the great Vodou priest André Pierre; Pierre Barra’s dolls and coffins and spangled bottles, and one very old Vodou flag that is a sparse but evilly merry depiction of Gede dancing in the night, cross in hand. Both André Pierre and Pierre Barra were eventually taken up by foreigners and their work brought into the international market, but the spiritual authenticity of their art remained strong.


Maitre Grand Bois, painting by André Pierre

Both of these artists crossed the line from making objects used for worship to making fine arts for the international market. I am sure the same can be said of the Grande Rue school of painters and sculptors… by the time I finally came upon them in 2009, however, they had already been promoted by Leah Gordon, the brilliant British photographer and artist who has a personal and long-standing relationship with many of them, including the chief artist André Eugene. Together Gordon and Eugène founded the Ghetto Biennale art shows in Port-au-Prince, which featured the Grande Rue school and others under the name of Resistance Artists (Atis Rezistans) and began the school’s ascent into the corridors of international renown.

I still remember meeting Eugène in his atelier before the earthquake. We sat in half-broken metal chairs in a courtyard of dirt and pebbles, surround by what at first seemed junk but later was discerned to be sculpture made of found objects, plastic, metal, rubber — mostly things that would be useful or reusable by a blacksmith. Most of these figures were heroic and highly sexualized, militaristic and death promoting; very Tonton-Macoute. There was one huge sculpture of Baron Samedi by Eugène, along with other artists, at the entry, featuring a giant erect penis and the title Mèt Zozo, which can be translated either as The Master’s Penis or The Penis is Master. It was thought to be a self-portrait. 

What bothered me about all this, though, was not that I was sitting in a small area encircled by dozens of pointing penises, but that so many of the sculptures incorporated human skulls. I asked Eugène where he got the skulls; he told me he got them from people who stole them from the cemetery. (By the way, I believe US Customs raised some objections to the importation of the skulls for the Fowler exhibit.) There was no question for me about who was the target consumer for these sculptures: outsiders. No Haitian would have such a thing in his or her house.


André Eugène, Military Glory, from the Fowler show.

More than collections of skulls and springing genitalia, in other words, these pieces, taken out of their home milieu, are moneymakers. They’re not just for collectors but also for exhibitions; indeed you could call them exhibitionist art.

These things are beautiful and shocking, and they’re definitely art. Just as nice white ladies have always found voodoo ceremonies daring and alluring, as they perceive it, so nice white ladies will find these grandiose representations of Vodou’s darkest side wondrous, amazing, and very other. For épaté-ing the bourgeoisie, there’s nothing like it.

This is an art moment in Haiti that’s a little like the Haitian renaissance of the 1940s, which also consisted of outsiders taking authentic Haitian artists, many of them associated with Vodou, and turning them into producers for world markets, thereby creating the reputations of some of my favorite Haitian artists including Philomé Obin, Prefète Duffaut, and Wilson Bigaud.  There’s nothing wrong with any of this — it’s part of the kind of give and take between artist and gallerist/curator that, say, we can see in the collecting and promoting that Gertrude Stein did in Paris in the 1920s.


painting by Phliomé Obin, Grazing Field

But let’s not pretend that the show says much about the heart and soul of Haiti, or about Death and Life in Haiti in the 21st Century. It’s a very small part of Haiti’s art world and says more about outsider perceptions of Haiti and voodoo than it does about the real Haiti and Vodou. I’m not in denial: I know that the Gede family matters in Vodou and in Haiti, but it doesn’t sum up the culture the way this exhibit would suggest.

All of this said, the exhibit is startling, revealing, and (as you can see) thought-provoking. I feel so lucky to have seen it, and to own, now, the catalogue, which is a very beautiful book filled with pictures from the exhibition and complicated, intelligent essays on the subject of Gede, especially those by Donald Cosentino, the great observer of Vodou and all its appurtenances, and by Leah Gordon (the aptly titled “Gede: The Poster Boy for Vodou”). Edwidge Danticat wrote the preface.