Myrlande Constant - Agwe (2005)
Shaman, sacrifice, spirits and spectres – the ghoulish underworld of Haitian vodou is certainly mysterious to the outsider but as Kafou at the Nottingham Contemporary shows off, its mystique is as much to do with the surrounding misconceptions that date back decades.
There doesn’t seem to be any misgivings for the appearance of this particular show, one of the largest and ambitioned in the NC’s history, but as the gallery’s curators have repetitively proven there needn’t be a tenuous peg to spark imagination and interest in a bold topic. As it turns out it’s just another example of how strong their desire to share their imagination with the rest of Notts can translate into something inspiring and entertaining.
The haunting, devilish iconography that gathered vodou a spooky reputation turns out to be only a shallow reflection of what it represents. For all its talk of Iwa, goddesses and zombies that it developed, a quote by exhibiting artist Andre Pierre cuts through to what the show reveals: “it is mortals alone who create black magic.”
Starting with, as you might expect, the roots and discovery of Haitian art dating into the 19th and 20th century, the work runs parallel with a descriptive history of the movement’s culture and politics that leads through to the present. It’s a massive undertaking and little expense has been spared in cramming every hall with portraiture, landscapes, sculptures, films, artefacts and observations.
The unbridled limit of items to experience might feel a little overwhelming or (say it softly) messy and might take you more than a single visit to absorb it totally but it’s absolutely worth it. The narrative voice that runs through both the art and written histories is paced with a cogent, delicate treatment. By the end of it you’ll have felt informed but never put upon.
Hector Hyppolite - Papa Zaca Papa Ogoun (1947)
This, more than prior exhibitons, is more in keeping with the organisation of a museum collection – the art on display sort of avoids judgement because of this. There’s little to compel you to reason its value or ask if it works for you personally –you’ll either get caught up in the enthusiasm that’s been poured into it or walk away. It sounds condescending but the more you invest here however the finer the rewards.
For example, a short film on Dewitt Peters, a pioneer who built one of the first “art centres” in Haiti, appears to reveal some of the secret behind the relatively amateur technique of the team he led under his wing. Working in the outdoor serene vistas of Haiti without easels, scenes were sketched on knees and over arms. The technical skill this lack of equipment seemed to inhibit only highlights the extraordinary magical realism, revolution and graft that screams from these paintings. The “primitivism” (as it’s described) seems to become part of the style that subsequently influenced Vodou and Haitian art, so when demonic imagery sneaks through it seems all the more visceral, personal and frightening. Having such a wide berth of relevant background to ponder on (like the Peters film) therefore appears to not only makes the art more absorbing but enriches your enjoyment and appreciation of its significance.
Again, the more time you can take to invest into the sheer generosity of stuff that’s been made available the more you can come to grips and start to make your own conclusions about what the complex imagery means. As mercurial and unsettling as all the sacrifice, horned imps and witchcraft is it seems to a point to a world understanding religion and ritual through artistic symbolism. Or is there a Freudian aspect? Or analogous to accounts of colonialism? Maybe the biggest reward of Kafou is that confronted with this slew of art and knowledge it can drive you to naturally start engaging and questioning everything around you, as if guided by spirits perhaps.... At the very least, unless you’re a seasoned Haitian scholar, we can guarantee at least a snippet of trivia to capture your thoughts.
To ground it all, a further two documentaries from Leah Gordon and Jorgen Leth on modern Haitian art communities, featuring the people that are propelling its success, are a human and often very funny reflection of their practices and past.
It’s not only that Kafou has continued to develop our assurance in the NC’s reputation and ability to enthral us - this particular exhibit has shown that they’re confident and capable of developing on themes in art that go far beyond lacklustre info plaques and artist bios.
Sure, you might need to clear out an afternoon schedule to make full use of everything they’ve got to offer, which might put some people off, but had it been constructed with a reductive approach it’d have lacked the force and intellect which this exudes. There’s no question to whether there's some black magic behind Kafou's success - walk through the Tempreh's doors and you'll feel yourself fall under some sort of spell.
Kafou runs at the Nottingham Contemporary until 6 Jan 2013.
All images were provided by the Nottingham Contemporary.
-Hector Hyppolite, Papa Zaca Papa Ogoun, c.1947. Courtesy The Museum of Everything, London. Photograph by David Rowan
-Myrlande Constant, Agwe, c.2005. Collection Bourbon-Lally, Beziers/Port-au-Prince. Photograph by David Rowan
-Préfète Duffaut, Maitre Carrefour, 1951. Collection Dr Robert C Brictson, San Diego. Photograph by David Rowan.