Atis Rezistans: The Visual Rhetoric of Haitian Art and Haitian Trash | CHRISTOPHER GARLAND

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Between November 2009 and November 2015 the Grand Rue neighborhood in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti has played host to four Ghetto Biennales—a celebration and exhibition of art beyond the country’s well-renowned folk painting. In recent years, the Ghetto Biennale has grown in size, with the 2015 event attracting to Port-au-Prince a numerous artists, academics, and audiences from around Haiti, the Caribbean, and the world. The purpose of the biennale is to provide a space where Haitian and visiting artists would not only exhibit their work, but where they could also interact and make art during the course of the multi-week biennale. The tone was set with the 2013 Ghetto Biennale, where the promotional documents indicated that the intent of the event was to “expose the boundaries of a globalized art market, and have meaningful discussion about sameness and diversity in an allegedly de-centered art world” (“Biennial Foundation”).

Beyond being held in a city that is largely known as the epicenter of a failed state, the specific location for the Ghetto Biennale in Port-au-Prince is the Grand Rue neighborhood (“main street” in French). The Grand Rue—the official name is Boulevard Jean-Jacques Dessalines—is home to both the Iron Market, a 19th-century structure that is a commercial hub for both visitors to Haiti and local artists, and E Pluribus Unum Musee d’Art, the dirt floor studio and workspace of the artists’ collective Atis Rezistans; or, as Andre Eugene, one of the founders of both the Ghetto Biennale and Atis Rezistans, describes the space, it is “a museum in a yard with all the works of different artists mixed together.” The Musee d’Art teems with sculptures and paintings created out of a seemingly limitless range of materials: car tires, the tops of tin drums, plastic toys, discarded musical instruments, rusted vehicle parts, and human and other animal bones.

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Figure 1. Alley entrance to E Pluribus Unum Musee d’Art (photograph courtesy of author).

The influence of the local environment in the Atis Rezistans’ work is visible in these materials. The artists source scrap materials from different parts of the city, including gathering bones from the inner-city cemetery plots that were churned up during the earthquake. Moreover, their work is also in stark contrast to the most well known part of the Grand Rue neighborhood: the Iron Market. The main structure was built in France and was “originally destined to be a railway station in Cairo, but the deal fell through and so the President of Haiti Florvil Hyppolite had it shipped over [to Haiti] in 1891” (Coomes). The Iron Market was rebuilt following the earthquake in 2010, and local and international dignitaries, including the unofficial guest of honor, Bill Clinton, celebrated the reopening.  The Iron Market is home to an inordinate amount of homegrown art—metal cutouts made from recovered oil drums, smaller wooden carvings, bowls and plates, bags made of banana leaves, embroidered clothing, and the paintings of the village scenes—that is sold to the foreigners in Haiti. These transactions occur in the formal setting of a space like the Iron Market, or in restaurants, sidewalk stalls, street intersections, and popular public spaces that foreigners might visit, such as the site of the collapsed National Palace.

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Figure 2. The Iron Market exterior (photograph courtesy of the author).

Unlike the art sold at the Iron Market and other informal locations around the city, the Atis Rezistans’s work is not necessarily produced to be put in the suitcases and backpacks of the blan who circulate in and out of Haiti on Christian missionary trips, anthropological research excursions, meetings with local businesses and “partnering” opportunities, and the endless refurbishment of the NGO industry.

After providing further context for the Ghetto Biennale and the Atis Rezistans’ place in contemporary Haitian art, this essay offers a historical context for the production and circulation of Haitian art, and how its reception has often reflected dominant stereotypes about Haiti’s inherent backwardness. Rather, the Atis Rezistans epitomize what LeGrace Benson calls the “narrative cleverness” of Haitian art (9). Therefore, I will then focus on the Port-au-Prince based artists’ collective, the Atis Rezistans, who have been instrumental in the structure and content of the Ghetto Biennale. As part of this consideration of the importance of the Ghetto Biennale, I will discuss specific artworks and the figures represented in these works as, in contemporary art terminology, metaphorical/allegorical and embodied concepts. At the end of this essay I will address how the work of the Atis Rezistans functions as a powerful and “different form of writing” (Fischer 201).

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Figure 3. Commemorative street art in Port-au-Prince (Photo courtesy of the author).

Beyond having a space where Haitian artists from the city’s poor majority can create and show work, the space’s name, which means “One for All, All for One,” speaks to the Atis Rezistans recognition of artworks as nodes in a larger commercial network. “The dollar (the “one”) is a money (sic) you can use all over the world: in the United Kingdom, Zimbabwe, all over the world,” Eugene claims. “[And] we hope that our art can speak to people all over the world too. It is a currency: the currency of the Ghetto.” At a conference at Florida State University in early 2013, British photographer and writer Leah Gordon, who is also co-curator of the Biennale and preeminent chronicler of the Atis Rezistans, asked the question that would inform the design of the most recent event: “What happens when First-World art rubs up against Third-World art? Does it bleed?” Even after the 2010 natural disaster that devastated so much of the city, every two years over the last six years E Pluribus Unum Musee d’Art and the Grand Rue neighborhood become places where that friction plays out in real time.

Since 2009, the year of the first biennale, there has been an emphasis on the production, circulation, and critique of art and artists around the world. This issue is particularly pertinent in Haiti, where the majority of the artists who have achieved international fame and financial success have been from the middle and upper classes of Haitian society. The first Ghetto Biennale was conceived as a critique of a supposedly globalized art market, where artists and art move freely around the world, all the while benefiting from the international exchange of capital. Despite the utopian vision of new media breaking down international boundaries for artists, the art market is still grounded in physical realities, including the showing of artwork in established galleries in major cities, the importance of artists’ promoting their own work at these events, and the cost of shipping art around the world. The art world remains unequal, and for those artists creating work in the Global South there are restrictions (financial and legal) that can affect their ability to have their work appreciated outside the country of origin. As Leah Gordon states, “class, rather than race or nationality, seem[s] to be a barrier of entry . . . [to the] international art circuit” (Gordon qtd. in Art Review). For Haitian artists from the country’s poor majority, such as the Atis Rezistans, the cost of Visas (if one can even be secured), flights, transportation of art works (if not covered by the gallery/exhibition), can often be prohibitive factors. While, for example, Berlin-based artists can access the European art markets with relative ease—both in regards to travel document requirements and the base cost of travel—the Atis Rezistans are mired in the economic realities and international travel policies that affect those throughout the Global South.

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Figure 4. Street corner, Grand Rue (photograph courtesy of the author).

Related to the issue of class, one of the major themes of the Ghetto Biennale is travel, and the fact that for Haitians and a large portion of the world’s population travel “takes the form of forced migration or illegal migration” (Gordon qtd. in “Art Review”). For artists in the Global South, the ability to travel is often hampered by visa “difficulties,” often based on the ability to prove a set level of income. In the case of 21st century Haiti, Leah Gordon opines, the “two or three Haitian artists that seem to repeatedly represent [the country] in Venice, Johannesburg, and Sao Paulo biennales were all from the middle to upper class of Haitian society” (Gordon qtd. in “Art Review”).  The Ghetto Biennale challenged the traditional exhibition format for Haitian art and artists, where so-called “naïve,” “primitive,” and/or “folk” paintings by Haitian artists were shown in Paris, London and Milan. Rather than aspiring to have their work shown in the Global North’s metropolitan centers, the Haitian artists involved in the Ghetto Biennale are engaging the international art contingent—from the United Kingdom, the United States, and other wealthier nations in the Caribbean—on their own turf.

This does not mean that the Ghetto Biennale has not given rise to the very issues it set out to address and critique. In “The Germ of the Future? Ghetto Biennale: Port-au-Prince” Polly Savage cites an interview with Frantz Jacques Guyodo, a former member of the Atis Rezistans who laments the way that the showing of their work has been used to “reinforce” the stereotypes so consistently attached to Haiti and its poor majority. As Guyodo succinctly describes the concentration on the place where the sculptures are made rather than their value as pieces of art: “Often people focus more on the slum than the works themselves” (qtd. in Savage). There is justifiable concern that they are treated as a novelty, particularly in the wake of the 2010 earthquake. To emphasize the poverty of the Grand Rue at expense of the art works themselves is to underestimate the importance of the Atis Rezistans.  By reusing “everyday” objects that have been discarded (children’s toys, musical instruments, car parts, brand-name sneakers and electronics), the Atis Rezistans—like other artists who incorporate these kinds of objects—ask us to consider how these pieces “might finally disclose the life and longing of the constituent materials” (Brown 207).  This critique of materialistic culture is heightened in the case of the Atis Rezistans, where most of these “found materials” are made outside Haiti and imported into the country. As Katherine Smith states, “probably the only materials in the work of these artists that are actually made in Haiti are the skulls” (Gordon 109). If these art works reveal only one thing, it’s Haiti’s connection—from its “discovery” through to today—to the rest of the world.

 

 

II

French-American artist Pascal Giacomini, who has been involved in the Haitian art scene since the early 1980s, boldly declares, “Haiti is the biggest source of black art in the world.” While this claim may not be able to be grounded in specific facts or figures, it speaks to role in visual arts have played in Haitian culture since the country’s postcolonial inception. Noted anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot points out that in the years after the revolutionary leaders declared independence in 1804, state-supported artistic projects were a concern of the earliest governments. In particular, Alexandre Petion and Henri Christophe, who alongside Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Touissant L’Ouverture are considered to be amongst the founding fathers of Haiti due to their leadership positions in the war against the French, were both influential in encouraging the production of art in the new republic. Ironically, both leaders would encourage art after splitting the country in two: Christophe created a separate government in the north of the country (the Plaine-du-Nord), while Petion was elected as president of the south. Regardless of the complicated origins of modern Haiti, both leaders implemented pro-art programs  (“American”).

The Lycee Petion—a school founded by the leader in a wealthier neighborhood of Port-au-Prince—had art classes beginning as early as 1816, and the schools within Christophe’s government were also providing art education. Specifically, Christophe, in his quest to make Haitians the “most civilized, educated, and creative people on earth,” arranged for several English painters to work with Haitian artists at the Royal Academy of Milot. Petion, for his part, also looked to connect Haitian artists with those from beyond the country’s borders: French artists were recruited to help establish an art academy in Port-au-Prince (“American”). Yet it was not just these two leaders who were dedicated to homegrown art. Jean-Pierre Boyer (the second president of Haiti and the subsequent Emperor of Haiti, Faustin-Élie Soulouque, were supportive of many great Haitian artists, including the father and son duo of Colbert Lochard and Archibald Lochard, Numa Desroches, and Thimoleon Dejoie (“American”).

However, in what Trouillot describes as the “arrogance” of art historians, the story of Haitian art is not one of an ongoing production and appreciation by Haitians, but rather the “discovery” of two artists, Hector Hyppolite and Philome Obin, in the mid-twentieth century by Dewitt Peters, an American conscientious objector and Quaker. Dewitt’s notoriety is largely due to his role in founding the Centre d’Art, an institution that contributed to the rise of Haitian art that was created, to a certain degree, with an international audience in mind. (Or, at the very least, this is where one can begin to see concrete connections between the Haitian and American art markets.) There are two misconceptions concerning Haitian art: first, that Hyppolite, Obin, and other artists were part of a Haitian art renaissance. It is clear that prior to visits by American and European visitors in the post-independence period, art was being created in Haiti (Russell 16). Second, that the Centre d’Art was what gave rise to art in Haiti. This is not to deny Peters’ place in the history of Haitian art; the notion that Peters was the central figure in developing Haitian art is tied to his founding of the Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince. Peters arrived in Haiti in 1943 for two primary reasons: it was an alternative to military service for the American, and he was part of an English teaching project established by Elie Lescot, the 31st President of Haiti and entrenched member of Haiti’s wealthy, mostly light-skinned elite. Daniel Simidor, an insightful commentator on Haitian history and contemporary politics, describes how Peters became the Christopher Columbus of Haitian art, finding a “primitive” artistic culture. Peters petitioned the United States’ Ministry of Education about his status in the country, adding that he was no longer going to teach English because he believed that he would be of “more service in the movement to establish a school of painting here in Port-au-Prince” (Peters qtd in Simidor).

But even though Peters provided the initiative for the founding of the Centre d’Art and contributed his own funds (about $2,000), the Haitian government “paid most of the salaries and running expenses, including the monthly rent” (Simidor). To underline how this was not an early non-governmental or foreign non-for-profit outfit, the letterhead used by the organization included the following words: LE CENTRE D’ART, Sous le Haut Patronage du Departement de l’Instruction Publique et de l’Institut Haitiano-American (“The Art Center: Under the High Patronage of the Department of Public Instruction and the Haitian-American Institute”). From the 1940s onwards artists involved with the Centre d’Art and other Haitian painters were exhibited first in New York, where they were described as “naïve” or primitive artists who “maintained a certain degree of uncultivated native authenticity” (Middelanis 1). Regardless, Haitian art received increased critical attention in Europe when one of the major figures in the surrealist movement, André Breton, visited Haiti (along with Cuban painter Wifredo Lam) in 1945; he purchased five paintings and eventually wrote about Hyppolite in Surrealism and Painting (originally published in 1928), the most important book on surrealist art.

Due to Hyppolite and Obin, Haitian artists gained international recognition by developing “very distinguished and diversified visual concepts” (ibid). By the mid-point of the century, Haitian art was desirable by galleries and private collectors around the world, making Haitian artists commercially successful (specifically those who painted in the “folk art” tradition of Hyppolite). Today, Haitian artists—or, to be more precise, a select group Haitian painters—are fully integrated into the global “art market and their best works command high prices” (ibid). As well as commerce, another way to think about Haitian art and its place in an international art network is through the African diaspora. Richard J. Powell, in his Black Art: A Cultural History (2002), writes that a “characteristic of black diasporal cultures is their structural dependence upon an acknowledged collection of life experiences, social encounters, and personal ordeals, the sum of which promotes a solidarity and camaraderie that creates community” (13).

Powell admits that while a shared life-experience—of “racial and cultural discrimination, segregation, recognition, and identification”—should not be the “litmus test” of blackness due to the differing extent to which an individual encounters, for example, formal segregation in South Africa or Jim Crow laws in the southern United States, but these “social assays are fundamental to black culture” (ibid). Powell’s black culture, history, and art is transnational because “African American styles of religious worship, performance, and verbal and literary expression . . . [represent] a shared vision that often resonates with black diasporal counterparts in the Caribbean, Central and South America, Europe, and Africa” (ibid). The acknowledgement of the tribulations of black history, Powell suggests, important to realizing and conceptualizing black culture.

In the metaphoric process, meaning is never “set”; rather, the meaning of a text changes over time, dependent on many factors. Consider, for example, the figure of the zombie in Haitian art and wider popular culture. After the 1920s he is almost entirely disconnected from his Haitian origins, the zombie has been present in various pop culture mediums throughout the 20th century, but in recent years has been strongly connected to post-2008 economic and political malaise, amongst other social ills. However, Donald J. Consentino contends that the meaning of the zombie changes in response to national crises: the Great Depression, the beginnings of globalization, and the aforementioned Great Recession of 2008. “The hapless “differently dead” now operate as metaphors for an anxious (post) modernity,” Consentino writes, “when the individual feels helpless in the face of social, economic, or ecological calamities” (34). Simply put: audiences see in the zombie metaphor a reflection of the troubling times around us, no matter the specific crisis.

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Figure 5. Monster blan/neg (white/black) child, Atis Rezistans (Photo courtesy of the author).

Another part of Feinstein’s metaphoric process that is particularly applicable to the visual arts is when the “attributes of one entity are transferred to another by comparison, by substitution, or as a consequence of interaction.” In the visual arts, the attributes of one entity can be conveyed in another through a number of means: homage to particular past and present traditions (impressionism meets spray-paint graffiti); juxtaposition of visual elements and styles (advertising and portraiture); the reusing/recycling common visual motifs (religious symbols); the use of materials that are not commonly associated with the visual arts (trash).

In the case of the Atis Rezistans, their repurposing of so-called junk and eclectic material—bits and pieces of car engines, human bones, oil barrels, discarded and broken children’s toys, building materials (such as corrugated iron)—offers a whole range of possibilities for relational interpretation and the consideration of specific historical, political, and social contexts. Nadine Zeidler, for example, reads the use of broken electronic devices by the Atis Rezistans as a critique of the nation-state and the ongoing “institutional and political corruption in Haiti.” Leah Gordon, on the other hand, sees class and artistic apprenticeship as a crucial element in the production and reading of the Atis Rezistans’ work, particularly when comparing Haiti to other countries: “In Haiti there is an uncommon cultural outpouring from the lower classes, a phenomenon in Europe [that] has been increasingly silenced through a restrictive wage system, consumerism, and an increasingly hegemonic control of culture.”

In Andre Eugene’s 2004 mixed media sculpture Doktor Zozo (Doctor Penis) the centerpiece is a decomposing human skull wearing a blue helmet and a stethoscope. On one level, there is immediate nod to the ironic—the instrument used to determine the health of the living being used by the dead—but it is also steeped in a specific religious tradition: the doctor is facing an erect, wooden penis, which is associated with the Gede lwa (spirit) family. Gede are the spirits of life and death, and due to this are “seen as good and bad” and “mischievous and obscene” (Hebblethwaite 238). The phallic symbol is important in distinguishing Gede from other spirits; at Vodou ceremonies, “the Gede lwa are called on last . . . [Their] dance, the banda, is performed solely in couples, without distinction of sex. The dance, which originated in the Kongo, involves movements of the hips and the buttocks” (238). In other visual representations of the Gede, they are depicted grasping their own erect penises. Therefore, for a viewer familiar with the rites of Vodou, the phallic portion of Dokto Zozo is as noteworthy as the presence of the partially decomposed human skull paired with that omnipresent medical device, the stethoscope. But Doktor Zozo also invokes a host of other potential meanings, including military occupation.

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Figure 6. MINUSTAH operations center, Cité Soleil (Photo courtesy of author).

In Eugene’s sculpture, there is a blue helmet perched upon the doctor’s skull. In 2004, following the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide by Guy Phillipe’s “Rebel Army,” the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (known most widely in Haiti by its French acronym, MINUSTAH) essentially took control of Haiti, leaving the country under foreign martial law. The blue helmet is an integral part of the United Nations military uniform, the organization that, according to U.N peacekeeping spokesperson Michel Bonnardeux, “the primary purpose for the U.N. troops being in Haiti is to insure the protection of Haitian civilians” (Herz, Mosk, and Momtaz). However, in Haiti, the United Nations are not necessarily a symbol of “peacekeeping” and “foreign assistance.” The following report by the U.K.’s Guardian in 2011 shows the other side of the UN’s occupation of Haiti, and it sheds light on how the blue helmeted soldiers might be perceived by Haitians. In December 2007,

more than 100 UN soldiers from Sri Lanka were deported under charges of sexual abuse of under-age girls. In 2005, UN troops went on the rampage in Cité Soleil, one of the poorest areas in Port-au-Prince, killing as many as 23 people, including children, according to witnesses. After the raid, the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders reported: “On that day, we treated 27 people for gunshot wounds. Of them, around 20 were women under the age of 18.” (Weisbrot)

This came in the wake of another atrocity, the rape of a young Haitian man by four Uruguayan troops. The crime was recorded on video and circulated amongst major news outlets, including ABC, who released an edited version that showed the rapists/UN troops laughing while the sexual assault took place. After the crime received considerable media attention, Uruguayan Navy Lieutenant Nicholas Casariego, speaking through the barbed wire exterior of the base where the assault was said to take place, confirmed to a group of reporters that the video was real (Herz, Mosk, and Momtaz).

But although this might be the most extreme example of interpersonal violence between Haitians and the blue helmets, UN soldiers are also responsible for over 7,000 deaths. In 2012 reports emerged that Nepalese soldiers had been dumping human waste in an unsafe manner, leading to a cholera epidemic that proved to be a devastating aftershock of the earthquake. Chantal Laurent, author of The Haitian Blogger, claimed that the cholera outbreak made “clear to most Haitians that the UN mandate in Haiti was not for the protection and security of Haitians. During the tenure of MINUSTAH Haitians more loss of lives [sic] than they had under the Duvalier dictatorships.” The combination of the skull and the blue helmet has a very pointed meaning to Haitians in the post-earthquake era: rather than providing relief, MINUSTAH brought death and destruction to the country.

When identifying metaphor in the work of the Atis Rezistans, one must note that the skull (the ultimate Memento Mori), which is often the central object in the sculptures, has multiple metaphoric meanings. To give a concrete example: after the 2010 earthquake, many of the real human skulls used by the Atis Rezistans were drawn from the city’s cemeteries.

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Figure 7. “Pirate skull” by Andre Eugene (Photo courtesy of the author).

The earthquake changed the meaning of the skull in the work of the Atis Rezistans. Now, rather than just pointing toward the place of the human skull in Vodou ceremonies, the skull is infused with other potential meanings. Not merely symbolic of the earthquake and loss of life, the skull begs questions of the relationship between ethics and representation. Andre Eugene sees this tension in terms of nationality and class.

In my work, when I have used someone’s skull . . . [I know] this man was Haitian: when he was alive, he couldn’t travel anywhere and it is ironic that now he is dead he has visited Chicago, Barbados and Florida. Our use of skulls and bones relate to Vodou symbolism, Vodou altars, but also the lack of mobility of the Haitian people. (qtd. in Garland).

Moreover, one of the themes present throughout Atis Rezistans’ work is connectedness: to each other’s work, and, in a larger sense, to Haiti’s relationship with the rest of the world. Writing about the Atis Rezistans, Consentino asserts that the “most telling witness to the cosmopolitanism of their work (and to the cosmopolitan history of Haiti since the seventeenth century) is the forty-foot sculpture . . . that towers over the front yard of their atelier” (55). What is this structure? First, it stands out in the Grand Rue neighborhood because, as Consentino points out, it is taller than all of the surrounding buildings. The ambition of the project reflects the fact that while “the Atis Rezistans have not had much commercial success with individual collectors,” their sculptures have been featured in high-profile galleries in Haiti, Europe, and the United States, and the younger members of the Atis Rezistans, in particular Racine Polycarpe, continue to create and show their work in a variety of venues (ibid). It is untitled, but it represents one of the most powerful lwa, Bawon Samdi (Baron Samedi), who is “usually depicted with a top hat, black tuxedo, dark glasses, and cotton plugs in the nostrils, as if to resemble a corpse dressed and prepared for burial in the Haitian style. He has a white, frequently skull-like face (or actually has a skull for a face) and speaks in a nasal voice” (Princeton). The scale of Bawon Samdi is accentuated by the street-level living of much of the Grand Rue neighborhood. His is a huge presence, casting shadow not only on the dirt path that leads to the Atis Rezistans’ workplace, but that there are locals living in small, self-constructed housing in close proximity to the Bawon tower.

The sculpture is constructed of “disparate parts wrought from a whole car chassis with a muffler head,” but this might not be apparent initially as one looks up on the spectacle of seemingly random metal objects; the precarious “top-heaviness” and overall size of the sculpture shapes one’s first impression.

This neighborhood [Grand Rue] traditionally produces woodcarving. Many years ago, these [pieces] were for the tourist trade, but now more of their works get shipped to the Dominican Republic rather than the Iron Market (in downtown Port-au-Prince). So, it is easy to learn the skills of wood carving in this area. My sculpture allows me to express my life and my culture and my economic reality.

Life, culture, and economic reality: the Atis Rezistans and the Ghetto Biennale are more than “a grassroots attempt to enter the global art world” (Zeidler). The Atis Rezistans have created “a vibrant subaltern art production organized through numerous popular neighborhoods, both within and outside of Port-au-Prince” (Gordon qtd. in “Art review’). And this returns us to the use of the skull. After the 2010 earthquake, the use of skulls became more frequent for the simple fact that they were able to source more from the cemeteries near Boulevard Jean-Jacques Dessalines.  As Eugene claims, the “urban environment colors all the work we make: from the materials we find [including skulls] to the energy generated from our frustration with the urban environment” (qtd. in Garland). The “junk” that the Atis Rezistans recycle for their sculptures comes from the same neighborhood where the Atis Rezistans live and work: skulls and all the detritus of urban Haitian life.

Beyond functioning as a memento mori or as part of Vodou iconography, the skull is also a reminder of the country’s violent origins. “If slavery deprived people of color of their personhood and humanity,” writes Sibylle Fischer, “the declaration of Haitian independence reduces the slaveholder to an assemblage of exploitable body parts: bones, blood, skin” (201). Whites (blan) were excluded from land ownership after the revolution, which is part of what Fischer’s assertion, but she is also referring to the revenge killing of white landowners (and other whites present in the San Domingue colonial apparatus). Vengeance was in the air. Fischer quotes Jean-Jacque Dessalines’ secretary, a French-educated mulatto named Boisrond Tonnerre, whose famous words epitomize the spirit of vengeance contained within the second draft of the declaration of independence. “To prepare the independence act,” Tonnerre wrote on the eve of independence, “we need the skin of a white man for parchment, his skull for a desk, his blood for ink, and a bayonet for a pen” (qtd. in Fischer 201).

But to consider the declaration of independence as simply formal recognition of a post-war separation between colonizer and colonized is to miss the significance of the act of writing back to power and affirming this young nation’s identity. “It is in this act of writing one’s own name—Haiti—that the former master is reduced to a bag of body parts, not in the act of direct revenge. Haiti’s name is thus both: written with the blood of the master and a completely new script, a different form of writing” (201—202). This is what the Atis Rezistans have done in the post-earthquake epoch; they are consciously composing a new script. The Atis Rezistans embody what Richard J. Powell fit defines as black artistic forms: they are “not only alternative to mainstream counterparts, but proactive and aggressive in their desire to articulate, testify, and bear witness to that cultural difference” (15). The Atis Rezistans evince their cultural difference on an international level—where the showing of skulls unearthed from graves disturbed by the earthquake was both an ethical and legal consideration—and on a local level, where the Atis Rezistans are not an easily digestible, comprehensible, or portable commodity. The use of the skull fits this mod: “Our use of skulls and bones relate to Vodou symbolism, Vodou altars, but also the lack of mobility of the Haitian people” (Eugene qtd. in Garland). Taking the three verbs employed by Pelowell (“articulate, testify, and bear”), one can think through how the Atis Rezistans offer an alternative to not only mainstream art around the world, but also the art that is produced in Haiti. The Atis Rezistans are writing Haiti anew. This is the “new” visual rhetoric of Haiti: born in Haiti, made in Haiti, and pushing out to the rest of the world.

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

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Benson, LeGrace. “Foreward.” Masterpieces of Haitian Art. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2013.

Berns, Marla C. “Introduction.” In extremis: death and life in twenty-first-century Haitian art. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum at UCLA, 2012. Print.

Boutros, Alexandra. “Gods on the Move: The Mediatisation of Vodou.” Culture and Religion. 12.2 (2011): n. page. Print.

Cosentino, Donald. In extremis: death and life in twenty-first-century Haitian art. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum at UCLA, 2012. Print.

Coomes, Phil. “Inside Haiti’s Iron Market.” BBC News. BBC News, 12 Jan. 2013. Web. 25 June 2014. <http://www.bbc.com/news/in-pictures-20971898>.

Derrida, Jacques, and Eric Prenowitz. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Print.

Feinstein, Hermine. “Meaning and visual metaphor.” Studies in Art Education 23:45. JSTOR. Web. 25 June 2014.

Fischer, Sibylle. Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004..

Garland, Christopher. “Interviews » Blog Archive » The Visual Language of Resistance.”Interviews RSS. Small Axe, n.d. Web. 25 June 2014. <http://smallaxe.net/wordpress3/interviews/2013/08/24/the-visual-language-of-resistance/>.

“GHETTO BIENNALE.” Home :. Leah Gordon, n.d. Web. 22 June 2014.

Giacomini, Pascal. “Creating and Bleeding in Haiti’s Grand Rue.” Indiegogo. Indiegogo, n.d. Web. 25 June 2014.

Girard, Philippe R. Haiti: The Tumultuous History-from Pearl of the Caribbean to Broken Nation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Print.

“HAITIAN ARTS.” HaitianArts. American University, 30 July 1999. Web. 25 June 2014.

Hariman, Robert, and John L. Lucaites. No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Print.

Powell, Richard J. Black Art: a cultural history. 2nd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2002. Print.

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