Contemporary art museums and cultural institutions dealing with subject matter of the African Diaspora truly have their work cut out for them. One could spend a lifetime examining the complexity of intertwined histories, politics, languages and religions indicative of hundreds of years of global migrations – some voluntary, some forced. Beyond the well- trodden topics of slavery and colonialism, there is a vast territory of diasporan history, including Haiti’s that has remained largely unexamined and virtually unknown.
As lover of art first, and history second, I believe that the most successful museum exhibitions offer a perfect mix of the visually provocative, the culturally relevant, and the downright informative. To lift a quote from the scholar Marshall McLuhan: “Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.” To that point, the exhibition, Re-imagining Haiti is a brilliant synthesis of powerful art and valuable, relevant information.
The keystone of the exhibition is the fact that in 1804, the newly freed African captives on the island of St. Domingue, gaining independence from France, declared Haiti the first Black independent republic in the western hemisphere. The political and cultural history of the Haitian people has been on a rollercoaster ride ever since. Haiti’s situation has been further exacerbated by recent natural disasters.
Re-Imagining Haiti is a collaborative exhibition, between the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) and The Caribbean Cultural Center/African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI. It was on view from Jan 20th till May 8th at MoCADA; the exhibition at CCCADI, however, is still up.
Shantrelle P Lewis and Shante’ Cozier, the co-curators of Re-Imagining Haiti have assembled a total of 30 artists who offer an almost encyclopedic presentation of ideas about Haiti’s past, present and future. They’ve created aesthetic responses to the turbulence that has plagued Haiti for the past 200 years.
I am admittedly no expert on Haiti’s history. However, for me that was the beauty of this well-crafted presentation. It’s sweet to enter a museum to view an exhibition that offers you a true sense of discovery and an example of “black history” you never received in school. Ambitious in scope, yet neat and compact in scale, Re-Imagining Haiti is a day well spent and knowledge well gained.
CCCADI’ features also the exhibition, Standing with Papa Legba, which explores the power and future of Haitian Vodou, particularly investigating how the spiritual system was at the forefront of Haiti’s socio-political founding. In Haitian Vodou, Papa Legba is the judicial power charged with opening and closing doors between physical and spiritual realms, and the daily circumstances that create static or kinetic situations in our lives. The Divine Trickster, Papa Legba is gatekeeper of the crossroads.
The artists featured in the CCCADI’s, Standing with Papa Legba include: Elizabeth Colomba, Thom Corn, Ja’Tovia Gary, Vidho Lorville, Phillip Nerestan, Numa Perrier, Jacques Rony, Jeffery Salter, Phoenix Savage, Kantara Souffrant, Val-Inc, Jean Volcy.
MoCADA has on view now Le Projet Nouveau, a multi-media exhibition that highlights the practices of eighteen artists who propose ecological, cosmological, architectural, political and sociological methods that can be applied to the idea of reconstructing Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake one year ago. The exhibited artists use their talents to conceptualize Haiti’s future by visualizing the country through the beauty of its people, the dynamics of its culture, the geography of the African Diaspora, and its artistic legacy.
Le Projet Nouveau’ artists are Trevor Brown, Nelson Caban, Rebekah A. Frimpong, Eric Girault, Tosha Grantham, Aaqil Ka, J’Renee, M. Scott Johnson with M.S. 57, Stephanie Keith, The Softhouse Group, Dr. Kokahvah Zauditu-Selassie, Edouard Steinhauer, Michele Stephenson, Wahala Temi, Noelle Theard, Adrienne E. Wheeler, Nathan Williams, and Tracee Worley.
MoCADA is located at 80 Hanson Place, Brooklyn, NY 11217; www.mocada.org
Re-Imagining Haiti at CCCADI has been extended through May 30th.
CCCADI is located at 408 West 58th Street, New York, NY 10019; www.cccadi.org
Dexter Wimberly is a New York-based curator and art consultant. Wimberly guest-curated MoCADA’s 2010 exhibition, The Gentrification of Brooklyn: The Pink Elephant Speaks .