Once upon a time, an artist was sleeping by the sea when the Haitian Vodou goddess of love appeared to him in a dream and pulled him underwater. She wanted him to paint her.
And so he did. Frantz Zéphirin, a renowned Haitian artist and Vodou priest, painted the spirit Erzuile Fréda just as she wanted, though her request was a little strange and incredibly detailed. Zéphirin painted her as a mermaid with a cat ear on one side of her head and small horn on the other. A halo floats over her, and she is surrounded by fish playing instruments and animals wearing tailored pants.
At “Cosmic Mirrors: Haitian Art Highlights from the Collection,” an art exhibition at NSU Art Museum in Fort Lauderdale, artists’ spirituality is reality. The show is drawn almost exclusively from the Museum’s collection of over 160 artworks by 27 Haitian contemporary artists and opened late May at the end of Haitian Heritage Month. It is on view until this fall.
“We’re not just representing art, but we’re representing people in life,” said curator Ariella Wolens. “There’s always hope that you’re creating a sense of empathy and understanding of other people’s cultures, backgrounds, and also just to be able to appreciate the work in itself. These artworks are just, in and of themselves, incredible, and people should be exposed to them.”
“Cosmic Mirrors,” which is almost entirely made up of works from the museum’s extensive Haitian art collection, explores Haitian art made from the 1950s to the 2000s. The exhibition comes on the heels of a solo show currently on view at the museum of works by Kathia St. Hilaire, a Haitian-American artist from South Florida.
“The timing was right to dedicate space to our collection and provide context for Kathia’s work by showing the history of Haiti through other artists’ work and the cultural traditions from the country itself,” Wolens said.
The artwork featured in “Cosmic Mirrors” is diverse in subject matter and media, with pieces ranging from beaded devotional flags to bosmetal sculptures. Still, several recurring themes pop up throughout the show, particularly history, spirituality and spiralism, a Haitian literary and art movement that views the shape of a spiral as a symbol for the endless evolution of life and creativity.
“La Métamorphose d’Erzulie,” Zéphirin’s 1996 portrait of Erzuile Fréda in shades of blue, is one of the first pieces visitors see. Artists like Zéphirin don’t just paint for sake of painting, the curators said. Their artwork is in devotion of a higher power.
In his dream, according to text from the exhibition, Zéphirin recalled Erzuile Fréda showing him an unending row of paintings on easels. “These paintings do not exist yet,” the spirit told him. “It is you who will have to make them!”
Many of the works reflect on the concept of duality, depicting twins, two people or symmetry. “Dancing Girls,” by Saincilus Ismael, is an incredibly detailed painting inspired by Byzantine art of two girls dressed in festive costumes. An untitled painting by Gérard Fortuné, a self-taught artist, also depicts two girls facing each other and holding candles.
In another untitled painting by a relatively unknown artist identified as L. Etienne, a row of Haitian Revolutionary soldiers stand in a room with nothing but two lookout windows and a map of Haiti. The soldiers, dressed in Napoleonic-style army uniforms, are arranged symmetrically. Though the soldiers were fighting the French, the choice of uniform shows the lasting effect French colonizers had in Haitian art, Wolens said.
The curators and art historians tried to uncover information about the artist, but L. Etienne largely remains a mystery.
“We have these artists who are being shown in the most prestigious and prominent venues for contemporary art in the same space and with the same value as artworks by people who are unknown,” Wolens said.
‘More than souvenirs’
In the ‘40s, art school and gallery Le Centre D’Art was founded in Port-au-Prince, giving rise to several artists featured in the exhibition. (Many Haitian artworks in the museum’s collection were purchased through Le Centre D’Art, Wolens said.) A renaissance in Haitian art quickly followed.
Haiti’s tourism boom in the ‘50s attracted Americans who were especially interested in artwork that wasn’t for sale, Wolens said. Tourists took notice of drapo, sequined Vodou flags used on altars and during religious ceremonies. Artisans then began creating beaded flags to sell to tourists as momentos, Wolens said.
“What was distinct about our collectors who donated their works here is that they recognize these to be more than souvenirs,” Wolens said, while pointing to a small, square flag made by an unknown artist. “They were artworks with integrity, and this was a historic tradition that is distinct and has no comparison outside of Haitian culture.”
Myrlande Constant specializes in what she calls “painting with beads.”
Constant’s “Azaca Médeh Négre Montagne La Voûte,” a sparkling beaded work on display in the show, is impossible to miss. The piece pays homage to Azaca Médeh, the spirit of the harvest, with a diverse group of people beating drums, dancing and holding farming tools.
Constant is also featured in the 2014 Haitian art film “In The Eye of the Spiral,” which is on also display at the exhibition.
“My inspiration doesn’t come from me, it comes from God and my African spirits,” Constant said in the film. “Even if you don’t see the elders, they are present in spirit around us.”
Into the spiral
Haiti’s current tumultuous state looms over the exhibition.
Since the devastating 2010 earthquake destroyed many artworks and studios, collections of Haitian art outside of the country have been crucial in preserving Haitian art history for posterity, Clearwater said. For example, the exhibition displays a small landscape painting called “Dimanche (Sunday)“ by master painter Prefete Duffaut. A mural Duffaut painted in St. Trinity Church in Haiti was lost in the earthquake.
“Yet, there’s a kind of complication there, because it was based on, in many cases, [the tastes of] tourists who had gone to Haiti and brought home paintings,” Clearwater said. “So, you get a kind of warped perception of what was going on in the art world in Haiti.”
Still, hope remains. Reynald Leconte, who directed and produced “In The Eye of the Spiral,” said to look toward Haiti’s artists.
“The window to the soul, the window to a culture, are the artists,” he said. “The essence of my film is a vision of these artists for a better country.”
For Leconte, it felt gratifying as a filmmaker to see the artists he worked with be celebrated at the exhibition. “Cosmic Mirrors” is more than a historical resource on Haitian art history, he said. The show serves as a reminder of Haiti’s determination and resilience.
Haiti does not have to remain on a downward spiral, Leconte said. It will spiral upwards, too.
Cosmic Mirrors: Haitian Art Highlights from the Collection
Where: NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, 1 E Las Olas Blvd
Price: $16 for general admission
Hours: 11 a.m. - 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, noon - 5 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday
This story was produced with financial support from The Pérez Family Foundation, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The Miami Herald maintains full editorial control of this work.