Hector Hyppolite was a Vodou priest who painted with chicken feathers because he owned no brushes. Dewitt Peters, an American conscientious objector doing education work in wartime Haiti, saw the flower designs, representing attributes of Vodou deities that Hyppolite painted on doors of a bar in Montrouis. They were among the works that convinced him to launch the “Centre d’Art” in Port-au-Prince in 1944. Attracting artists including shoemaker/taxi driver Rigaud Benoit, who arrived with painted pottery he pretended was the work of a friend, and barber/coffee merchant Philomé Obin from north Haiti, who sent a painting depicting Franklin Roosevelt, the centre sparked a “Haitian Renaissance” so rapidly that by 1945 André Breton was on the doorstep, purchasing paintings whose representations of Haitian life, gods and dream imagery chimed with European surrealist theory.
The 1940s is the starting point for Nottingham’s ambitious exploration of Haiti’s vibrant modern and contemporary art. Although emphasising Vodou as an essential impetus, it reveals the diversity of Haitian artists across several generations – among them painter Edouard Duval-Carrié’s bright combinations of African and classical fables and tropical landscapes; Frantz Zéphirin’s merging of references to Vodou gods and popular culture; Myrlande Constant’s narrative flags/tapestries; and Jean Hérard Celeur’s and André Eugène’s sculptures of Gede death and fertility spirits made from discarded car and computer parts and human skulls.
At last year’s Venice Biennale, Haiti’s pavilion, housed in sea freight containers and showing such sculptures by several of Port-au-Prince’s Atis Rezistans group, stood out for figurative inventiveness and rejection of the slick ironies of much current art. In the 21st century Haiti has suffered a coup, earthquake, hurricanes, epidemics; artists have responded with a dystopian language, brutal but energetic.
Until January 6, www.nottinghamcontemporary.org