On Exhibit: Haitian art shines through the chaos | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Exhibit: Haitian art shines through the chaos 

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So far, Haiti's bicentennial has been no party. In an echo of its birth on January 1, 1804, the hemisphere's second-oldest independent republic is in armed revolt. If the impasse between Aristide and his opponents continues Port-au-Prince may yet see a parade in its harbor--of American warships.

That won't stop art dealer Paul Waggoner from celebrating the occasion. Waggoner's been putting together exhibitions of Haitian art since he first visited the country in 1973 and isn't about to let the bicentennial pass without another one. He and three other collectors--Ted Frankel, Laurie Beasley, and Maggie Roche--have contributed more than 100 paintings, sculptures, beaded flags, and ceremonial artifacts to "The Joy of Haitian Art," which opens this weekend at his Humboldt Park apartment, the current home of Waggoner's International Arts Club.

"The art of Haiti has become its most important export," Waggoner says. American intervention during World War II--in the person of DeWitt Peters, a conscientious objector who did his alternative service in Haiti--put the country on the art map. "It was his idea to open an art center so artists could exhibit their work, like art centers here, and to his amazement, when the doors opened, many of these self-taught artists brought their works." The Centre d'Art opened in Port-au-Prince in 1944, and after the war, says Waggoner, "it caught on around the world that this was a fabulous place to find art of the people, popular art that was truly original."

The current violence hasn't stopped Haiti's artists yet either. When Frankel visited at the end of January--"the first time I've had to dodge gunshots and bullets"--Internet access at his Port-au-Prince hotel was cut off, and he rode in an enclosed car rather than the usual pickup bed, but he had no difficulty visiting artists' studios. The beaded, sequined flags he brought back line the stairwell at the exhibition.

Most of the pieces on display are Waggoner's, whose personal collection fills seven rooms of his apartment in the former parsonage of Humboldt Park's Bethel Lutheran Church. Mounted on the archway between the living and dining rooms is the second piece he ever bought, a metal sculpture by Damien Paul. He paid $25 for it in '73 and has kept it through more than half a dozen moves. "It's chiseled from the top of an oil drum," he says. "There's birds' heads and human forms, body and feet, and it represents to me their ability to fantasize. And of course the bird is part of voodoo, or voudoun as they say now." Unknown then, Paul is now one of Haiti's most prominent artists.

Haitian art hasn't changed much over the years. A painting done ten years ago by Anna Ise depicts an imaginary creature with four heads--two snake and two human female, sharing an amorphous body covered in maroon scales. Ise painted during the embargo of the early 90s, Waggoner says. "Her husband was in jail, and to help support the family she started painting. When he got out, she stopped."

Haitians are "artists by nature," Waggoner says, something he attributes to both the country's history of independence and its religious traditions. He points to a beaded "spirit bottle" given to him by another artist, Andre Pierre. "The last time I saw him he had gone through eating 20 drinking glasses--he ate them! And his response was that he could see with a clearer eye," Waggoner says, laughing. "He's still living and still painting, and he's nearly 90 years old."

"The Joy of Haitian Art" opens with a free reception from 2 to 6 PM on Sunday, February 22, and runs through April 4 at 2101 N. Humboldt (enter on Dickens). Regular hours are Friday through Sunday from 2 to 7 PM. On February 24 Waggoner's throwing a Shrove Tuesday party from 7 to 11:30 PM. For $20 guests get a spread that includes goat curry and akra-malanga fritters, rum punch, a Haitian band (Rafo's International Combo), and dancing. For more information call 773-862-5142.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joeff Davis.

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