Haiti, in extremis at the Musée de la civilisation

Photo: Ruby Pratka

mardi 12 janvier 2010 by artist Myrlande Constant. The gédé stand open-mouthed in shock: even these Voodoo spirits are overwhelmed by the devastation caused by the powerful earthquake that destroyed so much of their country and killed some 300,000 people.

The spirits of death dance and celebrate, the storm consumes everything in its path and yet, somehow, life goes on.

Haiti, in extremis, the new exhibit at the Musée de la civilisation, is a stunning artistic voyage into the vibrant contemporary life of a country that Canadians usually hear about for all the wrong reasons. In its 210-year history, the Caribbean republic, founded by the leaders of a slave revolt, has seen a succession of devastating hurricanes and waves of political violence, culminating in the January 2010 earthquake, which killed nearly 300,000 people.

The exhibition was conceived in 2008 at the Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles, which owns most of the pieces on display.

"As the situation in Haiti worsens, the art gets continuously richer and more astonishing," commented Marla Berns, director of the Fowler Museum. "Now both are in extremis. The title of the exhibition is meant as a tribute to the resilience and artistic brilliance of the Haitian people. "

"The exhibition is shocking, absorbing, disturbing," said Musées de la civilisation director Michel Coté. "You can't leave it the way you came in."

The gédé, skeletal spirits of death, are a common motif in the art, which ranges from oil paintings to brightly beaded cloth flags to larger-than-life sculptures made from scrap metal and real human skulls, which the artists of Port-au-Prince can purchase legally from families or graveyards.

Normally, the gédé are pictured drinking, dancing and generally having a good time. "We celebrate death," said Emmanuel Bonnet, a young Haitian musician who performed at the exhibit's opening with his band, Chay Nanm. "We invite them to our homes to eat and drink with us. That's the way it is."

But in the enormous braided flag that opens the exhibition - mardi 12 janvier 2010 by Myrlande Constant - even the gédé stand open-mouthed in shock, overwhelmed by the devastation.

The exhibition of mostly surrealist art is shot through with some very real triumphs and (more often) tragedies - the memory of a mural destroyed when the earthquake flattened the Port-au-Prince cathedral, of an artist killed by right-wing paramilitaries, of a schoolgirl who dreamed of becoming an artist, found dead of unknown causes. The stories this art tells are sometimes hard to hear, but they are told with intense colour and vitality.

"What you see here is just a drop in the bucket," said Patrick Ganthier, a Haitian artist based in Montreal, referring to the depth and richness in his country's art scene.

"I wonder what else will happen to Haiti," added Marie-Hélène Cauvin, a Haitian-born artist who has lived and worked in Montreal since 1971. "Every time I think we've hit bottom, something else happens and we go further down. The situation is very fragile, and even when we (Haitians) are not physically in the country, we're all involved." 

The exhibition is laid out in a spiral shape. Toward the end, there are two films by British filmmaker Leah Gordon, one in which school-age artists of the Port-au-Prince collective Ti-moun Rezistans ("children of the resistance") talk about their dreams and show their own work, paintings every bit as gruesome - and spirited - as the works of their adult mentors, the collective Atis Rezistans ("artists of the resistance"). The other film shows a festival parade, with a marching band playing the haunting Duke Ellington song, "St. James Infirmary." The music echoes throughout the museum hall. This disconcerting mix of mourning and celebration exemplifies the art displayed in Haiti, in extremis.

Haiti, in extremis is at the Musée de la civilisation until August 17, 2014.