Iowa Arts Council
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Iowa Arts Council

Haitian artist Murat Brierre chisels scrap metal into works of art, like this lion at the Waterloo Center for the Arts.

Iowa is a Hot Spot for Haitian Art

When the staff at the Waterloo Center for the Arts unpacked a donation they received last year, they could hardly believe what they saw: more than 100 banners from Haiti, glittering with hand-sewn beads. They were patterned after traditional flags that were once — and still are — used to conjure voodoo spirits during fire-lit ceremonies.

The museum team plans to fill a gallery with their favorites from the new collection in an upcoming show called “Uncle Fun’s Over-Stuffed Suitcases of Flags from Haiti.”

“We’ll just encrust that whole space with beads and sequins,” curator Chawne Paige said.

Chawne Paige, curator, Waterloo Center for the Arts

Plans are also in the works for an array of related programs through the end of the year, including gallery tours, lectures, workshops and, at Grinnell College, a course that will give students a chance to create some new artwork with the prominent Haitian-born artist Edouard Duval-Carrie.

As it turns out, those over-stuffed suitcases weren’t the first bundles of Haitian art to arrive in Iowa. Since the 1960s, sunburnt Iowans have returned from trips to the Caribbean country with all sorts of textiles, paintings and sculptures. Over time, they donated so much to their local museums that the Waterloo Center for the Arts and Davenport’s Figge Art Center now house two of the largest Haitian art collections in the world.

Haitian artist Pierrot Barra fashions artwork from old toys, like this banner at the Waterloo Center for the Arts.

But what really put those museums on the map was research. When the first Haitian-art donations landed at the Figge, in the 1960s, and the Waterloo Center for the Arts, in the 1970s, curators realized they didn’t know very much about Haitian art or artists. So they made a concerted effort to learn more. They applied for research grants. They visited Port-au-Prince and Miami. They reached out to dealers, collectors and academics.

In Waterloo, Paige said, “we had the spare time and the people and the programming to really build that legacy.”

In 2003, Iowans helped form the Haitian Art Society to build that legacy even further. The group has held its conferences in Miami, Montreal, New Orleans, Paris and other Haitian-art hot spots, including an earlier trip to Waterloo in 2008.

Haitian art often blends worldly and spiritual realms, like this 1930 painting by Jacque Enguerrand-Gourgue at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport.

It’s important to remember that Haitian art is as diverse as the people who make it. The jungled country is just two-fifths the size of Iowa but has almost four times as many people, who have weathered all sorts of natural and political storms. Haiti’s revolution of 1804 was the only successful slave revolt in human history, but there have been many challenges in the years since, including corruption, disease and the catastrophic earthquake of 2010.

Haiti’s poverty has forced — or inspired — the country’s artists to “bring beauty out of the most mundane materials,” said David Schmitz, who directs the Dubuque Museum of Art.

Some artists chisel animals out of oil drums or fashion elaborate shrines out of discarded toys. Others sculpt figures out of scraps from the junk yard.

“Using what’s around you isn’t unique to Haitian artists, but they are models of resourcefulness,” Schmitz said. “And since the earthquake, they’re moving in some interesting new directions, larger and more complex. Some of those wonderful folk-art traditions are opening up to a much greater variety of styles and materials.”

This sequined flag by the Haitian artist Myrlande Constant is part of a new donation at the Waterloo Center for the Arts.

Artists are exploring a range of subjects, too. Haiti’s tangle of African, French and Creole roots has created fertile ground for artistic and often spiritual expression. Many artworks blur the boundary between the physical and spiritual realms.

At the Waterloo Center for the Arts, curator Paige pointed out several paintings of voodoo spirits (known as “loas”) and the symbols (“veves”) used to summon them. Vertical figures, such as trees, often represent conduits between spiritual realms above and below.

As Paige put it, if you asked a Haitian artist if an artwork was realistic or symbolic or spiritual, “they’d probably say, ‘Well, yeah. It’s all of that.’ ”

Haitian art in Iowa
For more information about the exhibits planned around the Haitian Art Society’s annual conference Sept. 23–28, visit the websites of the Dubuque Museum of Art, the Faulconer Gallery in Grinnell, the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, the University of Northern Iowa Gallery of Art in Cedar Falls, and the Waterloo Center for the Arts.



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Iowa Culture

Iowa Culture

The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs empowers Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to resources.