The officers on deck confront the Voodoo love goddess with broad shoulders and stoic faces, eyes darkened by sunglasses. She pauses on the gangplank, barefoot but resplendent in a gold crown and ruffled pink dress.
The goddess in Haitian artist Edouard Duval-Carrie’s 1996 painting, Ezili Intercepted, is bewildered, bemused maybe, but not desperate. She seems to smooth her hair with bejeweled fingers.
Ezili is notorious for charming the men in
Duval-Carrie’s migrant deity is so different from the Haitian migrants photographed with US or Caribbean authorities when their overcrowded vessels founder. Lying prone on boat decks or stretchers, they have no names, no power.
Thousands of Haitians attempt to flee their Caribbean homeland of more than 9 million by boat each year. Detained at sea or on US and Caribbean beaches, they appear as blurry masses of refugees.
In painting after painting and a flotilla of sculptures, Duval-Carrie has depicted these migrants as vibrant Voodoo gods.
He has had many opportunities to reflect on their journeys — the US Coast Guard has interdicted an annual average of 1,524 Haitian migrants for each of the past 15 fiscal years. The lucky ones who reach “the other side of the water” without notice find protection in an underground economy. The ocean swallows countless dead.
“The news is so dramatic that I’m pulled right back. When will there be a respite?” Duval-Carrie said recently in his studio in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood. “I wish it would go away and I could concentrate on something else.”
But the migrants keep coming, and there are always victims to grieve. The bodies of three women who perished when their overloaded sailboat capsized off South Florida in May were buried recently in a Miami-area cemetery beneath plaques reading “Unknown.” None of the 16 survivors professed to knowing them, and no relatives came forward to identify them.
“It’s one way I can give them importance and respect,” Duval-Carrie said. “There’s a total disrespect here for them.”
He strands the same cast of colorful gods in wooden boats or on rocky shores: the lord of the cemetery in his signature black top hat; the gatekeeper to the spiritual world; the god of healing; the love goddess who resembles Carmen Miranda; the coiled serpent god; temperamental twins; and the skeletal spirit of the dead.
Their faces — sometimes serene, sometimes leering — comprise a dual warning. Authorities outside Haiti should respect the migrants’ courage, Duval-Carrie said. Meanwhile, Haiti is losing its identity through constant migration.
In two panels of a recently completed, silver-toned installation titled Memory Without History, finely dressed skeletons join the gods’ voyage.
“They’re all dead already,” Duval-Carrie said.
He paints migrants as an expatriate himself. He was born in Port-au-Prince in 1954. His family fled the Duvalier regime for Puerto Rico when he was boy and did not return to Haiti until he was a teenager. The homecoming lasted a year before Duval-Carrie moved to New York to finish high school. He studied art in Montreal and Paris, then settled about 15 years ago in Miami, where he was delighted to find a part of the city called Little Haiti.
“He’s both within and without this profound Voodoo culture,” said Donald Cosentino, professor of world arts and cultures at UCLA.
The university’s Fowler Museum of Cultural History is one of three museums in the past decade to showcase Duval-Carrie’s ongoing exploration of migration and Haitian Voodoo, a blend of Christian tenets and African religions.
“He knows profoundly the plight of his own people, but he also knows how that fits into American society,” Cosentino said.
Duval-Carrie first took up migration as a theme in 1989 for a Paris exhibition. Altar of the Nine Slaves shows nine green-headed men chained in Africa, crowded into a boat and then at work in sugar cane fields in Haiti.
The slaves’ Middle Passage never ends, as they mingle with the gods throughout Duval-Carrie’s subsequent work. The boats mostly drift, sometimes aided by the serpent god bridging the distance between the palm-lined shores of Haiti and menacing Coast Guard vessels guarding the glittering lights of Miami. Mystical “power points” bind land, sea and sky in webs of sparkling dots.
The boat gods’ few landfalls appear traumatic. They shipwreck on tiny reefs jutting out of the water, and when they do reach Miami, the city seems to blind them. Searchlights block the entrance of a lone migrant in Vigilante City, while the gods stand stunned under a Miami Beach causeway in The Landing.
Duval-Carrie calls his work reflective, not political, though Haitian migrants represent the effects of political and economic policies throughout the region.
“These are people, they’re real people. There should be a basic minimum of respect and understanding,” he said. “You cannot just treat them because they’re black or they’re poor any differently than your poor people here. And it’s a reflection on the US, how they behave.”
The dark sense of humor evident in his work bubbles up as Duval-Carrie considers what he could paint if the boats ceased coming. “Something lofty or something banal. I would like to paint flowers,” he said, chuckling.
He probably won’t have that opportunity soon. About 40 Haitian migrants were detained earlier this month after their boat came ashore in a storm in Providenciales, Turks and Caicos; 15 people died and dozens were missing after a sailboat packed with Haitians struck a reef near the same island in July. Eleven Haitians were detained as they landed at a South Florida beach in July. Earlier this month, the Coast Guard repatriated 164 Haitians found in a freighter in the Bahamas.
“The problem hasn’t come to an end yet,” said Peter Boswell, senior curator at the Miami Art Museum. “He feels the need to continue to address it and not let it be a period in his art. The situation in Haiti hasn’t really changed enough for him to take on a new subject.”
On the Net: www.edouard-duval-carrie.com
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