Haitian Art Shines Bright at Pioneer Works

The gorgeous and heartbreaking new exhibition, “Pòtoprens: The Urban Artists of Port-Au-Prince,” proves that the Haitian capital is one of the most culturally vibrant cities of the Caribbean.

Courtesy of Pioneer Works

Pioneer Works dazzles art lovers again: After installation-centric shows such as “Gerard & Kelly: Clockwork” and Anthony McCall’s “Solid Light Works” (which quickly—and for good reason—became an Instagram darling) comes “Pòtoprens: The Urban Artists of Port-Au-Prince,“ a showcase of the best works coming out of the Haitian art scene.

The season’s can’t-miss exhibition at the always-daring Red Hook gallery space highlights the artistic production of more than 20 artists working out of the Haitian capital. Under the curation of international artists Leah Gordon and Edouard Duval-Carrié, the pieces showcased take inspiration from lore, mythology, and street life, juxtaposing grit—the materials of several works are cast-off metallic parts and bones—and glimmer—sequins and beads abound.

Spanning the ground floor and garden are works mainly comprised of wall art, sculptures, and installations. Some carry a political and sociological message: Celeur Jean Herard, for example, made a sculpture with shoes that were sent to Haiti by the U.S. as humanitarian aid. Intertwined with the shoes is a heavy chain, a nod to slavery, which still persists as a metaphor of dependence on shortsighted foreign aid. In a similar fashion, Katelyne Alexis created a tableau representing Haiti being sick with cast-off toys; above it is the doll-like voodoo spirit of war and courage, who is called upon whenever the sick are in need to fight an ailment.

Installation view. PÒTOPRENS: The Urban Artists of Port-au-Prince. Curated by Leah Gordon and Edouard Duval-Carrié. Pioneer Works, New York, September 7 – November 11, 2018. © Dan Bradica

Other works highlight Haitian religion and spirituality, both with solemnity and humor. By contrast, Jean Claude Saintilus created a life-size altar of sculpturelike pieces that is both his personal pantheon (it features his ancestors and a friend) and a tribute to voodoo lore. His mother embodies a spirit that is the voodoo equivalent of the Mother/Maiden/Crone triad, while his aunt, a wheelchair-bound sculpture, is the wife of Baron Samedi, one of the key figures of voodoo. On a cot lie the remains of a friend of his, who got his throat slashed because he talked too much. Perhaps not as Insta-friendly as the pyramids of light, but just as compelling.

Highlighting Haitian lifestyle is a makeshift Haitian barbershop in Pioneer Works’s garden, a nod to said places in Haiti being a tool for social cohesion and a showcase of local art. Usually decked with artwork made by local artists, the gallery’s space has paintings by Michel Lafleur, whose style is vaguely reminiscent of Kehinde Wiley. 

On the upper floors of the gallery is a selection of photographs and films that help contextualize Port-au-Prince as a culturally complex city. Work by photographer Josué Azor, for instance, pays tribute to the underground queer community. Similarly, the documentary Of Men and Gods by Anne Lescot shows how voodoo and homosexuality intersect. Elsewhere, photographer Maggie Steber and filmmaker Jorgen Leth focus, respectively in photo and film, on Port-au-Prince’s architecture and art scenes.

Installation view. PÒTOPRENS: The Urban Artists of Port-au-Prince. Curated by Leah Gordon and Edouard Duval-Carrié. Pioneer Works, New York, September 7 – November 11, 2018. © Dan Bradica

Coinciding with the building-wide exhibition are Haitian-themed community initiatives, giving visitors further immersion into the culturally vibrant scene. The Voodoo and Visual Art Roundtable (September 19, October 3, November 8) will explore the relationship between the Creole religion and the island’s contemporary art, while the down-home Bed-Stuy spot Grandchamps invades Pioneer Works’s Supper Club series with its take on Haitian cooking on October 2.   

“Pòtoprens: The Urban Artists of Port-Au-Prince
Pioneer Works
159 Pioneer Street, Red Hook
Through Sunday, November 11

If you rarely find yourself in this neck of Brooklyn, make the most of it! Swing by some of our favorite Red Hook spots for barbecue and drinks.