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Art of Haiti Is Alive and Well

Gallery exhibit illustrates gap between island's joyful paintings and its tumultuous politics

THE best of Haiti is hung on the walls of the Clark Gallery here while the worst of Haiti is shown on the nightly news. From works of neon-bright fruit baskets to voodoo ceremonies, from simple village scenes to barefoot policemen and straight-faced wedding parties, the gallery's exhibit, ``Haiti: Pearl of the Antilles,'' is a burst of dazzling colors, sensibility, and energy.

More than 50 works in this small distinguished gallery outside Boston emphasize a terrible irony. A small island in politically violent turmoil for decades has a distinctive art style of colorful simplicity and warmth recognized the world over. So far it has never accommodated itself to other styles. The popular lexicon is to label it ``primitive,'' almost as if the island's art, like its politics, is the rendering of another banana republic with not much sophistication.

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But this analysis is usually rendered through narrow Anglo-American eyes. Haiti deserves better, and for now island art leads the way, hardly primitive as this exhibit demonstrates. Several schools of style peculiar to the island are represented here. Perhaps island politics will soon catch up to its art.

This exhibit was arranged by Mary Jo McConnell, an artist and collector from Marblehead, Mass., who has visited Haiti many times over the last 20 years. According to gallery director Meredyth Moses, the exhibit was planned long before the recent political tumult in Haiti. The paintings, many of which date back to the late 1970s, are from the collections of several Americans. A percentage of the proceeds will go support the Hopital Albert Schweitzer in Deschapelles, Haiti, where Moses's husband, John, has worked with patients.

Paul Damien's large work ``Policeman'' is a wondrous swirl of color, voodoo symbols, and cultural meaning. Bold, flat, with no perspective and shadowing, Damien's canvas is similar to peering into the maze of a flowered, lush jungle where there is no perspective.

Two yellow giraffes, a two-headed snake, and a winged woman are caught up in some kind of a voodoo ceremony amid brilliant bright flowers and green trees and foliage. Along comes a uniformed policeman (small compared with the other figures), perhaps arriving to stop the ceremony. Damien's policeman, a figure of authority, is shoeless, a specific insult to him on an island where everyone has shoes but often saves them from wear by carrying them. Primitive? Unsophisticated? Perhaps the work is, but is the artist?

For subtlety in color and presence, Jonas Profil's ``Couisine Laca'' is the ample figure of a woman rendered in pastel blues and grays and luxurious soft greens. She stands on a path staring ahead, a rooster at her feet and a cup in hand. Her face is tranquil, wise, and maybe a little lonely.

All Haitian elements - color, symbols, and cultural significance - can be seen in Fritzner Alphonse's ``Wedding.'' In a tableau vivant, a married couple with friends and relatives stands tightly together under a white angel, a dove, and a cluster of grapes. Their unsmiling expressions don't detract from the joy of the colors they wear and flourish around them - bright pinks, reds, oranges, greens, and blacks.

The exhibit continues until October 28.

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