The Caribbean is a very particular region of the world...
- If you take it geographically, there are many nations there, many islands, but between them is a common history of tragedy. - EDC
A Conversation with Edouard Duval Carrie
By Carlos de Villasante
The artist Edouard Duval Carrie was born in Haiti in 1954. When he was a child, his family moved to Puerto Rico, and he later studied in Canada and France. He has shown his work in places as far away as Africa and as close as Mexico. He lives in Miami.
Following is an edited version of a recent conversation with Duval Carrie, on the occasion of the twin exhibitions of his works, at the Miami Art Museum through November, and the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, which represents him in South Florida. He spoke first about his relationship with voodoo, addressing a question on whether it was a celebratory relationship, or that of a critic.
Edouard Duval Carrie: Recently, I've been very involved with the situation in Haiti. There are all sorts of political and social upheaval down there. For example, in the installation I'm doing [at MAM] I look at voodoo as a celebration, but really what I am trying to say in that one is that the spirits [gods or aiwas, in voodoo) are jumping ship and leaving the island, you understand? It might sound funny, the way I'm presenting it, they might look like cartoon characters. But really, it's very sad that Haiti is losing its soul. After 200 years, the island is still unable to cope with the legacy of slavery and its emancipation, etc. We are still rehashing the same kind of dialectic we have for the past two centuries and in the meantime, you know, the whole environment has been destroyed...
Carlos de Villasante: You painted the aiwa of agriculture with one eye closed, maybe because with one eye shut he didn't see all the...
The whole problematic of the [environmental] situation. To show you how irreverent I am with those kinds of things. Voodoo is a religion that is very much underground, even today, even in Haiti, where eighty to ninety percent of the population either practices or acknowledges it or knows about it. It is still very much a poor man's kind of agricultural religion and very much underground, because the political position of Haiti is that voodoo should not be, you know. The Catholic religion is the only religion of the State of Haiti, to show you how totally out of sync the government is with its people. Within Haiti, I am very subversive. They think I am totally crazy, but that is my aim - to let it be known how complex it is and how rich it is, but also that these spirits are leaving Haiti. They are not going to Cuba, they're mainly coming, like everybody else from Latin America, towards the United States, land of bounty and plenty. It is just to let people know that these things exist, that there is this whole
pantheon. People in Miami acknowledge it [voodoo]. They know about it, and it's going to be at least part of the configuration of the city, I don't say the United States, but at least the city. You should know who Erzuile [the aiwa of love] is.
When you went to Africa and painted a voodoo chapel there, you said that you wanted to build a huge voodoo cathedral in Haiti.
Could you see the work you are doing now as part of that?
Absolutely, and I think in due time this should be done, and maybe Haitians would evolve out of it, you understand. It would be an established thing. It would be recognized. There would be canons established, there would be an intelligentsia formed. Everybody would know about it, it would be out in the open and so I think it would be a plus. Doing something like that shows that there are possibilities, and that it would be quite a rich kind of thing to do, visually.
The great thing about voodoo is that it's a very personal religion. People generally bring their personal experiences to voodoo.
And that is also what is so rich about your work, that you have reinterpreted voodoo somewhat with a foreigner's eyes, since you have lived in other countries and cultures. You come back to Haiti with a broader vision.
Yeah, and I'm reinterpreting it with different eyes than people there are accustomed to. But why is that? It is because there are no canons...
Might institutionalizing voodoo make another form of it go even further underground?
I think Haiti has other problems, you know...We are not going into the purity of voodoo and this and that. I mean, to me, it is a very vital kind of thing, and it has to be talked about. You understand that's all I am trying to get at. If it becomes stale in the future because it has been institutionalized... You know, I find that the Vatican has become stale, but come in and look at what they have achieved in the past millennium.
So you're saying that voodoo also needs a political voice as an organization and as a representative of Haiti.
Absolutely, people should understand that. There was a candidate and a major figure of the opposition in Haiti; he is very well bred, and he has studied here and there [in Haiti], and he is a friend [of the United States]. And he has not a clue of what voodoo is all about.
People can be that disconnected there?
Yes. Especially if your family is totally against it, or if you have absolutely no interest. You know me, myself, it's because I was brought [to Haiti] and looked at it. Because if I was the classic member of my class group, or whatever you want to call it down there, I should be totally uninterested in voodoo. So to me, it's like going into something that would be as foreign to you. But of course, I have made a lot of studies, and it is right there! So there is no way, I would have to be totally stupid, blind.
I would like to talk a bit about the Haitian community in Miami, not just how your work relates to it, but how you relate to the work it produces. For instance, have you seen the murals at Tap Tap [the Haitian restaurant on South Beach]?
Yes, I did some of them.
Oh, you did!
Which ones did you do?
Its not finished but it is in the hallway. There are two of them.
So you know the young Haitian painters that are coming up through the ranks?
Yeah. To say that Haiti has a particular style of art, it's really a little concession to the world market, and how a particular kind of Haitian work has reached the market, you understand. I took up that whole "tradition," which is only, say, twenty years old.
Which you helped re-invent.
That's what I was interested in. I was trying to get into my culture. This style is primitive. It's peasant art, and I was very interested in it and that's where, you know... I fall from that. In Haiti there are people who were friends with Picasso and things like that. Within our little history, there are things like that. André Breton was in Port au Prince, etc. There is some connection and in the end there are various groups that evolved within Haiti. I am a very peculiar figure, because I should not be interested in [voodoo]. People have a very difficult time with me.
You do many different types of work; painting, sculpture, installation, and what are they called... staffs, you make staffs.
Well, that's sculpture.
I see a recurrent face, or visage, in a lot of your works. It appears when you paint generals, mythic figures. Can you talk a little about that?
This is a signature, I am not classical and I am not an easel painter.
I was just wondering more if they were different forms, or avatars of a certain social consciousness or state of mind...
I had a small retrospective in MARCO (the Museum of Contemporary Art in Monterey, Mexico). The gallery had work that I had not seen for a long time. Almost twenty years. But it was funny to see, from my first painting to the last one there, that the first one looked like the last one.
So there is a consistency.
People think there is not, but there is.
What is beautiful, also, is how you do the frames of your pieces.
I think that started in France. It was really my contact with Africa that created that, you know, because of the sculptural aspect, the symbolism it can add. Also, it is very baroque at the same time, and I am very interested in that, you can reinforce the stylistic elements by just framing it, and I have never found anything on the market... I started a long time ago, my first paintings were done like that.
It is important that you've paid attention to not just controlling the canvas, but as you have said, "finishing the story."
Right, and closing it.
Giving it its context.
Its context, yeah, and not let anybody play with it.
Let's talk about the smaller works you have here.
These are related to the installation I did in New Orleans. I've always liked the recreation of things. In Haiti, it is very prevalent, you know. They recuperate things that are from the United States or Europe in their own context, not understanding where they are from. They are totally reinterpreted within the Haitian context. The voodoo show that was here was quite amazing. They brought voodoo temples that are from now, and I mean, they are full of Star Wars figures, Darth Vader is now an Aiwa! It is totally reinterpreted! I decided, let me try. And these works are an evolution of that. Most of the images that I've used inside, in the center, are totally derivative of African sculptures. But you have to know where they are from. For example, there is a palace in Benin where they have a cycle of the proverbs, but they are sculptural. It's really cool, and it's literally right here, [in these pieces]. But you don't know it, if I am not there to tell you.
It's a way of enriching...
And giving it context. If people know, they will say, "Oh, I know where he got that."
Right, you ripped it off.
I ripped it off!
"Appropriated," yeah, and really took it in!
You came up [in the art world] in the eighties, how do you see the larger art "scene" now as opposed to then? Do you feel more freedom because there is less of an emphasis on the market?
I think the fact that the market collapsed, and that there is no real center, and there is no real authority anywhere, that is lucky for all of us. To be able to express ourselves in a myriad ways, like you want to, and not really have to contend with anything [exterior]. I feel I am a good example of that. No, I am not a big news star, but I do exactly what I need to do. I have managed to get the means to do this.
Not just your work, but also the way you've worked, is somewhat like voodoo. You took a tradition, made it your own, and slipped it in through the cracks.
Exactly, and I think that's fine. I don't see why I have to acquiesce to a critic in Berlin or in Paris. I mean, I find what they say has value, but I find them as regional as I find myself a regional person. I tell them that, and they get furious. I say, "I find you provincial, you're from Paris, your discourse does not hold three seconds in Miami or in LA. They would find you absolutely boring." And they go ahhhhh!! There are no more centers. It's a bit dangerous because there is a whole group in Europe that might say, "Oh, there is a kid in Kinshasa, or Port au Prince, or God knows where, who has exactly the same kind of information as anybody else in Paris. The information is there, and there is no real regional kind of situation anymore." I say no matter how much information, there is a prism of the place you live in. Then they say, "Oh, you are a determinist." I say no, it is not a question of determinism. It's a question of, the [regional prism]. If there wasn't, I mean, what's the point?
Everyone would be homogenous.
So what do you think of the art scene in Miami?
I think Miami is a classic example to show there cannot be any one way. The ones who are really doing interesting work are the ones who say, "Okay, we cannot really have a line; let's try different things and give everybody a chance and hopefully..." I think things will evolve.
There is a lot of energy here.
It's fabulous. It has to be grabbed on to. People are very interested in it, and what's more, the city is very proud of [its artists].
I work with all sorts of people here, and they all brought their little cultures with them. And that is what makes me able to work with them. You see this fellow, [a young man working away in the front of the studio] he is a carpenter, and his father was a carpenter and the way he does things is totally foreign to me. Its like he brought his whole little [world]. I have another person who does my bronzes who comes from Ecuador and his family was into that over there. And he is trying to set up a little business here, not trying to be big, you know, just trying to do their little thing. The city is full of them, understand, I don't have to go to American companies and pay a fortune, right? There are alternatives.
You were saying earlier some interesting things having to do with your relation to voodoo...
I am very interested [in it] from many, many angles. First of all, from an affective level. It is what gets people kicking in Haiti. And I've lived there and I've felt it, you know. Now on the intellectual level, I've looked through it very carefully because it's a very difficult subject and it has been much maligned, not just by foreigners, and missionaries, but also by Haitians.
One has to remember that the big voodoo priest was Duvalier himself. Thank God he was in Haiti, you know, a small place. If he had had a little bigger arena to work with, he would have created havoc. He was the devil himself. But that's how politics appropriate religion at any point in time, and this is why I work with it. You have the Spanish Inquisition, and all sorts of ways in which religions are used here and there; so you cannot claim that voodoo is anything else but that.
But it is interesting because, first of all, it has no canons yet, real established ones, and there is always an interesting interaction with the community...
It's always in flux.
Exactly, and you are encouraged to be totally free and make images that are totally wild...
Carlos de Villasante was born in Mexico City in 1971. He grew up both there and in Boston, Ma. He studied at Rhode Island School of Design and later received a Masters in Fine Arts degree in Painting from Memphis College of Art. Helives in Miami with his wife.
- Edouard Duval-Carrie
- Size: 53x45 Framed
- Medium: Acrylic
- Support: Canvas
- For Sale by Private Collector