“Crossroads,” an exhibition of Haitian artist Marie-Hélène Cauvin’s paintings and drawings, opened at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies last weekend to a friendly crowd of Harvard students, art aficionados and members of the local Haitian community.
The middle-aged Cauvin wowed the 40-person audience with her reluctant though fascinating explanation of the feelings behind her work.
The exhibition, which had been two years in the making, almost didn’t reach Cambridge due to last week’s snowstorm. But the day before the opening, the exhibit was finally hung in the center.
A jury for the center’s Art Forum chose Cauvin’s portfolio out of 100 submissions from Latin American artists in a competition held last year.
Now in its fifth year, the Art Forum has put on 15 exhibitions, but this is the first time it has featured a Haitian artist.
And although she has shown her work from Canada to the Dominican Republic, this is also the first time Cauvin has had an exhibition in Boston.
Cauvin first left Haiti to join family in Montreal at the age of 15. She received her undergraduate degree from Concordia University in Montreal and a Master of Fine Arts degree from Temple University in Philadelphia, where she specialized in printmaking.
Though Cauvin has lived in Montreal for 30 years, she says her work has always been deeply rooted in the culture and history of the island she considers home.
She says she was once more interested in the mythology and folklore surrounding Haiti.
“You cannot talk about Haiti without talking about voodoo,” she says.
But her current exhibition shows her more recent work, which deals with the idea that Haiti is at a crossroads, a meeting place between past and present, between this life and its next.
Cauvin uses images of water to relate the slavery and colonization that characterize Haitian history to the so-called “boat people,” who sacrifice everything for the possibility of escaping the island today.
Many of these paintings were inspired by Cauvin’s 18-month visit to Haiti in 1997.
Cauvin says that six million people are trapped in Haiti, and they are all trying to get out. The only difference between the passages of a slave ship and that of an escape boat is willingness, Cauvin claims, and her paintings explore the great suffering each entails.
In her oil paintings, she uses bright colors and thick black lines to portray the people and landscapes, sometimes with swift impressionistic strokes, and sometimes with thin, carefully-controlled washes of color.