Emotions, Expression Pervade Cauvin’s Art

At the intersection of Irving and Kirkland streets, Haiti meets Harvard.

“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.

Many figures’ bodies are covered in scars, which illustrate the oppression of Haitians’ past suffering.

For instance, “Passé Recomposé,” a pun on the French verb tense meaning “recomposed past,” pictures a figure with scars across his chest, standing at a diagonal in water, and a similar figure of solid black looming behind him.

In “Prête pour le Voyage,” or “Ready for the Trip,” a woman is stretched out horizontally in a coffin-like shape. Cauvin said in her gallery talk that slaves were also kept in coffin-sized spaces. She said the bright yellow hue covering the woman’s face was a bad omen, the color of drama, stress and death.

Cauvin also shows suffering more viscerally in other paintings by depicting the organs of her figures as if one could see into their bodies.

In “Prête pour le Voyage,” sickly, brown, coiled intestines and a heart protrude from a woman’s electric blue dress, mixing anatomical correctness and figurative meaning.

Cauvin conveys her views on social issues through symbolic representations.

In one painting, the wooden structures used to confine slaves suspend a naked woman under water. On the surface, another woman swims desperately away from a ship pursuing her.

Cauvin says Haitians have a strange relationship with water, and her paintings allude to water’s symbolism—both life and death, an element of voodoo ceremonies and funerals.

Although Cauvin claims that many Haitians cannot swim, their island is surrounded by water, reminiscient of their origins near the Congo. Water allows them to pass from continent to continent and from life to death.

“Droit de Passage,” or “Rite of Passage,” depicts society’s treatment of women, depicting a dark rape scene set in the water of a mangrove forest. According to Cauvin, women often “pay with their bodies.”

Although Cauvin is concerned with important historical and cultural issues, her attitude toward Haiti is nuanced and at times even tinged with humor.

When asked why the woman in the coffin and many of the people in her paintings have long, red fingernails, Cauvin giggles, “That’s what I see when I go back to Haiti.”

—“Crossroads” is on display until August 30 at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.

—Staff writer Isabelle B. Bolton can be reached at ibolton@fas.harvard.edu