Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Haitian Art

          A hundred years ago and more the Pioneer Works  in Brooklyn’s Red Hook district housed a massive heavy metal industrial site at which, among other things, locomotive engines and cars were built and repaired.   In many parts of the country the architectural reclamation and imaginative repurposing of such industrial white mastodons is one of the impressive cultural achievements of our own age.    I have written about this one—on Pioneer Street off Van Brunt, Red Hook’s main drag--once before, as the venue of the wedding dinner of our son Richard and his bride Katie Dixon.  Six years later its evolution toward its proposed artistic mission is much more articulate.  On Friday last there was the opening at the Pioneer Works of a striking new exhibition entitled “PòtoPrens—the Urban Artists of Port-au-Prince”.  Its principal curator, Leah Gordon, a leading expert on contemporary Haitian art, is a friend of Richard’s.
               Unfortunately we were not able to make it to the opening, which was apparently mobbed, but as the show will be running through November 11 we shall certainly have our chance for a proper visit.  What I did have is a kind of privileged and informal preview a couple of days earlier.  I was in the City for an appointment scheduled at an upper-east-side venue for the late morning on Wednesday.  I was able to stay with the Brooklynites over Tuesday night and then hang out for about an hour at the Pioneer Works to watch Rich help with the installation of his own imaginative contribution to the show. 

               I have a few times been in museums on a Monday, when they are usually closed to the public but sometimes make special arrangements for visiting firemen in the categories of donor, big-wig, or academic authority.  You can easily guess my supposed category.  But even for those at the bottom of the privilege chain, the feeling of entitlement is nearly obscene.  I had never before, however, experienced a privileged survey of a large holding area crammed with the focused materials of a substantial art exhibition in embryo--huge sculpted stone heads, recycled bright bricolage of every genre (though with a specialized subspecialty of multiform constructions made of old bicycle parts), and importunate panchromatic panels of a sort guaranteed to make the vicar blush—all of it, presumably, awaiting its carefully premeditated gallery deployment within the next forty-eight hours.  In this exhibition of a collection of the work of more than twenty contemporary Haitian artists, the Pioneer Works is breaking new grounds.  The potential exhibition space—once an enclosed quadrangular garage that could accommodate the assembly of a couple of steam locomotive engines at a time—is vast, with walls soaring upward from a shining floor of highly finished concrete burnished by diamond polishing pads.

               But Richard’s contribution is not mounted in the interior space of the Pioneer Works, but in its intriguing outdoor garden.  In this surprising setting—essentially a patch of brownfield transformed into luxurious Mediterranean greenery—carpenters have constructed a replica of a typical Haitian barbershop.  Barbershops, which have historically played an important social role in the lives of various communities—including especially, in our country, various African-American communities—are of particular importance in urban Haiti.  Concerning the model building erected upon the gravel of the Pioneer Works courtyard, the curatorial notes read as follows:


The innumerable barbershops competing for attention amidst the visual chaos of Port-au-Prince are the fundamental small business of the city. Built from recycled shipping containers, box trucks or sheets of plywood, decorated with giant portraits of celebrities and haircuts, they are often a kind of neighborhood social club. They are also sculptural objects in their own right.

The Salon de Beauté Marie Rogère at Pioneer Works extends a long-term collaboration between documentarian Richard Fleming and Grand Rue portraitist Michel Lafleur, the Amazing Barbershop Project. This Unisex shop honors Lafleur’s mother, Destin Marie Rogère, who passed away in June.

               The “Amazing Barbershop Project” here referenced is a continuing initiative which my son has pursued on a long-term basis in Port-au-Prince.  You can learn more about the project via Instagram (@amazingbarbershop).  It has several thrusts, but one of the most important is the encouragement, appreciation, and wider recognition of the Haitian barbershop painting—half vernacular portraiture, half “pop art”—that is a distinctive feature of the “visual chaos” of the capital city.  When I saw it mid-morning Wednesday a week ago the building was up and framed, but that was about all.  The speed and skill with which the carpenters finished the job is evident from the photographs taken a day later.  I am told that it is authentic in all respects, including the most important one.  When you visit the show, if you happen to hit things just right, you might also be able to get a haircut there at the hands of highly experienced Haitian barber Patrick Goby, whose permanent shop is a couple of miles away in Flatbush.

The exhibition PòtoPrens runs at the Pioneer Works, 158 Pioneer Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn, until November 11.