Haffner on Braziel, 'Riding with Death: Vodou Art and Urban Ecology in the Streets of Port-au-Prince'

Jana Evans Braziel
Peter Haffner

Jana Evans Braziel. Riding with Death: Vodou Art and Urban Ecology in the Streets of Port-au-Prince. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2017. 276 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4968-1274-2.

Reviewed by Peter Haffner (Centre College) Published on H-Haiti (September, 2019) Commissioned by Grégory Pierrot (University of Connecticut at Stamford)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54324

In Riding with Death: Vodou Art and Urban Ecology in the Streets of Port-au-Prince, Jana Evans Braziel gives an ambitious analysis of twenty-first-century Haiti as understood through the production of aesthetic forms by one of the country’s most striking and controversial contemporary arts movements. Braziel analyzes the work of Haitian art collective Atis Rezistans (Artists of the Resistance), or “Grand Rue artists,” after the crowded, bustling downtown Port-au-Prince neighborhood where this loosely bound group is based. Throughout the book's interdisciplinary framework in which social, art historical, and “urban geographic” themes intersect, Braziel demonstrates how the sculptural work of these artists is both a reaction to and product of globalized currents that keep Haiti and the majority of Haitians economically marginalized and politically disenfranchised. 

As sculptors, the Grand Rue artists incorporate whatever post-consumer waste and materials (sometimes including human skeletal remains) come their way into elaborate multimedia works that, according to the author, are “wrought from an admixture of urban environmentalism, Vodou aesthetics, and ecological arts” (p. 30). In the introduction, Braziel writes, “The Grand Rue’s urban environmental aesthetics ... radically and profoundly challenges ideas about consumption, waste, arts, and environmental problems as well as considers creative solutions to these problems in the contexts of myriad overlapping issues including poverty; insufficient social welfare; lack of access to arts, education, and basic needs; and the degrading situations faced by those living in slum neighborhoods in the overcrowded cities of underdeveloped countries” (p. 5). The Grand Rue artists’ work serves as a platform from which Braziel interrogates the sprawling issues and problems so often attributed to Haiti in reports circulated in the international press.

As the book's title suggests, it is Braziel's argument that the stakes are high in such expressions—matters of life and death—and the implications wrought by the circumstances of their production are deep. Riding with Death further evokes the precariousness of everyday survival in Port-au-Prince, or “life lived on the boundaries of death, and death kept barely, perhaps undetectably, at the edge of life” (p. 13). The act of “riding” also refers to the phenomenon of spirit possession that occurs during Vodou ceremonies in which a lwa, or Vodou spirit, “mounts” its human subject as a rider would mount a horse. Themes related to Vodou, whether deployed on purpose by the artists themselves—or, as Braziel points out, ascribed to their work by those looking to capitalize on Vodou’s appeal among international audiences who are drawn to Vodou’s more sensationalized qualities—run throughout the work by the artists in Atis Rezistans. One wishes that Braziel had probed the nuances of such ambivalences a bit more and touched on how Vodou has been a part of (or not) the work and lives of the artists and their families. Instead, the reader only gets a quick mention of each artist’s relationship to Vodou, if at all. This feels like a missed opportunity, especially as the artists’ deployment of “Vodou aesthetics” forms a crux of Braziel’s thesis.

While Braziel’s interdisciplinary approach is commendable for its scope, some disciplines she employs more effectively and thoroughly than others. She spends the first two chapters meticulously outlining an interpretive framework for Haiti’s situation and how it fits into the major positions of theorists like Jacques Rancière, Henri Lefebvre, Jurgen Habermas, and Arjun Appadurai. Braziel devotes a substantial number of pages to a discussion of such authors’ postmodernist and poststructural theories and how the work of the Grand Rue artists might be understood through them. Unfortunately, such dense discussions often get so mired in theoretical minutia that the salient themes related to Haiti’s current struggles and the art itself get lost.

During her exploration of critical theory, Braziel arrives at her own constructed terms like “postprimitivist altermodern” that she uses to describe the work of Grand Rue artists. Braziel offers that term as an alternative to “primitive postmodern,” which she identifies as “too loosely, too easily, or too facilely—and thus too often also mindlessly—applied to contemporary Haitian visual arts” (p. 74). But who uses such a term as “primitive postmodern” and in what contexts, specifically? Braziel never really offers an answer, so it feels a strawman device. While strains of primitivism have certainly permeated the production, reception, and interpretation of Haitian art since the mid-twentieth century, one wishes Braziel would depart from the exercise of defining and describing so many of her own “-isms” and offer more concrete examples of how ideas based in primitivist thought have been constructed and deployed vis-a-vis the work of Haitian artists. Furthermore, Braziel’s application of poststructural and postmodern critical theory within the context of Haiti assumes that those ideas are culturally transferrable; in any case, she does not question their applicability. Assigning ideas found in the writings of theorists like Husserl and Spinoza, for example, to the work of artists like André Eugène, Jean-Herard Celeur, and Frantz “Guyodo” Jacques feels, at times, like a stretch. The transference of such ideas also seems incongruous in light of the specificities of Haiti’s contemporary history and political situations, a discussion of which might have better grounded such arguments.

Braziel’s art historical analyses also feel overly general. For example, when she discusses “contemporary” Haitian art, she seems to refer to all work by all Haitian artists made roughly since the Centre d’Art opened in Port-au-Prince in 1944—a diverse corpus that has been argued over and debated by many artists, scholars, curators, and collectors active since “Haitian Art” became a category used in the international art market itself. She employs phrases like “high aesthetics of gallery art that has defined Port-au-Prince for a half century” (p. 46) to talk about over seventy years of contested art history in Haiti in which valuations between “high” and “low” art are fluid and often unclear. What does “high aesthetics” really mean in a context where Haitian art dealers have often privileged work often labeled “primitive” or “naive”?

Riding with Death is strongest when Braziel moves away from the more granular facets of critical theory and focuses on the work of individual artists in later chapters. In chapter 3, she discusses the work of Ronald “Cheby” Bazile, a sculptor whose ambivalent relationship to Vodou highlights a dilemma shared by several members of Atis Rezistans. As Braziel notes, “Cheby regards Vodou as merely one element among many that constitute the cultural patrimony and folkloric fabric of Haiti. Cheby does not sèvi lwa, or serve the spirits, and he remains deeply cynical about the art-historical marketing of the Grand Rue sculptors as Vodou-artistes” (p. 87). In Braziel’s assertion, Cheby’s work certainly makes references to Vodou, but it resonates more profoundly within issues of urbanism and the globalized movements of commodities that eventually find their way to the Grand Rue neighborhood and become the artistic material of the artists living there.

In chapter 4, Braziel extends her reflection on the ambivalence of certain Haitian cultural symbols within the work of the Grand Rue artists, using the term “Vodou bricolage” to describe “both the artistic processes, or the stylistic technique of multilayering raw materials and religious symbols, and the aesthetics of ritual fabrication” (p. 109). She demonstrates this tendency in the works of André Eugène and Frantz “Guyodo” Jacques, two of the founding members of Atis Rezistans (although Guyodo has since distanced himself from the group). Braziel cites examples of work made by both artists in which they depict the lwa using accumulative techniques to assemble disparate materials available at hand, such as discarded automotive parts of metal and rubber. Braziel hits important points in these discussions about the artists’ work and how they embody and make comment on the circulations of commodities, but a deeper examination of the artists’ own relationships to Vodou, and their own perspectives on its role in their art, is lacking. Her tendency to describe some artists’ habits of including Vodou imagery as “faux-dou” also begs for elaboration as Vodou’s role in a deeper history of Haitian visual culture, as well as in the family histories of many of the artists about whom she writes, remains ensconced in complexities that go beyond the author’s broadly attributed instances of religious (in)authenticity.

In chapters 6 and 7, perhaps the most methodologically solid sections of Riding with Death, Braziel engages with the circumstances and events of the Ghetto Biennale in Port-au-Prince that she observed in 2009 and 2011. Since 2009, the Ghetto Biennale has been held in the Grand Rue neighborhood of Haiti’s capital and has featured projects by local and international artists. Braziel explores how the organizers of the events sought to hold an “antibiennial” or contre-biennale to both subvert and criticize the widespread phenomenon of international biennials that cater to powerful and monied individuals and interests while mostly excluding those with limited means. Braziel addresses the complexities and potentially problematic aspects of the events by asking, “What is a biennale? And what is a contre-biennale? And for whom do these terms possess real material and geographic, not to mention artistic and capitalistic meaning?” (p. 168). (Curiously, regarding the Ghetto Biennale she incorrectly states that “it did not exhibit art objects for sale” [p. 143] when in fact, many local artists were actively engaged in selling their work to the event’s attendees).

Braziel considers important questions related to the politics of art and representation in the 2009 and 2011 Ghetto Biennales, but I wish she had been able to include observations gathered from subsequent iterations (the sixth one is planned for December 2019), especially since she articulates her positions most effectively in the chapters related to those later events. Nevertheless, she delves into important potential risks of holding such events and addresses the possibility that such biennials might “fetishize the subject position and the cultural, historical, and material circumstances of the relatively powerless” (p. 169). In chapter 7, Braziel discusses the example of the TeleGhetto project enacted by Timoun Rezistans (Young People of the Resistance), the younger members of the Atis Rezistans. During the 2009 Ghetto Biennale, the young artists engaged in a parodic performance of a typical international news crew, using oil cans as “cameras” and handmade “microphones” to interview artists and participants. Later, with the help of some of the visiting artists, the group acquired an actual video camera and uploaded a series of videos to the internet that examined power imbalances of life in Port-au-Prince and the role of media in their perpetuation. Here, Braziel underscores how the group members reclaimed agency by framing their work within performance studies perspectives. As Braziel describes the project, “marginalized downtown youth assume the key roles as interviewers, videographers, and journalists and become the ones asking questions” (p. 186). Such actions by Timoun Rezistans invert the roles of subject and agent most typical in depictions of Haiti and Haitians by the film crews of international media outlets.

At its best, Riding with Death provides an examination of the work of the Grand Rue artists by using a range of interdisciplinary perspectives that situate their work within the writings of major contemporary critical theorists. The most frustrating parts of the text, however, are when Braziel becomes entrenched in applying these theories to the Grand Rue artists and the urban context of present-day Port-au-Prince. These sections are so replete with jargon that readers may lose sight of the subject in question. The book succeeds most when Braziel returns to the art and artists themselves and provides the reader with novel insights into the significance and depth contained in those aesthetic expressions.

Citation: Peter Haffner. Review of Braziel, Jana Evans, Riding with Death: Vodou Art and Urban Ecology in the Streets of Port-au-Prince. H-Haiti, H-Net Reviews. September, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54324

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