133 North Allegheny Street Bellefonte, PA 16823
By Serge Bielanko
Between you and me, it's no huge secret that a suffering people often create the most magnificent art.
The examples are so vast they're almost cliche at this point. Look at the Dark Ages. Look at the Gothic era. Look at the endless string of wars and famine and long cold winters that have been a part of so many people's tale across the centuries. Blood, heartbreak, poverty, death, and slavery aren't usually the kind of things we ever wish to experience full-stop in a lifetime on Earth, of course. But even a swift glance at the level art that often emerges from a suffering nation (or a single suffering soul) usually backs this one basic theory.
Hard times = good art.
Especially if you are talking about the artists of Haiti, who are, in all of their ragged glory, the subject of a new exhibit at the Bellefonte Museum of Art for Centre County (BAM). Haitian Art: Caribbean Inspiration, which runs now through November 24th, is a piercing look at the various mediums and works of artists who all hail from a nation where political and natural chaos have often wreaked havoc upon the lives of the people who live there.
Okay, Nutshell History Lesson: Haiti, located southeast of Cuba (if you don't know where that is...c'mon, Google it!), was long populated by indigenous people who wandered there from South America. Then in 1492 (sound familiar?), You-Know-Who sailed the Ocean Blue and washed up on the crystal shores of this place, thus bursting open the doors for non-stop European invasion and dominance for the next 500 years. Spanish, French, you now the Colonialist way by now; Haiti was ruled and influenced by faraway cultures for centuries to come. And many of her people were enslaved and forced to work on the profitable sugarcane plantations the Europeans were setting up. Not enough natives for the French or Spaniards to force into slavery? No worries, they simply stole human beings from Africa and shipped them across the ocean to work their Haitian crops.
Needless to say, this amalgam of cultures all colliding at once dripped all kinds of influence down into the lives of the people who had long lived there, whether they were slaves or free folk. French, Spanish, and African ways and means were absorbed into Haitian society. And the art that emerged- including the stuff the world is just now discovering- was steeped in all of it.
Which makes for breathtaking works AND a story worth knowing, according to BAM Executive Director, Patrica House.
"Do you think tumultuous periods in a nation's history foster creativity?," I asked her.
"I think it’s possible," says House. "Because tumult or chaos may make folks look for my answers, turn into themselves and think more about how they feel about things."
Which then causes us, the viewer, to ponder upon their pondering, I'd suggest. And do you see how lovely that is, how it all works? By merely laying eyes upon- and pondering- Haitian art, we are swirling our own individual experience into the Haitian one. And that creates empathy, and probably other things too that are so magic that there's no name for them yet.
The exhibit mainly focuses on some of Haiti's most notable mediums including Handmade Metal Sculpture, or 'Steel Drum Art', which is "metal sculpture created from discarded used oil drums... dates back to the 1950’s, and is now recognized throughout the world," according to the exhibit's official press release. "The design for the sculptures are hand drawn in chalk on the discarded metal and then hand chiseled and hammered to create meticulously detailed works of art. Haitian metal sculpture is made in the small village of Croix-de-Bouquets...known as the “place for metal art” and it’s existence has enabled and encouraged artists to use this new medium. Many studios, in various sizes and conditions put artistically talented people to work as well as provide some employment in related services that rise from the commerce. No one knows who first realized a second life for the oil drums discarded by international oil companies but the results are amazing works of art and a cleaner landscape for Haiti."
Alongside all of that, there are also works by the likes of some of the islands most famous painters as well as examples of the nation's flag riveting art scene, which finds artists appropriating flag art techniques and tricks from all over the world into their own unique styles and creations.
These collected works are all on loan to the museum from a variety of private collectors- including House herself- who just know that Centre County people will get it, that they'll walk out of this exhibit with a deeper, more personalized understanding and connection to a Haitian people who have been using struggle to make beauty for a long time now.
"I have already been impressed with visitors who said they knew nothing about Haitian art but really enjoyed the show," House reflects
Be one of those people.
Take your kids.
The world will be a tiny bit better place for it.
Haitian Art: Caribbean Inspiration
October 28 - November 24
Bellefonte Art Museum for Centre County
133 North Allegheny Street
Museum hours Friday, Saturday, & Sunday 12;00 - 4:30 p.m.
While at your visit to BAM, head up to the 3rd floor to witness Underground Railroad: A Journey to Freedom exhibit. That permanent feature highlights the escaped slaves who sought safe passage to freedom in the north via a secret network of people who wanted to help abolish slavery altogether.
*This exhibition is supported in part by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency fund-ed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.
The Bellefonte Art Museum is supported by the Central Pennsylvania Convention & Visitors Bureau. Learn more about the CPCVB by visiting www.visitpennstate.org.
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