Rethinking Depictions of Haiti: A Spirited Exhibit at PCMA

Room in a museum
Lizzie Krawczak • The Student Life

“Restoring the Spirit: Celebrating Haitian Art,” opened at The Pomona College Museum of Art (PCMA) on Jan. 19, and is already drawing attention. Curated by Rima Girnius of the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa, the collection of paintings, textiles, and three-dimensional installations express Haiti’s history and culture. The work was produced by self-taught Haitian artists who seek to tackle many aspects of the country’s history and traditions.

Vodou, an ancient Haitian religion rooted in the concept of spirit, is represented throughout the work. A fascination with the practices of vodou drew audiences to the exhibit. 

“I thought it was beautiful. It was really different … I went to the [Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles] last weekend, and there was kind of a blanknes,” Eliza Harris PO ’18. “To walk into a room with that much color wouldn’t happen. Here, it felt like no pretension, and a lot more accessible. I liked the depictions of the religious events and I’m really into saints and religious studies … it’s the dopest show they had so far!” 

Significant leaders in Haiti’s history, such as Jean-Jacques Dessalines, were depicted in the exhibition. Denis Smith, one of the artists, used oils to create a colorful, almost playful painting of the revolutionary figure who led the 1791 Haitian Revolution. 

Haiti has been depicted in the media as a devestated landscape, victimized by natural disasters and war. The PCMA exhibit, however, brought to light many aspects of the country that are worth celebrating. Students noted this disconnect as observers. 

“It’s difficult to be an American and see this after being taught your entire life to have things blocked out. It’s weird to then have the privilege of seeing this beautiful art after not learning about the United States’ devastating impact on Haiti,” Phoebe Kaufman PO ’18 said.

The exhibit also portrayed scenes from Haiti’s numerous occupations, struggles for independence, and the ravage of dictators and environmental disasters—overall producing an intense effect. The devastation contrasted with bright colors and beauty, observers came away with a nuanced understanding of the nation. “Restoring the Spirit” was truly a celebration—an honest portrayal of a misunderstood country. 

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