ARTS: EXHIBITIONS; Where everyday is Samedi

Haitian art tells a fascinating tale of politics, poverty, oppression, voodoo and death, as a new show at the October Gallery reveals
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The Independent Culture
THE PEOPLE at the October Gallery have a good eye for the art of Third World countries and usually put on interesting ethnic exhibitions. Not everything in "Haiti: Photos, Paintings, Ironworks" is of high quality but the show as a whole is gripping. Its intention is to be very contemporary. All the work on display has been made since the dictator Baby Doc Duvalier fled in 1986, but the atmosphere is not optimistic. Time and again we are reminded of the murderous Tontons-Macoute, the failure of popular democracy, the military coup of 1991 and the shaky hold of President Jean- Bertrand Aristide over the fortunes of his country, by far the poorest in the western hemisphere.

Behind the grim political story we sense both the political power of the USA and the dark mysteries of voodoo. The extensive photographic section makes telling points about voodoo as a dirt-poor folk religion, while the "Iron-works" part of the show features some of the ways in which voodoo is ex-pressed in art - particularly in the recycling of steel oil drums, still knocking about Haitian waste sites though in-creasingly rare since the oil embargoes.

There's now a school of oil-drum sculpture, and this is how it came about. In the early 1950s an American teacher in Port-au-Prince, de Witt Peters, found a blacksmith in the village of Croix-des-Bouquets called Georges Liautaud. He was making rather odd crosses for cem-eteries. Peters encouraged him to try something more adventurous. So Liau-taud went on to other metalwork, now incorporating voodoo rather than Christ-ian imagery. As far as I can tell, such sculpture was usually flat, without volume. Certainly it was flat by the time that Liautaud had followers, for they all worked with the thin steel of oil drums.

These voodoo sculptures from the Croix-des-Bouquets area come in round shapes, mostly, and their internal detail is cut out by apprentices who follow the line drawn by a master designer. The examples at the October Gallery are fascinating, highly skilful, and don't feel absolutely authentic. Their exceptionally low prices (some under £200) makes one think that there's a production line in the background. Here of course is the familiar story of an indigenous art smoothed out for the tourist trade. Not that there are many tourists in Haiti, of course. Perhaps the sculptures are sold among the 1.5 million exiled Haitians in the diaspora of Miami, New York, Paris and the Dominican Republic: these groups are often more politically and culturally active than the people left at home in the desert-like small farms and shanty towns.

Anyway, if some money gets back to the sculptors of the Balan family, or to Gabriel Biken-Aim - whose main work is as a car mechanic - that's fine. In Haiti one looks for life before art. Conditions seem to be so frightful that any kind of independent thought, including art, can be fatal. One of the artists in this exhibition, Stivenson Magloire, was found beaten to death in the street last month. Last June, the police took him to the local barracks and beat him for two hours with rubber batons made from old car tyres. He died because he was well-known and had progressive views that he expressed in art. His two paintings at the October Gallery are about brotherhood and justice. The medium is acrylic on canvas. Otherwise they must be totally Haitian.

I guess that their messages are in the form of voodoo legend. I can pick out some of the motifs with the help of Voodoo: Truth and Fantasy (Thames & Hudson, £6.95), a useful, well-illustrated book by Laennec Hurbon. He describes how the religion was carried across the Atlantic from Africa to the New World and gave a culture of sorts to the slaves in the West Indies. Voodoo crosses the boundary between life and death, with a mythology that includes sorcery, animal sacrifice and the cult of zombies, the living dead. There are strange rites that involve mud baths with women and cockerels, brilliantly recorded in some of the photographs. Over all rules Baron Samedi, head of the spirits of the dead, always seen in black and a top hat, dancing as though having sex and with blood streaming from his penis.

Can it be that this religion belongs to the people, while the official religion, Catholicism, is that of an alien hierarchy, just as French is the official language but Creole is spoken everywhere? Perhaps the exhibition encourages us to think so, while Hurbon is much more cautious - as a Port- au-Prince intellectual might well be. As he points out, Papa Doc Duvalier used voodoo for his own repressive purposes. He and his Tontons-Macoutes mobilised voodoo practices against the power of the Cath-olic church, which traditionally condemned voodoo as devil-worship. And it seems that the new paramilitary ultra-right in Haiti, FRAPH (Front pour l'Avancement et le Progrs Haitien) also uses voodoo for its own ends.

A number of brave photographs point to the reign of terror wherever FRAPH holds sway. One looks forward with foreboding to the next Haitian elections: with voting comes a savage campaign of killing. Most of the prints in the show are high-quality photo journalism by, among others, Alex Webb, Maggie Stober and Leah Gordon. Corpses, burned out buses, ragged children, men with makeshift uniforms and guns are the main urban themes, while pictures of country voodoo practices are comparatively relaxed. The horrible message of the camerawork seems to be despair at the democratic process.

If we look to Haiti for a generous, relaxed and cultured art - and all nations have a right to such art - then we look in vain. Stivenson Magloire was obviously a talented artist, but other Haitian painters do not come up to his mark. Prosper Pierrelouis makes some intricate emblematic paintings and Frantz Lamothe is obviously trying to develop some eloquence in his use of pastel on paper. The most elaborate sculpture, thin and silhouetted, is by Serge Jolimeau, who can afford sheet metal. There are some voodoo dolls by Pierro Barra, but these, alas, are not very good as art. There appears to be no native photography.

I suppose that the most assured Haitian art will be found in the nation's diaspora. The one artist who looks at home within an international context is Edouard Duval-Carri. He was born in Port-au-Prince in 1954, but his family left, for Puerto Rico, during the Duval-ier years. He now lives in Miami and returns to Haiti occasionally. Duval-Carri's style is popular but skilful, highly coloured, using a bit of caricature. His picture Le Nouveau Familier is the best thing in the exhibition. It's a pic-ture of a dictator and its point is that all dictators are the same. And what's more, he hints, they are all like Baron Samedi.

! October Gallery, 24 Old Gloucester St, WC1 (0171 242 7367), to 17 June.