CRY THE BELOVED COUNTRY, SING ITS RESILIENT SOUL:
HAITIAN born BAHAMIAN Artist Chantal Bethel responds to Haiti’s tragedy with prayer, thematic power and painterly grace.
By Patricia Glinton-Meicholas
THIS ESSAY IS FEATURED IN YINNA VOLUME III A PUBLICATION OF BACUS (THE BAHAMAS ASSOCIATION FOR CULTURAL STUDIES) IN ASSOCIATION WITH GUANIMA PRESS LTD.
CHANTAL BETHEL, WHOSE WORK SINGS OF THE CHALLENGES, BEAUTY AND NURTURING POWER OF HER GENDER, IS THE FIRST ARTIST TO BE GIVEN A SPREAD IN YINNA – PATRICIA GLINTON-MEICHOLAS. 2012Hons) MSc
Ruptured ground, cholera and flood—the devastating cascade triggered by the 2010 earthquake—engendered changes in Haiti no less radical than those effected by the enslaved in search of freedom in the 1790s. Leaving more than 300,000 dead, over a million homeless, government, business and family life severely disrupted and social services—never abundant—now obliterated, this trilogy of misery, this real-time, Guernica-esque tableau of loss and hopelessness, threw into stark relief the fissures and inequities of the Haitian economy and society. Yet, out of this dislocation, emerged compassion, fellow-feeling, collaboration and unique creation, like a delicate plant peeking tentatively through a slag heap.
Haiti's sorrows have fed many miracles. The plangent cry that went up from its sorely afflicted people may have won them brief respite from the importunate demands of world powers, who had long ago embargoed this Caribbean nation from the table of plenty in retribution for its effrontery of 1804. It may even have caused moments of unease among the homegrown plutocrats and plunderers who still hold in jealous fiefdom such as remains of Haiti's lifeblood. What is abundantly and joyfully evident, Haiti's distress drew men, women and children of all ethnicities, colours and persuasions to reach out to her people, some to the point of personal sacrifice.
Above all, the plight of Haiti appeared to strike the fundamental frequency in the hearts of the diaspora of the "Sacred Land". Propelled by an upwelling of grief, love and praise for their homeland, the gifted have, through and outpouring of art, music, drama and dance, helped the world to see beyond the label "poorest country in the Western Hemisphere" to catch a glimpse of a people who have endowed the world with genius in many spheres.
So it has been with Haitian-born, European-educated Chantal Bethel, who has made her home on the island of Grand Bahama since 1971. In this artist, who took up the paintbrush in what she describes as a "mid-life renaissance", the 2010 temblor reverberated deeply. As philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset said, "Love is that splendid triggering of human vitality the supreme activity which nature affords anyone for going out of himself toward someone else." Bethel's love for her birthplace and people actuated the creation of a mixed media collection of visceral power, representing a considerable turn from what had been her thematic output and style up to that point.
Chantal Bethel's art has always represented "a deeply personal response to existence". Up to 2010, that existence and her art had been influenced by the principles of feng shui in a quest for harmony with her fellow beings and her environment. From one showing to the next, her canvases promoted strong and caring womanhood and sisterhood. Both aspects were deeply concerned for the seemingly innate, preset chord of pain, pleasure and yearning for liberation experienced by her gender universally. She has turned most often for inspiration to her Caribbean sisters, who exhibit a unique subset of abilities and frailties and face a multitude of challenges, born out of their singular environments—historical, physical, spiritual and relational.
Drawing1Drawing 2Bethel notes: The obvious thing to me is that I really want to highlight the Caribbean woman, her life, her beauty, her religion, her role in society whether she lives in the Caribbean or not. When I moved to The Bahamas from Belgium, one of the things that became evident to me was that I felt I had found my soul again. It was food to my soul to be back in this environment. So, in my art I needed to portray that Caribbean woman, the one I almost forgot about during my years in Europe, the one that is not often mentioned in magazines or cinematography etc., So, while I explore the complexities and subtleties of human experiences, it is that woman that I celebrate, her strength and weaknesses. I love being a Caribbean Woman, the way we speak, the way we love, the way we dance, the way we pray.
Then the January earthquake came, reshaping physical geography and obliterating personal landscapes, including the school Bethel had attended as a child and the church where she had worshipped. Catching sight of the annihilation of these signposts of her early life had a profound effect on Bethel: I was devastated by the earthquake... As I watched the photos on T.V. and saw the Cathedral totally destroyed, it was like my whole childhood was being erased in front of me. I felt compelled to make art…
Bethel's compulsion resulted in the exquisite "Requiem for Haiti", which was entered into a juried art competition sponsored by the Museum of the Americas in Washington, DC and won an award. In May 2010 the painting was acquired by the Haitian Embassy in Washington, where it now hangs. It is apropos that this work should be called "Requiem". It came at the beginning of Bethel's journey of response, when all seemed to be lost for Haiti. For this beautiful canvas, Bethel calls on the Vodou loa (lwa) Erzulie in her incarnation as Mater Dolorosa. The protectress enfolds in her ethereal cloak the beloved, moribund country (represented by the ruined cathedral and grave crosses), as Haiti enters a vast night.
It was not long before the resilient Haitian soul asserted itself in the country once called "Pearl of the West Indies", and in her daughter in The Bahamas. Fragile hope arose: It is my hope that through my art I can help Haiti somehow…Since art is a form of meditation for me, it is my personal prayer that all will be well for Haiti someday as I dedicate this installation to my brothers and sisters of Haiti.
These modest words do scant justice to the profound development that resulted from this desire. Confronted by cataclysm, Bethel, in the controlled artistic space she claims, conceived of an sketches a kind of novus ordo as invoked by Virgil in his fourth Eclogue: "The great order of the ages is born afresh/And now justice returns, honored rules return/and now a new lineage is sent down from high heaven."
Prayer for your sister HaitiTo create the matrix for the much-desired healing, the artist had recourse to religion, privileging both aspects of the Haitian spiritual universe—the Catholic and the Vodou, the latter born of the African heritage of Haiti, its pantheon cleverly merged with Christian saints for safekeeping from the native-identity-erasing laws and practices of slavery in the Americas. In so doing, she launched into that which would be primordial for this people of majority African descent. Bethel sought for herself and the skeptical world the valorization of Vodou, which the West and her own childhood catechism had long dismissed or actively waged campaigns against, condemning its beliefs and practices as harmful superstition.
"Poto-Mitan", as Chantal Bethel has named her installation, is the keystone text to the gospel of survival and healing that she has inscribed in wood and canvas. Here is an oeuvre that, like a Gunter Grass drama, captures metaphor and meaning in multiple, distinct layers bound together in a tight onion-like concentricity. The marvel of the work is the artist's recreation of the Vodou temple or peristyle, of which the central pole or "poto-mitan" is the focal point of Vodou rites and essential to Bethel's message: I chose to explore the poto-mitan because it is a "healing place"—a sacred space. It is a pole where God and the spirits communicate with the people. I believe that, for healing, it is the place where the Haitian people would go, since 80% or more Haitians practice Vodou in some form or another. In other words, the healing would happen in their comfort zone.
Many may see "Poto-mitan" as a phallic symbol and wonder whether the artist has abandoned her customary celebration of her gender. To the contrary, the "poto-mitan" imagery has used of Haitian women to highlight their centrality in the Haitian family and preeminent role in the support of their country's fragile economy. Moreover, the figure of the mother/goddess/protectress, appearing again and again in the various elements of the installation, is the link that draws hope from the maws of despair, the nexus between heaven and earth.
Bethel's exploration, a kind of psychic return of the native daughter, informs that Catholicism and the practice of Vodou are inseparable in the minds of the greater percentage of the Haitian population, but makes clear her personal theology: For the record, I am a Christian. I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church. I do not practice or believe in Vodou in a spiritual way. I do acknowledge the Vodou—a religion from Africa—as being part of the culture that I come from. Note that there is the Vodou religion and the "voodoo" black magic/obeah which has been made famous by Hollywood. My interest is in Vodou, the African Religion and is purely artistic and cultural.
Bethel thus juxtaposes the iconography of the two religions in her evocation of the sacred space. Port au Prince's shattered Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption appears on two sides of the square base of the pole. On one side, a skeleton, Haiti stripped to the lowest, visible element of identity, is shown kneeling in prayer with a rosary as an adjunct. On the other side is a grand vision of Erzulie, in her incarnation as "La Sirène" the mermaid, her ropes of golden hair swirling up to form a kind of root system for the remnants of the Cathedral. It is to her the skeleton kneels and prays. Bethel says of Erzulie: She is one of my favorites in the Vodou mythology. So, all three of the personifications will appear in the installation. This is not a surprise since women are my favorite subjects in art. Sides three and four of the poto-mitan feature a collage of faces in despair within the ruins of Haiti. On the upper, tubular segment of the pole, the artist has painted candles as symbols of prayer and hope. At the bottom of the votives, one can see faces representing the departed. Ruling from his 8.3-foot height at the top of the pole is Damballah Wedo, described as the most revered of the African gods, chief of the Vodou loas who establish lines of communication between God and humankind.
The dead people, the Base of PotoHeavily represented in the work are vévés, intricate religious symbols, which serve as beacons to attract the loas to the temple during Vodou rites. Each loa has his or her special vévè or vévés, which are outlined on the ground in cornmeal, flour or other powdery substances prior to a Vodou ritual. To complete the evocation of the sacred space, Bethel has painted the symbols on the poto-mitan and on canvas squares placed on the ground around the pole, while others feature as wall hangings. The loas represented are Papa Legba, Damballah Wedo, Erzulie, Marassa 3, Agwe, Ogun and Loko,. While loas tend to manifest multiple aspects, good and bad, in their consort with humans, Poto-mitan's conceptualization invokes the most beneficial of their traits.
Bethel issues a caveat about her rendering of the vévés: A vévé is believed to be more powerful if it is drawn with the correct details. Needless to say, mine are done for artistic purpose and may not necessarily be totally accurate as Vodou. The sheer size and complexity of Bethel's achievement, the hours of reflection and work it represents, is a matter for awe. In addition to the facets already described, it also encompasses a series of large paintings and wall hangings intended to be displayed on surfaces surrounding the sacred precincts. An effective bridge between the reality of destruction and loss and the imagined/prayed for healing and renewal, these canvases include such paintings "The Prayer", "Marassa" and "The Cross". The latter, formed with the juxtaposition of several discrete canvases, is particularly striking. Bethel speaks of what it means to her personally and how it features in her grand oeuvre: The cross for me is a sign of hope—Christ died for us and gave us hope. At The centre of cross there is a Catholic rosary over a Vodou design exposing the combination of these two religions. At the bottom of that painting is the inscription "L'union fait la force" (Unity brings strength)—the national motto of Haiti. In the work, unity is also the purpose of the cross where all Haitians need to get together in order to move forward. The different squares represent those wounded emotionally; those wounded physically; the physical destruction of the land and the dead. One of the serendipities of the exhibition occurred with a meeting of the minds between this writer and Chantal Bethel. Noticing the striking thematic similarity between her poem "Prayer for Our Sister Haiti" and Bethel's "Poto-Mitan", Glinton-Meicholas sent a copy to the visual artist. Bethel loved it and asked permission to incorporate it with her own artistry. The result was two wall hangings, featuring the poem illuminated by symbols.
The preceding has been a locational analysis, intending to map the installation in dimension and its historical/socio-philosophical base. Now we turn to the thematic progression of "Poto-Mitan". In this regard, even the most cursive look can yield many of the rich threads of this grand mixed-media tapestry.
haitian old lampThe exploration continues first where it began—with the poto-mitan. Because this structure is the centre
for communication with the loas, who channel the power of the Almighty, it is here that the artist has deposited the images of destruction for their viewing. Tonal integrity has dictated the use of subdued colours—those primarily in the range of night—black and silver. In this way Bethel indicates stasis, the absence of life and movement. In contrast, there is colour in the hair of La Sirène, the loa of fertility, holding out the promise of renewed life. In the upper sections of the pole, votive candles reflect a kind of penumbra, bringing a tenuous light of hope. It is not surprising that Bethel should cap this keystone with Damballah Wedo, the loa of peace, purity and optimism, the bringer of riches, the servant of the Creator, who participated in the forging of the universe. In this spirit is encapsulated all that Haiti needs to rise from the ashes.
Bethel uses the paintings of the temple environs to great thematic advantage through composition and colour. A mention of the specifics of just three of them will serve to demonstrate. With apposite and evocative images and tonal variation, "The Survivors", "The Prayer" and "One Love" show the progression from destruction and loss, to hope and to the promise of a brighter day. In the painting entitled "The Survivors" one sees about four distinct areas of meaning allied to colours that strengthen the reflected messages. Central to the composition is a grieving mother with her child held close to her body, enfolded in the sweeping, living veil that is so characteristic of the expression of the artist. These two represent the survivors of the title. To the left and right of them is darkness and below crosses indicating death. Then there is the veil. Infused with a very pale pastel, this garment/protective entity is an augury of the return of life, energy, renewal. In the firmament above the living pair, flame vibrant oranges and yellows, the promise of a new day dawning in power. In the third painting, a dark figure is moving upward and through an immensity of bright colours and harmonious lines—a sensory feast of Bethel's concretization of hope, love and peace.
Christ have MercyBethel's own discussion of "The Prayer" is revealing of the quality of the intellect of the artist and the refinement of thought she brings to her interpretations of the world about her. Terming prayer "the answer for all of us", she notes: I chose these vibrant colors because I see hope. If you look at the woman closely, her veil seems to expand behind her, representing all the others who join her in prayer. Of course, on the globe the island of Hispanola is forefront for urgency. Again, I use these colors for hope.
"Poto-Mitan" is part of a larger body of work, the rest of which is intended to be exhibited separately initially, possibly in Belgium where Chantal Bethel spent a part of her childhood and early adulthood. This part of the corpus is appositely suffused with light and radiance. There can be no better revelation of intent than the creator's own exposition: Poto-mitan, the installation, is part of a larger body of work exploring the idea of Hope which came from the thought that, in a world where anger, hatred and violence are prevalent, the human spirit craves authentic interconnections to one another, to beauty and tenderness, to justice and peace and to sustainable hopes for humanity. And when the earthquake happened in Haiti; my focus shifted slightly to Haiti, but still exploring the idea of Hope through prayer, hence - my interest in the Vodou temple through "Poto-mitan".The other pieces which will not be exhibited with the "Poto-mitan" installation invite the viewer to a positive and peaceful experience of harmony and hope ("Dreamweaver" and "Dreamcatcher", "In the Darkest Hour There Is Hope"),
unity ("One Love"),strength ("And Still I Rise") diversity and beauty of relationships between human beings, as well as relationships between mankind and nature where the intrinsic harmony of nature evokes magical presence ("Morning Glory") and "Threshold", which is prayer in a labyrinth.
Chantal Bethel's "Poto-mitan" is important on many levels. It reveals the syncretism which defines Caribbean cultures and gives them their richness and dynamism. It highlights the undying resilience and creativity that characterize the people of the region. "Poto-mitan" also opens an intriguing chapter in the book that is the expression of its creator, the Caribbean woman and artist Chantal Bethel. Here is a lyricism that sings of a reverence for life that reaches beyond the mundanities of everyday life, partisanship, ethnicity or race and touches the universal core of humanity and its better and more enduring self.
It has long been evident that Bethel is a woman of considerable talent, thought and humanity, but "Poto-mitan" is a move into uncharted territory with intimations that an "El Dorado" lies at its heart, holding out the promise of immense wealth. There sometimes comes in life a serendipitous moment, when a chance flash of sunlight illuminates a path across the unknown and rugged landscape of the human journey. It is a briefly opened gateway to greatness described so eloquently in metaphors marine by the great Bard, William Shakespeare: There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.
"Poto-mitan" is a brilliant indication that Chantal Bethel has rowed bravely into the current and caught the tide. Lovers of art have cause for delightful reflection and anticipation—How strongly she will fight to keep the vessel of her art afloat on these fertile waters? To what new realms of expression will this pregnant tide give birth? It remains to be seen…This writer wishes Chantal fair winds and following seas.
About the writer
Patricia Glinton-Meicholas, Bahamian cultural anthropologist and founding president of the Bahamas Association for Cultural Studies, traced linguistic links in the Caribbean in The Ol' Story of the Bahamas: A Verbal Heritage Map
Mrs. Meicholas received the Silver Jubilee of Independence Medal for Literature in 2000.
Employment: College of the Bahamas – Cultural Studies
She has written many books
Education: Bachelor's Degree in teaching and Reading from the University of the West Indies
Master's Degree in Teaching and Reading from the University of Miami