“Artists are so bizarre and come from such strange places”: Glenn Ligon interview below

Leah Gordon, Atis Rezistans: The Sculptors of Grand Rue (2012)

Just as Joseph Beuys once declared his reciprocal love for America, in this film you will see a Haitian artist state: “I like vodou and vodou likes me.” He goes so far as to add, “Everyone likes vodou.”

But whatever ghetto sculptor Guyodo might think or say, not everyone does like vodou. Not unless you count the prevalent mania for zombie fancy dress as a deep engagement with this religion.

Guyodo was talking about his neighbourhood, however, where spirits are as popular as art and art is a way of keeping the spirits close. Missing a loved one already? Just put their skull on an effigy.

On press day for a show of Haitian art at Nottingham Contemporary, filmmaker and photographer Leah Gordon was introduced as one of the West’s most frequent visitors to Haiti.

Indeed, she has a freaky level of access. One sequence of her film takes us down a warren of sunless alleys into the heart of a notorious Port-au-Prince ghetto, in search of mysteries and faith.

But the residents of these corrugated steel shacks will surprise you. Artist Andre Eugene tells Gordon there are as many great intellectuals here as there are thieves.

Eugene also has plans to open a museum. Not a gallery, but a full blown museum because up until now it has only been the bourgeoisie who embarked upon such ventures.

The film is not without its spookier moments. In a memorable scene we see a man channel the spirit Gede. He wears shades with the apt number of lenses and props a phallus on his walking stick.

And in some more great footage, towards the end, we witness a jazz funeral. What a way to go! In voiceover the irrepressible Guyodo talks up the immortality of artists, regardless of earthly fame.

If this film has whet your appetite for the art of Grand Rue, try and make it to what must be one of the largest exhibitions of Haitian art ever. Or wait for the catalogue and be there in spirit.

Kafou: Haiti, Art and Vodou is at Nottingham Contemporary until 6 January. See gallery website for more details.


Review: Clare Rojas – We They, We They

Clare Rojas, Noise Pop (2009). Courtesy the artist, Gallery Paule Anglim, San Franciso and Kavi Gupta, Chicago

Exhibition: Clare Rojas – We They, We They, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, until March 21 2010

Stepping into the first UK museum show by Clare Rojas is like stumbling upon the private chapel of a slightly mad Pagan with plenty of time, paint and a tall step ladder.

Four walls in the first gallery are covered in a patchwork of colour, motif and dark imagery. The eye bounces around trying to make sense of it all.

There are men and women sitting, moody and alone. There is a couple waving flowers and dancing. A woman laughs. It could perhaps be the story of a relationship.

Except there are three women whose mouths and eyes vomit blood and bile. There are jewel-headed men who climb a carpet to an old woman’s mouth. One scene features a bigfoot type creature.

The painted panels in the two other galleries contain many more scenes of notable strangeness. Some recall Hieronymous Bosch as perhaps seen on a needlework sampler.

Visitors will wonder where it all comes from. Clare Rojas must surely hail from some remote Native American reservation or Eastern European rural backwater, or so you would think.

But the work appears to be born out of over exposure to contemporary culture, not the reverse. Rojas and co-creator Andrew Jeffrey Wright use Tipp-ex to attack the pages of a fashion glossy in two Pythonesque animations on view in the resource room.

Ikon has also laid on a listening post where Peggy Honeywell, her folk-singing alter ego, plays one of her three CDs of knowing Americana. A video shows her gigging at a frat party, suggesting music really does have charms to soothe the savage beast.

The music and the artwork come together in the Tower Room where Rojas’ bright, folksy imagery decorates the heads of seven antique banjos.

It is not an instrument you would associate with contemporary art. Nor might you expect to find a show supported by a kid’s book about a pigeon called Pidgy.

But Rojas, together with Honeywell, has created a fully-realised, alternative world, and you cannot ask an artist for much more than that.

Written for Culture24.