The first time I entered Didier Civil’s courtyard, I believed I was visiting one of those talented artisans (just one among many others) – I discovered later that he was a strong and unique artist Jacmel is a little town on Haiti’s southern coast, a detached place, where a spirit of independence is strong for its few thousand inhabitants. To get there, you have to trace a winding road past Port-au-Prince, through a number of passes, avoiding the donkeys, and you finally arrive at a kind of lush delta that embodies, in the western imagination, the first day in the Caribbean.
Didier Civil belongs to his village. For him, the years revolve around the great feast of carnival where the workers of beauty sharpen their most vibrant pieces.
He knows nothing as well as these streets , the colonial mansions, the profusion of religious manifestations in color and sound , vodou mixed with catholicism, the semi-urban existence of a locale founded on ancient traditions. At the entrance of his stall, the masks of tigers, birds, of mythological figures draw a wild decor. These pieces come out of Jacmel’s own history of papier-måché and their brilliance comes from a collective talent.
But, after the first room, after the boiling corridor, I found myself nose to nose with a three-meter Indian spread on the ground, made of rough earth drying in the sun. And then, a little further, a kind of ossuary with an open sky, filled with abandoned attempts – miraculous portraits and colossal projects. That day Didier took out a scrapbook and the laminated pages showed the scope of his work and future ambitions. He had scrapbooks of photos of past carnivals, a parade of heads of dictators, vodou spirits, Haitian presidents, where some categories were mingled.
Didier Civil works with this material of red clay and makes a mold with scrap cardboard to create his familiar forests. The genius of Civil exceeds the strict framework of craft, not only in his extraordinary ability to bring the inert into life, but to constantly reinvent, with passion, the tools and forms of Haitian folklore, transporting them into a universal esthetic. I bought all the pieces I could at that first meeting — a little giraffe, a horned monster he had not yet painted, but also heroic busts, in tricornerd hats, of revolutionary Haitians. Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines who now exist in Civil’s masks as well as in history books books or memory..
Later, for an exhibit on vodou that opened in Geneva and now travels throughout Europe, I commissioned Didier Civil to create a representation of the ceremony of Bois-Caiman, which in 1791 launched the slave revolt in the island of Santo Domingo. I dreamed of seeing Civil construct monumental pieces; he acts with earth and cardboard as an engineer for whom technical challenges are only problems to be resolved. He sculpted in cardboard, before it hardened, a legendary couple — that of the freed slave Boukman, and of the sacrificial priestess Fatima. The power of gesture, the clarity of line ( the same that he used to make life-size skeletons for the schools in Jacmel), continue to astound the visitors of our exhibition.
Haiti has not only embodied, for me, the hopeless failures frequently described. This small country is principally a place of all mixtures, of a creole identity perpetually reformulated, and of unmatched poetic feats. In my opinion, Didier Civil, who has chosen the simplest tools to create his masterpieces, embodies this tendency to take the best elements that surround us. He is not only a magnificent artisan; he is also becoming one of the most outstanding artists from an island that has so many.
Arnaud Robert – Geneva. Switzerland