Thursday, January 8, 2009

Musings on Little Haiti and Papaloko

It was a steamy Miami day but the air is cool and the colors are vibrant in Jude Papaloko’s Jakmel Gallery (3501 NW 2nd Avenue). Jacmel is a town in Haiti where Papaloko’s mother comes from and it is considered the handicrafts capital of the island. The artist himself, with dreadlocks down his back, is dressed in a comfortable t-shirt, baggy printed pants and pointy boots. His quick smile and warm spirit brightens the studio and one doesn’t know where to look first, at the artist, at the paintings, the hand painted furniture or the band set-up in the far corner past the bar. While not currently located in Little Haiti, Papaloko is opening the Jakmel Art Café on Biscayne and 76th Street (scheduled for August 2008) and is fast at work designing tables and chairs for his newest venture which will serve a menu featuring Haitian and Vegetarian cuisine. When not creating art he can be found teaching drums; running his non-profit organization Papaloko For Kids; playing with his band Loray Mistik (Creole for Mystic Thunder) or painting a large piece that was commissioned for the counter at the entrance of the new Haitian Cultural Arts Center on 59th Street, adjacent to Edouard Duval-Carrie’s studio. Born in Port-au-Prince (Haiti) Papaloko arrived in Miami in 1986. As a young child he often found himself in an inexplicable trance state and around the age of 13 began painting what he saw while in this state – a surreal vision that celebrated the spirits of Traditional Haitian religion – his work continues to be informed by this today.

Papaloko (who will be 43 in October 2008) is not Jude’s given name but rather the name he assumed for religious and artistic purposes. Papaloko (the spirit) is the leading male priest in the Haitian Vodou religion and he is the one who bestows the asson (the sacred rattle used for calling the spirits which made of the calabash, filled with grains, a bell is attached and the gourd is adorned with colored beads) when others ascend to priesthood within the religious order. It is Papaloko’s responsibility to maintain relationships between the spirits and the entire community and to preserve the songs and rituals from generation to generation. Jude Papaloko continues the tradition of the spirit whose name he proudly bears through his artwork and music. His work (which starts at $4,000) is prominently featured at a Haitian restaurant located on Miami Beach called Tap-Tap.

As he guides a visitor around the studio his deep spirituality and kindness is resplendent in all that he says as well as in his work. His paintings (acrylic and fluorescent paint on canvas coated with resin) celebrate the Vodou Lwa’s or spiritual entities. The images that visitors have seen in restaurants, botanicas and studios in and around Little Haiti begin to take on life and meaning as Jude explains who they are including the Gede, the spirit of the cemetery who straddles life and “the other side;” the Simbi (spirit of the ocean which resembles a sensual mermaid); Mamazile (the mother of all female energy); Dombala and Aida Wadeau – the husband and wife snakes who are healers and protectors that also signify the circle of life and Ezili Freda (the spirit of love, abundance, refinement). The artist’s signature imagery is the branch because it “reaches out with love and respect.”

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