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 pounds 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, pounds 6. …