Edens Cathyl, one of two men in the mostly women Sant Atizana, just sent us some new drawings.
They’re different from his past pictures and, to me, represent his long-time struggle between evangelical Christianity and the Vodou that surrounded him since birth.
Edens, bone thin, 6’5,’’ high, with long eyelashes, long limbs and a languid gait, has an arresting, unschooled talent. He combines bold compositions and dynamic gestures with minute, fastidious detail. He also has a poet’s propensity to brood over big, unsolvable issues like heaven and hell.
Now 26, he began working with us as an abused 13-year-old when Wellfleet designer Deidre Oringer taught several Matènwa students to make jewelry.
He also learned to print and paint but soon it was clear the source of his creativity lay in drawing. I brought him the materials I’ve been working with for the past few years: Claybord, an Exacto knife, a brush and a bottle of black India ink (in accordance with the Sant’s “low-tech” philosophy).
Claybord is a hard, thin board coated with a layer of white kaolin clay. Edens brushes India ink over its surface, and then draws with the knife tip through the black ink back to the white clay beneath to create a sensitive white line.
The titles of these new drawings are as compelling as the pictures themselves:
“DENYE BATAY SATAN AK ZANJ BONDYE YO”
(“The Last Battle Between Satan and God’s Angels”)
“MEN SE SATAN KAP VICTIM AMAGEDON. APRE 1000 ANE LI TE PASE FEMEN NAN YON TOU TANKOU YON PRIZONYE.”
(“But this time Satan is the Victim of Armageddon. For 1000 Years He is Locked Up in a Hole Like a Prisoner”)
Then, in English:
“READ THE LAST BOOK IN THE BIBLE SO YOU CAN UNDERSTAND MORE ABOUT IT.”
In this one a warrior-like angel wearing a belt strung with arrows aims his bow at a recoiling dragon that roars back at him in fear and defiance.
Edens grew up in a world of Catholicized Vodou, where local and grander gods bled effortlessly into images of Christian saints. When his sister falls ill, like many Haitians of the countryside, she goes to dwell at the local Vodou practitioner’s house in hopes of a cure.
I’ve watch Edens on the sidelines of Vodou celebrations, reticent but as spellbound as anyone, familiar with every chant, dance, and ritual.
Eventually his search for moral grounding in the face of an existential universe, mixed with fear of sorcery, led him to the Evangelical Baptist church.
The Evangelicals preach that the old Vodou religion, morphed from West Africa, is demonic and scorned by God, that its Satan-born spirits live to lure souls away from Jesus. The congregation doesn’t stop believing Vodou exists but that Jesus will protect you from its powers if you like him, and more importantly, if he likes you.
In his initial religious zeal Edens began to suffer over the act of art making.
The Bible, he told me, decreed no idolatry, no graven images. He cited, for instance, Aaron and the golden calf.
Desperate for him to keep working, I argued:
“Your drawings of boys carrying water or working in the fields, they’re not false gods!”
“God the Creator gave you the rare gift of being a creator too. Isn’t it a sin to deny a gift from God?”
“Make pictures of Jesus, then. Make Bible stories like in the Sunday school books.”
But he was too afraid of sinning to listen.
I fell into frustrated despair as my friend who used to quietly question everything spouted Biblical verse as brute fact. I did not hide from him my opinion that the Bible and the Koran, un-contemplated, broken into sound bites, are the cruelest brain-washers on this sad planet.
As time passed and Edens’ pictures got admired and sold in the U.S. he began to reconsider the practicality of his choice. Slowly he loosened his grip on his fear, overtaken in part by artistic curiosity and maybe a belief he could turn people towards God with his work.
He started playing with Vodou images again, drawing celebrations of Bossou the bull god, La Sirènne the goddess of fresh waters with four arms, inspired by my pictures of the Hindu god Ganesh, an enormous “Angel of Love” rising like Our Lady of Lourdes in the cornfields, surrounded by villagers.
To my disappointment his output is sporadic, but always rewarding in its original takes on classic themes.
There is a new one called:
ESPRI KRIMINEL (The Vodou Spirit, “Criminal”)
In it a young man very much like Saint Sebastian stands in a pair of ordinary briefs, tied to a stake and pierced with arrows and a machete. He is wearing a delicate, ornate crown on his head and his face is filled with holy wonder.
I hope this is not Edens in disguise.