Studying Haitian Art in Iowa
If you were asked to name a major Haitian cultural hub, you’d be forgiven for not shouting “Waterloo!” But when Fredo Rivera ’06, who grew up in Miami, first came to Grinnell, what he found surprised him. “Oddly enough, my foundation with Caribbean art is rooted here,” he says. Iowa, it turns out, has one of the largest concentrations of Haitian art in the world. And after returning to Grinnell as an art history professor, Rivera is making sure his own students can take full advantage.
A fortunate fluke
On a frosty winter morning in 2002, Rivera’s first-year roommate ran into their dorm room in Loose Hall, pelting him with a snowball. Far from being angry, Rivera was delighted — it was his first time seeing snow. “I ran outside to play in like half an inch of snow,” he laughs. “I don’t even know how he managed to get enough to make a snowball!”
Rivera’s decision to study at Grinnell “was a fluke,” he admits. Neither of his older siblings had left Miami for school. Originally Rivera was only looking at large universities on the East Coast, but then a little college in the Midwest described as “weird and dorky” caught his eye. That fall, he was off to Iowa.
Rivera arrived at Grinnell eager to explore his interests in art, history, sociology, and political science. He settled on an art history major with an Africana studies concentration and found himself increasingly drawn to Caribbean art. There was just one problem: none of the art history faculty at the time had any expertise in Caribbean art. They were all Europeanists, specializing in Western art.
Luckily, Rivera still found ways to engage in his chosen subject. “I was very blessed to have faculty members willing to go out of their way to do independent guided readings,” he says. Jenny Anger, professor of art history, led Rivera in independent study and introduced him to David Campbell, Henry R. Luce Professor of Nations and the Global Environment, who has a large personal Caribbean art collection.
Beyond campus, Rivera discovered that he had stumbled upon what might be one of the best locations to study Haitian art. The Waterloo Center for the Arts in Waterloo, Iowa, has the world’s largest public collection of Haitian art, and the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa, has another impressive collection — including many works by Haitian-born artist Edouard Duval-Carrié, a fellow Miami resident.
“It’s quite peculiar that we have these collections in Iowa, and wonderful as well,” says Rivera. While it was his Puerto Rican roots that had initially drawn Rivera to Caribbean art, at Grinnell he became increasingly interested in Haitian art, delving into the relationship between Haitian and African American art in his senior thesis.
His love of Caribbean art cemented and his curiosity about Haitian art piqued, Rivera returned to the East Coast after graduating from Grinnell to further his art history studies at Duke University. In 2010, while Rivera was spending a year in Miami as a research affiliate at the University of Miami School of Architecture, he paid Duval-Carrié a visit in his Miami studio. Rivera learned that Duval-Carrié, whose work so impressed him as an undergraduate, was collaborating with Duke’s Haiti Lab at the time. “I told him about my discovery of his work in Iowa, and by the end of the conversation we just very much intellectually clicked,” says Rivera. Duval-Carrié invited Rivera to begin work on a major exhibition project exploring the role of photography in Haiti, From Within and Without: The History of Haitian Photography at the NSU Art Museum–Ft. Lauderdale. Duval-Carrié and Rivera have been working together ever since.
There and back again
In 2016, Rivera found himself at a crossroads. His time as visiting assistant professor at the School of Architecture at Florida Atlantic University had come to an end, and he was weighing the pros and cons of remaining in academia. He loved teaching, and he loved his research, but he was also unsure if the academic landscape was right for a queer artist and scholar such as himself. “I was like: you know what? I don’t think academia is somewhere where I can thrive and just be myself. I think there’s so much pressure to perform in a certain way and to conform in a certain way,” he says.
He was contemplating his options, considering working on some of his art projects independently, when he got a nudge from Anger, his senior thesis adviser at Grinnell. There was a position opening in the art history department, and she encouraged him to apply. Rivera decided to go for it. While he was still unsure how he felt about academia as a whole, he knew “Grinnell would be a perfect place to figure that out.” Of course, once he got the job, he was faced with a new problem: how to fit everything he wanted to accomplish at Grinnell into his new two-year position.
Rivera was intent on not only investing in the aspects of the department that he loved the most, but also expanding its offerings for students. He could give students what he hadn’t had — access to a Caribbeanist art historian on campus — as well as offering classes on architecture and urbanism. To this end, he had two priorities. First, he wanted to teach the exhibition seminar, a class that gives students hands-on experience curating an art exhibition for the Faulconer Gallery. Second, he wanted to give students the opportunity to work with Edouard Duval-Carrié.
Connections with collections
Rivera’s desire to teach the exhibition seminar came from personal experience. He had taken the class himself as a student at Grinnell. “I think it was a profound experience that followed me to this day,” he says. “I would say that it is not only a highlight of what we do in our department, it is also unique among our peer institutions. This is the reason we go to Grinnell — to have this very hands-on, intensive experience.”
“We were blessed to hire [Rivera] whose research and curatorial interests on the Caribbean complemented my passion for writing and talking about visual culture in Latin America and the Caribbean,” says Abdiel Lopez ’18, a sociology major who participated in the exhibition seminar.
As the first exhibition seminar student in Grinnell’s history to come back as a professor and teach the class, Rivera felt compelled to take the class further than ever before. He knew that he wanted to build the student exhibition around Haitian art; but to do this, he would have to introduce a new element to the course. While the exhibition seminar historically pulls on work from Faulconer Gallery’s own collection, Rivera wanted his students to look outside the Faulconer offerings to build a full exhibition of Haitian art centered around Duval-Carrié’s pieces. So, Rivera’s seminar students were treated to yet another first for the class: course-embedded travel to museums in Miami and Iowa.
To kick off the semester, the class visited five different institutions in Miami, got a behind-the-scenes look at an exhibition installation, and met with Duval-Carrié in his studio. Then, over fall break, the students spent three days traveling throughout Iowa. They were able to go into the vaults at Waterloo Center for the Arts to select works that they wanted to borrow for their exhibition. Rivera let the students have full control over which artworks they chose. “I think the teamwork really formed at that point, and that’s when they started meeting outside of the class of their own accord.”
“The opportunity to meet museum professionals gave us essential experience in approaching a project of this scale,” says Ellen Taylor ’18, an art history major. “It was especially interesting to observe the approaches of institutions, and how their different resources, needs, and goals affected the process of exhibition.”
Over the course of the semester, Rivera also assigned the students readings on Haitian art and museology, and they debated the cultural politics of displaying the art respectfully. Some of these readings were the very same papers he had read in his exhibition seminar — bringing them back and assigning them as coursework in his own class after having to find them himself as a student was “very surreal,” he reflects.
“I am 100 percent sure that we would not have received this wealth of knowledge in a typical art history seminar,” says Lopez, “mainly because we were able to not only talk to professionals who’ve been in the business for a while, but also because we designed this exhibition from beginning to end while reading about Haiti along the way.”
Rivera found himself blown away by the passion and dedication his students applied to their work. “I think the thing that most impressed me is I came into the classroom proposing doing an exhibition on Haitian art with an idea of what the exhibition would be, but as the students engaged with the course material, they took the exhibition to a place that I never thought was possible. I see this as the students’ exhibition — I merely provided connections with collections and a broad idea.”
Rivera’s students also identified and contacted guest speakers (including a vodou priest), helped design the catalog, and assisted in installing the exhibition. Giving the students such a sense of ownership of their work seems to have paid off — several of Rivera’s students have now expressed an interest in furthering their studies as curators themselves. “This particular exhibition seminar on Haiti has completely altered my professional track,” says Lopez.
Iowa: hybridity embedded in green
Rivera’s influence on student opportunities has not been limited to the art history department. Inspired by their “Haiti: History Embedded in Amber” art project at Duke’s Haiti Lab, Rivera invited Duval-Carrié to Grinnell to teach a short course as a visiting artist last fall. The course became a collaborative endeavor that stretched across departments, producing a piece of art to be installed in the new Humanities and Social Science Complex on campus this fall.
The installation is made up of 35 green-tinted epoxy resin blocks set into a metal grid and lit from behind. Poured in a series of six liquid layers, the resin blocks encase archival images depicting historic scenes from Haiti to Grinnell, focusing on histories of freedom and abolition. Each layer also contains three-dimensional objects such as keys, plastic figures, beads, and sequins to highlight or complement the images and their meanings. The green tint of the blocks is indicative of Iowa cornfields and represents the intertwined agricultural history of Haiti and the United States. Presented together, the resin blocks represent a “collage of histories,” says Duval-Carrié. Two of the students enrolled in the short course are creating a website that will accompany the installation with narratives explaining the visuals of each block.
Duval-Carrié tried to maximize the creative freedom of contributors while also encouraging them to think deeply about historical and cultural themes. “I gave them the theme and the color and the format,” Duval-Carrié explains, “but the rest is theirs.” While just five students enrolled in the short course, anyone who took an interest — or even who, as I discovered, happened to be in the room at resin-pouring time — was enthusiastically encouraged to join in.
Most of the students and faculty members who contributed to Duval-Carrié’s art project were not art majors themselves, instead drawn to this unique opportunity to tell a visual story. Doug Hess ’91, assistant professor of political science, brought his first-year tutorial class on the Haitian Revolution to create blocks. Timothy Dobe, associate professor of religious studies, came with a student activist group to contribute; and Sarah Purcell ’92, L.F. Parker Professor of History, recruited students from her own department. A student in Rivera’s exhibition seminar, inspired by Duval-Carrié’s work, also joined in to help with many of the blocks. While participants were new to the medium, all were enthusiastic about this fresh way to explore themes usually confined to the more traditional linear structures of essays and research papers.
The final product is a hybrid exploration of Iowa, the United States, and Haiti amassed by a group of disparate people. Given a new medium and free reign, Grinnellians produced a collage of layered histories as vibrant, disparate, unique, thoughtful, and bold as the individuals who created it. While Rivera once had to go out of his way to find resources to study Caribbean art at Grinnell, now he has come back to give his own students direct, hands-on experience — balancing intellectual rigor with creative freedom.
As Rivera and I wrap up our conversation, he sips the last of his piña colada. He has a Liberal Arts in Prison class on architecture to prepare for and more readings to assign his art history students before he leaves for the weekend to perform in the Wigwood drag festival in Miami. Attending Grinnell may have been a fluke, but it gave Rivera access to the resources he needed to be his own kind of student. Now, he’s returned to be his own kind of professor — connecting students to the subject he loves without feeling that he has to lose a part of himself in the process. He, in turn, is helping students to find their own unique expression.