Art, says filmmaker Jonathan Demme, is one of the few courses of action people who are otherwise powerless still have at their command. In Haiti, a country that has 60 percent unemployment and staggering illiteracy rates, the culture is infused with numerous untrained and intuitive artists. “Everybody goes out very early and seeks a way of doing something productive for money, and that inevitably makes people turn to something artistic,” says Demme.

“You get a piece of material, and you scrounge out some paints, and you paint a picture, and if it’s any good, someone will buy it. Maybe you’ll get something out of it. There are some places where people can go to get training, but not that many. Art is sold on the street, so . . . on any street corner, you may suddenly find this great array of paintings.”

Demme’s interest in Haitian art has informed his work as a director of feature films (most obviously in the mise-en-scenes and color schemes of Something Wild and Married to the Mob), and in 1987 he codirected the documentary Haiti: Dreams of Democracy. He’s also amassed a large collection of Haitian artworks, many of which are included in “The Art of Haiti,” an exhibit he curated for World Tattoo Gallery. The exhibit is one of two Haitian art shows now on view, the other being paintings and sculptures from the collection of Chicagoan Donald Garrabant at the Hyde Park Art Center.

The World Tattoo show features the work of 70 artists in all. Their subjects are diverse, relating to Haitian politics, culture, and history and the controversial interweaving of voodoo and ritual. Though the works are streaked with bright colors, the show is thematically dark, even mournful. Works about assassination and political sabotage appear alongside those that suggest the constant specter of police interrogation and military violence.

Demme grew up in Florida in the 60s and says he wasn’t even aware of the limited Haitian presence there. He got his indoctrination visiting the Haitian Corner, a coffee shop on New York’s Upper West Side. “I lived just a couple of blocks from the place, and it became a hangout for very politically active exiled Haitians, ” he says. “I went there and started seeing the paintings, and started listening to these guys and got more and more interested. There’s a strong solidarity with Haitians who live in America with the country of Haiti. Though it’s gone unreported in the media, there are 300 people holding vigils outside the United Nations every night protesting the Haitian military.”

Demme got a firsthand look at the frenetic art scene in Haiti in December 1986. “I went there as a budding art collector, and you can see the evidence of that as well as other trips on the wall. For better or worse this is the stuff I’ve collected over the last five years.”

Demme commissioned some of the works, but he collected many walking the streets of Port-au-Prince, rifling through attics, buildings, and galleries. “The guys who run the galleries for the owners, on the three days a week the owners are out of town, they will suddenly put out a lot of the paintings of their friends, and when the owners return, those paintings will go down again.”

He points out the six paintings by the artist Odilon Pierre. “He’s about 50 years old, and he works in a tiny, dusty, cobweb-covered, insect-infested stall in the bowels of the iron market; but because he’s a real painter, he puts a price on his paintings that are significantly higher than anyone else’s, and he’s never sold any. Then one day when I was there with [Florida artist] Jimmy Roche, we peeled away the cobwebs and discovered what we felt were exceptionally gorgeous works. We thought he was a great, truly undiscovered artist.”

“The Art of Haiti” will be on exhibit at World Tattoo (1255 S. Wabash), along with photographs by Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, through December 1. Gallery hours are 12 to 5 Monday through Saturday; admission is free. Call 939-2222 for more information.

“Haitian Art: Selections From a Chicago Collection” is at the Hyde Park Art Center (1701 E. 53rd St.) through November 30. Gallery hours are 10 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday, and admission is free. Call 324-5520.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Matthew Gilson.