The lost promise that Duval hints at in conversation is palpable in "Endless Passage," a survey of his work at the Phoenix Art Museum. Duval works the lush Caribbean palette on a grand scale to tell Haiti's wrenching history, and the results are both seductive and instructive: See the decorative circles on those lovely yellow and blue floor tiles, made especially for this show? Look closer, and you'll see that each one contains a different historic image of the slave trade. And what appears to be a series of red ovals in the background of an elaborate canvas marked Sucre Noir, or Black Sugar, turns out, up close, to be a pattern of blank, almost skull-like faces. These rich paintings (along with two superb small bronzes and a large glowing orange sculpture of a head) will draw you in and then school you, hard.
Like Hector Hyppolite, the self-taught artist who influenced him, Duval incorporates the island's voodoo liturgy in his work; unlike Hyppolite, Duval comes from an educated background and studied art at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. (Duval spent more time at the Louvre than he did in school, where his figurative, almost baroque style wasn't encouraged. But he did learn the casting methods with which he makes his extraordinary frames.)
Voodoo -- like Haiti, like Duval's work itself -- is a multicultural stew that defies simple explanation, and it's precisely Duval's use of figures from the voodoo pantheon as allegorical symbols in his work that makes it so resonant. "To me," Duval says, "voodoo is like the essence of the Haitian culture. But it's been totally maligned over the years, not only abroad but inside Haiti as well. That I was emulating it was not very much liked at all, even by other artists." He laughs. "Now that I'm a little bit more established, they're reconsidering."
Although Duval has exhibited in Latin America, Mexico and Europe, the show at the Phoenix Art Museum is his first mid-career survey in this country. Props go to curator Brady Roberts for putting the show together and getting it on the road; before coming to Phoenix, Roberts worked at the Davenport Museum in Iowa, which, improbable as it may seem, houses the largest collection of Haitian art in the country.
Duval, who has lived in Montreal as well as Paris, San Juan, and Port-au-Prince, once hoped that the situation in Haiti would improve enough that he could return. Now, at the age of 48, he calls Miami home. "I'm an American citizen right now, but I'm always interested in the other," he says. "It's very important that we do that here in this country: look elsewhere."