TARPON SPRINGS — The gallery near the entrance to the Tarpon Springs Cultural Center is awash with the colors of the Caribbean. The traditional arts and music that decades of Haitian immigrants have brought to Florida fill the room.
This free exhibit is the first to be shown in the new Center for Gulf Coast Folklife at the cultural center, which is housed in Tarpon Springs' stately brick former city hall. It opens tonight with a 5:30 reception and will run through May 20.
"Florida is different than any other part of the country. We hope this will serve as a center that will present aspects of folklife from all over Florida," said Tina Bucuvalas, curator of arts and historical resources for Tarpon Springs.
She hopes to bring three or four exhibits a year to the new folklife center.
The Haitian exhibit, made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, is an outgrowth of the devastating earthquake suffered by the island nation in 2010, Bucuvalas said.
"We began planning for an exhibit at the time of the earthquake," she said, "and decided then to dedicate this first exhibit to Haitian arts."
People attending tonight's free opening reception can sample traditional Haitian culinary treats, including a spicy ceviche, made from raw seafood marinated in lemon juice, and a malanga fritter, made from a root vegetable commonly used in Haitian and Cuban cooking.
The exhibit begins at the front door with the human-sized figure of Anacona, a 15th century woman prominent in traditional songs and stories of the island of Hispaniola, which Haiti occupies along with the Dominican Republic. The stately figure is fashioned from jet black plastic and adorned with bright turquoise feathers and red gemstones, including a lavish feathery headdress.
A visitor ambling around the room will find panels discussing the history of Haitians in Florida, along with descriptions of the music and art on display. Among the wall hangings are an image of a smiling chef, two geese in hand, crafted from a steel drum. There's also a jungle scene painted by Haitian artist Rara Kuyu of Miami. In the painting, a black panther and an orange tiger peer through vivid red, green and blue foliage.
On one wall is mounted a different type of art — a Haitian voodoo (called "Vodou" in Haiti) flag in muted colors, made from hundreds of beads and sequins.
Most of the art comes from the former Historical Museum of Southern Florida, now called HistoryMiami. An estimated 375,000 or more documented Haitians now live in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area, according to the U.S. census figures. Most are refugees from decades of corrupt dictators and the 2010 earthquake.
"The Haitians in Miami have done tremendously well," said Bucuvalas. "They've gotten into education, politics and the whole area of health care."
The Tampa Bay area has fewer resident Haitians — about 3,000 in Hillsborough County and fewer than 1,000 in Pinellas, according to the census.
Several Haitian artists from Miami will be on hand for tonight's reception, including Carl Montes, who designed the Anacona figure at the entrance, and Jude Thegenus, a painter and musician who will play a traditional Haitian drum.
Thegenus' drum appears in a display case along with other traditional instruments, such as a po lambi, a large conch shell, and a tcha tcha, which resembles a maraca.
A display of typical domestic items, including a mortar and pestle for mashing herbs and seeds, is on view, as is a homemade kite and a traditional fanal, a type of small church originating in Africa — in Senegal and Sierra Leone. The fanal is made from cardboard with colored paper windows. A candle inside shines through the paper.
More informative panels throughout the room reveal how Africa and various Caribbean cultures influenced each other. Those nations include the more distant Trinidad, along with Cuba, the Bahamas, Hispaniola and Jamaica.
"Because of limited natural resources, there's always been a lot of migration among Caribbean nations," Bucuvalas said. "The languages of Haiti have been influenced by French, Creole and African languages."