Call it a seduction by color, an infatuation with form. How else to explain my decades-long love affair with Haitian art?
It began in 1983 when I went to a restaurant in Washington, D.C., that was decorated with paintings of people working in fields, sailing on serene seas, riding imaginatively painted buses. All the colorful artwork, the owner told me, was from Haiti.
Back home in South Florida, I found a gallery in Coconut Grove that sold Haitian art. I became transfixed by paintings of green-skinned men by La Fortune Felix.
After a period of several months I bought one, “Ceremony,” an irresistibly mysterious two-foot by two-foot depiction of a ritual Vodou drama. It cost $300. I couldn’t get to the bottom of the painting’s exotic narrative or walk away from its soothing palette reminiscent of Gauguin.
Years later I was offered $10,000 for this painting by another collector. For more than sentimental reasons, I still own it.
In 1984 I traveled to New Jersey to visit Selden Rodman, the world’s leading authority on Haitian art, at his home that doubled as a gallery. I returned to South Florida with paintings by La Fortune Felix and Gerard Fortune.
Finally I went to Haiti, a few months before the coup that toppled Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier and ended a generational dictatorship of almost three decades. In Port-au-Prince, every cab driver knew where all the major artists lived and gladly took me to see them.
Imagine a foreigner coming to New York and, on request, being taken by cabbies to the studios of major American artists. It would never happen. But in Haiti, the weird, wonderful and unexpected are commonplace.
A chance meeting at my Port-au-Prince hotel with an American by the name of Virgil Young led to a visit to the home of an art broker who pulled a suitcase out from under his bed and opened it to reveal gorgeously festooned squares of cloth.
Hand-sewn with sequins and beads, these Vodou flags are used to summon the spirits during Vodou ceremonies. Without speaking the language, Young negotiated a price and walked away with more than a dozen cloth treasures.
My cab driver called Montas Antoine, who met us on the street with several just-finished paintings. Antoine was famous for his lush scenes of rural life in primary colors. I bought the largest one and, later, kicked myself for not buying the other two. At the time, I didn’t know how much Antoine paintings commanded in the U.S., or how lionized the artist was in books and museum shows.
Gradually, I learned about the stylistic divisions in Haitian art. The Cap-Haitien school is made up of artists from the north whose work is characterized by scenes from Haitian history as well as contemporary daily life. In their paintings you’ll often see people walking past colonial-era buildings in ice cream colors. Philome Obin was the original Cap-Haitien artist; generations of his family have followed in his footsteps, joined by artists like Jean Baptiste Jean.
Haitian art devoted to jungle animals and fantasy landscapes has enormous universal appeal. Perhaps tapping into African racial memory, artists like Racine Milhomme create canvases populated with giraffes, lions, tigers, elephants and other animals never seen on the island of Hispaniola. Mario Montilus, Joel Lucien, and Serge Labbe are known for their fantasy landscapes – exquisitely precise, dream-like visions of an idealized Haiti.
Other artists gained their reputations by focusing on Vodou. Chief among them is Houngan/Vodou priest Hector Hyppolite, discovered in the 1940s, whose simplistic renderings without perspective attracted foreign collectors during his meteoric career. The late Andre Pierre and La Fortune Felix painted Vodou spirits, ceremonies and ritual preparations exclusively.
The Saint Soleil group worked out of a compound in Soissons-la-Montagne, high in the misty mountains above Port-au-Prince. Making up its core are Prospere Pierre Louis, Levoy Exil, Dieuseul Paul, Louisiane Saint Fleurant and Denis Smith. Their Vodou-based philosophy has certain tenets, such as women as the source of creation and the mysteriousness of life’s beginnings.
When Rodman published his book Where Art is Joy: Haitian Art: The First Forty Years in 1988, he asked if I knew of any museum that might be interested in putting on an exhibition of the artwork on its pages. I suggested the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, and eventually co-curated the show.
Then last year I published my own book: Masterpieces of Haitian Art.
It was an homage to the art I have loved for so long, and to the country that produces it. No other country in the Caribbean – in fact, few countries in the world – can compete with Haiti and its rich visual heritage.
HAITIAN ART WEBSITES
• indigoarts.com (allied to a brick-and-mortar space in Philadelphia)
• artshaitian.com (contact Bill Bollendorf, in business since 1974, through his Galerie Macondo)
• ridgeart.com (Haitian and African art)
• galerielakaye.com (run by Haitian-born Carine Fabius in L.A.)
• And my website: haitianna.com (a wide array of Haitian art in all price ranges)
– Candice Russell