Art in Haiti

views updated

Art in Haiti

The story of contemporary art in Haiti is complex. Precariously balanced between its creolized African culture and the influences of Europe, the country's art has been marked by a division between struggling academic artists and the equally talented (and equally struggling) selftaught artists. Haiti has always had problems of class, and this is reflected in the history of its artists. For example, while members of the middle and upper class have been able to afford art school, artists from the peasant class have been relegated to an autodidactic approach. Haiti's vernacular artists have never been truly integrated into the larger field of African-American selftaught artists. Nonetheless, most people, on hearing the phrase "Haitian Art," immediately assume it refers to the selftaught artists. Coupled with the still prevalent epithets "naïve" and "primitive," Haitian art is still veiled in a primitivist fog.

There was really no serious art movement of any kind in Haiti until the 1930s. Petion Savain (19031975), who studied at the Art Students League in New York in the early 1940s, was the first Haitian modernist. His work evolved toward an indigenist viewpoint, influenced by the 1928 publication of Dr. Jean Price Mars's Thus Spoke the Uncle, which presented Haitian folklore in a positive light. The cultural pride reflected in this book tied Haiti into the vast changes in colonial consciousness in the western hemisphere in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century. Black Pride, the growing struggle for civil rights in the United States, and a widening and deepening independence movement in countries formally governed by European rulers all caused an intellectual and creative ferment in the arts.

Influenced by Europe but informed by a nationalistic interest in its own culture, the rich intellectual life of Haiti was a beacon for artists from all over the world, including the French Surrealist writer Andre Breton, the Cuban painter Wilfredo Lam, the Martiniquan poet Aimé Césaire, and others. Haiti shared with other Caribbean islands the slave roots of its complex and rich African-American religion, vodou, an African Catholicism that provided the underlying source material for the diverse range of Haiti's arts.

The founding of the Centre d'Art by the American painter Dewitt Peters in 1944 brought attention to Haiti's artists, as did their inclusion in two UNESCO exhibitions in Paris in 1946 and 1947. It became clear that there was an active art world in the Caribbean, and that these artists had taken what they had learned from European modernism and filtered it through their own Caribbean reality. Market scenes, workers, and some religious imagery made their way into the modernist imagery. At the same time the that academically trained artists were making their art, the vernacular culture itself was manifesting important and unique imagery. The self-taught painter Philome Obin (18911986), for example, had been painting socially conscious paintings since the 1930s. All Haitian artists were affected by events happening across the entire black diaspora after World War I, particularly issues of colonialism and self-determination, racism and self-recognition, Garveyism, the Harlem Renaissance, and Négritude (a culturally based movement of politically aware artists and writers). Yet they still maintained a connection with the European art world. The self-taught artists, of course, had little or no connection to the European art movements. Their work tended to be either more spiritualized or concerned with local events. Also during this period, the Surrealists were experimenting with the concept of Art Brut in Europe. Art Brut was the name given to nonacademic artists by the European artist Jean Dubuffet (19011985). He was primarily concerned with artists who worked "outsiide" the established art world. Andre Breton went to Haiti in 1946 and bought five pieces from the self-taught master Hector Hyppolite (18941948), an event the Haitian artist had foreseen in a dream.

In the 1940s, some of the trained Haitian artists, including Savain and Georges Remponeau (b. 1916), began to paint Haitian subject matter. Aimé Césaire, the founding father of Négritude, visited the island in 1944. The Centre d'Art, showing trained artists at the time, encouraged non-Haitian artists to spend time in Haiti, and many came from Cuba, which had a very strong painting tradition. This Cuban influx included artists such as René Portocarrero; Carlos Enriquez (19001957), who was married to the American painter Alice Neel; and Wilfredo Lam (19021982), who visited the island with Andre Breton. Two other trained Haitian artists working at this time were Luce Turnier (19241994), who taught at the Centre d'Art, and Lucien Price (19151963), who was one of the first abstractionists in Haiti, though he continued to make more realistic drawings of Haitian culture. In 1947 the art critic and writer Selden Rodman joined the Centre d'Art just as it began to open its doors to the self-taught artists.

The Centre d'Art tirelessly promoted self-taught Haitian artists, such as Philome Obin (18871986), who documented the past and present history of Cap Haitien; Wilson Bigaud (b. 1931), who portrayed a personal view of daily life; and Hector Hyppolite, who used his experiences as a vodou priest in his paintings of visions and gods; as well as the dignified regal paintings of Castera Bazile (19231965), the wry beautifully executed vignettes of Rigaud Benoit (b. 1911), the abstract vodou spirits of Robert St. Brice (18931973), the allegorical political paintings of Jasmin Joseph (19141973), and others. A second generation of artists also emerged, including the sculptor Georges Liautaud (18991990). (It must be kept in mind that when art historians speak of "generations" in Haiti they are referring to the time of "discovery" rather than to the date of an artist's birth.) Many of these artists incorporated the vernacular culture in their work

Haitian self-taught artists were making an authentic art that drew its inspiration and subject matter from the local way of life. They were not primitivists working from a philosophical imperative, but the epitome of authenticity working from the roots of the culture itself. Many of their works had an immediacy, particularly in portraying the realities of everyday Haitian life, that rarely existed in the work of the trained artists, who continued to try to filter the influences of European studios into their work.

At this time, the academic painters felt the self-taught artists were receiving all the financial and critical attention, a situation that was seen as a form of reverse elitism. As a result, a rift developed at the Centre d'Art, and the earlier pioneers left the Centre in 1950 to form the Foyer des Artes Plastiques. Originally formed by academic artists such as Lucien Price, Dieudonne Cedor, Max Pinchinat, Roland Dorcely, and others, the number of artists involved in this enterprise was later reduced somewhat by those who left to study or live in Europe, though some eventually returned.

Part of the strategy of the Centre d'Art was to call the emergence of the vernacular painters a "renaissance," an unfortunate sobriquet that remains in use to this day. The term renaissance implies that there was a dark age, a previous period of formlessness that was then turned into a period of recognizable enlightened thinking and form. The work of twentieth-century Haitian artists, however, was always in the culture. Certain diaspora artistssuch as the North Americans Bill Traylor and William Edmondson, the Jamaicans Mallica "Kapo" Reynolds and Everald Brown, or the Haitians Hector Hyppolite, Georges Liautaud, and Philome Obincan be referred to as "culture bearers" because their work was created in the language of the culture they lived in, and because they pushed the boundaries of the Haitian matrix culture. Culture changes over time. In the Caribbean the slaves created a culture to replace what they had been uprooted and torn away from. The process of change is ongoing. Sometimes, as in the case of Liautaud's crosses, the work exists on two planesas art and as utilitarian object. He was one of the few Haitian self-taught artists whose forged-iron crosses, for example, had one meaning to the people who commissioned his works for the cemeteries around his home, and another meaning when the same crosses were collected and shown as art in homes and galleries.

However, it was the richness of the intellectual and creative movements already in place in Haiti that laid the foundations for the creative impulses of both the trained and untrained artists. There was no "movement" uniting the self-taught artists; rather, they reinvented the wheel for themselves. Philome Obin's early paintings (beginning in the 1930s) of political history and unrest had no precedent in the Caribbean; Georges Liautaud was using his forge to make crosses and votive figures for his local communities, embellishing their altars and cemeteries as a blacksmith; and Hector Hyppolite, Andre Pierre, and Robert St. Brice were making veves (sacred ground drawings) and painting murals and altars in their local houses of vodou as part of their social roles as houngans (priests) long before the Centre d'Art existed. But there was no visual school of autodidactic art in Haiti, no group of artists who fostered a certain self-taught look. For example, in a Philome Obin painting one can readily see his Protestant outlook in the way the world is orderly and cleaned upeven in his most angry early paintings, while Hector Hyppolites' art represents an animistic African-Catholic worldview filled with an unadulterated vodou perspective. There was a wide range of approaches and styles within the self-taught artist community.

The Centre d'Art played a very important role in the early years of Haitian art, but it should primarily be seen as a great school and a provider of opportunity and publicity for a phenomenon that was already at play in the culture. It was also very much responsible for organizing the way the Western world came to view Haiti's self-taught artists. The Centre's leaders (e.g., DeWitt Peters, Selden Rodman, Francine Murat, Antonio Joseph, Pierre Monosiet) were visionary in intent but also in tune with their times. Without their input, enthusiasm, and tireless approach, much of the work of the vernacular artists of Haiti might have gone unseen, and might still be unknown. The Centre remains in operation today, attempting to keep its doors open in very turbulent times.

In the rocky political times of the early twenty-first century, Haitian art perseveres, as does the divide between the self-taught artists and the trained artists. In 1968, several younger trained artists formed a group called Poteau Mitan, drawing inspiration from the imagery and philosophy of vodou. This group included the artists Tiga (Jean-Claude Garoute, b. 1935), Patrick Vilaire (b. 1942), and Frido (Wilfred Austin, b. 1942). In the 1970s, Tiga became the figurehead for a group of mostly self-taught artists that breathed new life into the islands' vernacular work. Called St. Soleil, the group also drew primary inspiration from the mother religion of the island. Notable were Louisianne St. Fleurant, Prospere Pierre Louis, Levoy Exil, and Denis Smith, to name only a few.

Artists still struggle in Haiti, despite the political conditions there, and the growth of the Haitian diaspora around the world has made their work more widely known. The vernacular work continues to metamorphose in shape and form, ranging from political murals in the streets to the altar works by the Barra family. Young artists such as Paul Gardere (b. 1944), Mario Benjamin (b. 1964), and Edouard Duval-Carrié (b. 1954) continue to pave the way for even younger trained artists. In addition, scholars are just now beginning to integrate the work of the self-taught artists of Haiti with the equally compelling and better-documented work of self-taught artists in the United States, Jamaica, and elsewhere in the Caribbean.

See also Césaire, Aimé; Art in the United States, Contemporary; Healing and the Arts in Afro-Caribbean Cultures; Lam, Wilfredo; Négritude


Brown, Karen McCarthy. Tracing the Spirit: Ethnographic Essays on Haitian Art. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996.

Cosentino, Donald. Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou. Los Angeles:Fowler Museum of Cultural History, University of California, 1995.

Poupeye, Veerle. Caribbean Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 1998.

Rodman, Selden. Where Art is Joy: Haitian Art, The First Forty Years. New York: Ruggles de Latour, 1988.

Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit: African and African-American Art and Philosophy. New York: Random House, 1983.

randall s. morris (2005)