Pierre, Andre 1915–
Andre Pierre 1915–
Andre Pierre is one of Haiti’s best-known traditional artists, and his work is always featured in any scholarly critique of twentieth-century Haitian art. Pierre’s florid, detailed canvases depict a complex and meaningful spiritual world under which most Haitians still abide. “Haitian art is mystical because Haiti is mystical,” Pierre declared in an interview with Gregory Katz in Art & Antiques. Latin American art historians consider Pierre to be the artistic heir to Hector Hyppolite (1894-1948), a voodoo priest and painter whose works were some of the first Haitian images to achieve renown among Western collectors.
In the 1994 Art & Antiques article, Katz wrote of Pierre that “every painting he produces seems uniquely Haitian.” Pierre was born around 1915 into a farming family, and by due course took up the profession himself as a young man. Pierre’s career as an artist, on the other hand, grew out of his spiritual heritage when he entered into the hierarchy of Haiti’s unique religion, voodoo, as a priest’s assistant. Voodoo, which dates back to the 1500s, is a blend of Christianity and West African faiths; the term itself is a West African word for “deity.” It originally functioned as a common faith for Haiti’s large non-native population, the thousands of slaves captured in West Africa and brought to the island to work the sugar plantations owned by the French settlers.
Artists like Pierre—self-taught and with little exposure to other schools of painting or the visual arts—attract immense interest from art historians who study the genesis of an artistic movement. Like Pierre, the cultural traditions of Haiti itself were only nominally influenced by imposed Western European ones. The French had not invested much in structures or infrastructure, thus left little of their own culture behind. Only the Roman Catholicism of the missionary priests remained, and from this faith Haitian voodoo adapted the pantheon of saints, who in the Creole language of Haiti are known as has. There are about a thousand of them, and any good, exemplary person can achieve loa status after death. Voodoo ceremonies generally involve honoring the loa associated with a particular family or community. The creed has virtually no infrastructure—all priests and temples are independent, and the only real authority lies with the community which the priest and his temple serve.
For several years Pierre was a la-place, or an assistant, at a temple near his family home. Dance, ceremonial drinking, and animal sacrifice are part of the voodoo ceremony, which is conducted by the houngan, or priest. Each houngan has his own houmfor, or temple, and it was as a la-place that Pierre first began to paint the houmfor of his family, near Croix-des-Missions. As was traditional decor for a temple, the loas were depicted on its walls in fantastical scenes intended to honor them; he also painted many of the ceremonial gourds and other religious objects used inside the temple. Pierre’s talents brought him renown, and other
Borne, 1915, in Haiti
Career: Farmed on family land near Croix-des-Missions, Haiti; gave up farming to paint full time by the early 1960s.
Addresses: Home— Croix-des-Missions, Haiti. Gallery—c/o Carlos Art Gallery in the Grove, 3444 Main Hwy., Unit #19, Coconut Grove, Miami, FL 33133.
families began to ask him to paint their temples as well.
It was because of his growing reputation that Pierre’s work came to the attention of Maya Deren, an American writer and film maker, in 1947. She convinced him to paint some of his loa imagery on masonite, which he was at first reluctant to do—because until then, his art had been executed only for religious purposes. Deren then introduced Pierre to the artistic community in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, then focused around the city’s increasingly renowned Centre d’Art. The Centre had been founded by an American, De Witt Peters, in 1943, to seek out and promote the traditional arts of Haiti.
Peters supplied Pierre with canvas, brushes, and paints, and was instrumental in obtaining gallery representation for him. For a time Pierre lived near his dealer, Issa el Saieh, in Port-au-Prince, but grew dissatisfied and eventually returned to a more rural, peaceful life in his native Croix-des-Missions. In time, sales of his works enabled him to give up farming altogether, and he devoted his energies to painting both religious imagery and other related figures in Haitian allegory on canvas instead.
Another fan of Pierre’s work was Selden Rodman, author of Where Art Is Joy—Haitian Art: The First Forty Years. A connoisseur of Haitian art, Rodman found much praise for Pierre’s talents during the course of the artist’s career. “One must go back to the Catacombs [of Roman antiquity/early Christianity], or to Ravenna [famous for its fifth-century mosaic church], to find religious iconography as pure, “Rodman once wrote of Pierre’s imagery in Where Art Is Joy, finding especial praise for “the fish poised above a concrete baptismal tub…the calyx or cuplike mortar over which a glowing ball (the Host?) floats weightlessly.”
Pierre’s paintings are almost always full-frontal in view, and use the rich hues of Haiti’s natural landscape. Loas such as agoue, who rules over the sea, are a common theme in Pierre’s art, but his paintings—many of which now fetch upwards of $50,000 on the Western art market—also depict “sirenes,” beautiful enticing goddesses; another illustrates the return of several loas to Africa after their involvement in the Haitian revolution of 1801.
One of Pierre’s works, now in Milwaukee’s Flagg Collection, dates from 1963 and shows Damballah, the “loa of life and wisdom,” explained Ute Stebich in Haitian Art. The loa here “stands in the center, framed by three royal palm trees and a tree covered with brightly colored blossoms.” The flowers, Stebich noted, are Pierre’s interpretations of both the goddess of love and the African ancestral continent. “In the presence of the royal palm, these flowers also symbolize joy in liberty and independence. A number of snakes on the ground move toward the water, their favorite element. Their colors recall those of the rainbow, another identification of Damballah.”
Others images found in Pierre’s art are familiar symbols in nearly all religions of the earth. The Grand Bois, for instance, is the “large forest” spirit—human in form, but here with hands of leaves and roots for feet. “In this way,” explained Katz in Art & Antiques, Pierre “honors the riches produced in the tropical forest and thanks the spirits for providing so much bounty.” Pierre elaborated further on this particular work-in-progress, telling Katz that the “Grand Bois is important to the whole world, not only to the voodoo believer. With him you can find remedies and medicines. You can find what you need to make furniture, chairs, a boat to take to sea…. He represents a house to shield you from the sun, and provides leaves to make a bed for you to lie on.”
Pierre’s life as an artist has changed little over the decades since he gave up farming for a living. Yet in the early 1960s the regime of Haitian president Francois Duvalier grew increasingly despotic, and many Western tourists began to avoid Haiti, which brought economic hardship. Despite the difficulties, many devotees of Pierre and other Haitian artists continued to travel there, “recognizing in the inward-looking intensity of this new wave something that might never have developed except in such an atmosphere of enforced isolation,” wrote Rodman in Where Art Is Joy. Serious political upheaval occurred during the 1980s, and art historians found one particularly outstanding houmfor that Pierre had once painted in ruins; it had been destroyed in the aftermath of the island’s 1986 political crisis that ousted Duvalier’s equally repugnant son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier as a retaliatory strike against its houngan.
During the 1990s, a U.S. economic embargo against Haiti made it difficult for Pierre and other artists to obtain brushes, paints, and canvas; with the news reports of death squads, even fewer tourists came. Furthermore, the terms of the embargo barred art dealers in Port-au-Prince, such as Pierre’s Issa Gallery, from sending work abroad. Yet Pierre remains an active, though aging artist. His studio is located next to his own voodoo temple, over which he now presides as a priest, but he prefers to paint out of doors surrounded by the junk cars in his courtyard and a bottle of clairin, the potent homegrown liquor of Haiti, at his feet. His eyesight is deteriorating, but he continues to paint since he believes that his paintings go out into the world for a spiritual purpose. “I painted, as I always do, not to make a painting but to demonstrate the truths of my religion,” Pierre told Rodman in Where Art Is Joy. “Not only my religion, but all religions.”
Christensen, Eleanor Ingalls, The Art of Haiti, A.S.
Rodman, Selden, Where Art Is Joy—Haitian Art: the First Forty Years,
Ruggles Latour, 1988.
Stebich, Ute, Haitian Art, The Brooklyn Museum, 1992.
Art & Antiques, May 1994, pp. 56-65.
an·tique / anˈtēk/ • n. a collectible object such as a piece of furniture or work of art that has a high value because of its considerable age.• adj. 1. (of a collectible object) having a high value because of considerable age: an antique clock. ∎ (of a method of finishing a wooden surface) intended to resemble the appearance of antique furniture.2. belonging to ancient times: antique gods. ∎ old-fashioned or outdated: trade unions defending antique work practices. ∎ often humorous showing signs of great age or wear: an antique divorcee in reduced circumstances.• v. 1. (-tiques, -tiqued, -ti·quing) [tr.] [usu. as adj.] (antiqued) make (something) resemble an antique by artificial means: an antiqued door.2. (go antiquing) shop in stores where antiques are sold.