By Candice Russell
A South American psychiatrist searches the streets of Port-au-Prince one morning for country eggs, because a voodoo priest saod they were necessary for a concoction to ease his son’s asthma. Another foreigner is said to be under a voodoo spell cast by his love, the 19-year-old daughter of his Haitian cook. How else to explain the sway that the young woman, hardly fair of face or figure, has on this handsome older man of means?
But voodoo cannot solve political intractability. Some who have lived here in the most recent worst times now want out. An elegant European couple who own a gallery in Petionville, the prosperous suburb up the mountain from Port-au-Prince, are considering a move to Cuba, which they deem a potential improvement of their lot.
Another gallery owner whose work with the United Nations and the Organization of American States helped restore Jean-Bertrand Aristide as the country’s first democratcially elected president in 1994, is planning an exodus. He has spent nearly 20 years in Port-au-Prince, raising four sons and surviving in spite of an international trade embargo and great political unrest. But increasingly violent crimes, a hungry jobless majority, and a government not moving fast enough to help are making well-off residents like him and others examine the sanity of staying.
Even moneyed Haitians who chose to endure in the tumultuous 1990s are leaving. Maggie, a sultry woman in her 30s, tells a story of imminent escape. She is sitting ont he balcony of Villa Peabody, surrounded by the capital’s elite class of doctors, politicans, journalists, and expatriates. The occasion is the 60th birthday party of Jorgen Leth, the esteeemed Danish filmmaker who lives six months of the year in the villa that some call the most beautiful gingerbread hosue in Port-au-Prince. The joyous mood of the evening belies som private dark thoughts.
“This country has nothing any more,” says Maggie dispiritedly. “No police, no safety, no freedom.”
After robbers took a watch and some cash found downstairs while Maggie slept in an upstairs bedroom, she started plotting a move to Miami. The first step is closing her retail textile business in downtown Port-au-Prince. The second is to become a go-between for Haitians needing American goods and services.
Even the simple act of getting around the capital is not simple anymore. Stop signs are ignored. Stoplights are inoperable. Get in a car accident or disagre with a taxi drive about a fare and there is no policeman to call to settle a problem. If gun-toting authorities halt your car late a night, it is wise to let them search the vehicle without question.
But Haiti’s excesses and insufficeencies are forgotten in the sublimation of music. Visitors and residents baptize themselves in pure sound every Thursday night at the Oloffson, watching and dancing to the folk-based roots music of RAM. This 12-piece band is led by Oloffson manager Richard Morse. Wife Luniece sings and dances with the group,rocking the shaky rafters of the gingerbread hotel more than 100 years old. The crowd of hundreds, mostly Haitians under 40 with a future, know the words to each song. Recently signed to Jimmy Buffett’s record label, RAM is likely to become the country’s best export since Barbancourt rum.
(see next Sunday for conclusion of essay).
By Candice Russell
the returnees are in a small, select group who are equally smitten by Haiti’s strange charms. They embrace its quirks and mysteries, like the remarkable telejiol, a fax-fast form of instant verbal communication that allows seemingly everyone to know that you arrived on the afternoon American Airlines flight and what you business is. They also forgive its myriad failings, like the increasingly pot-holed airport road. There is a rhythm here beyond music, a pasion beyond explanation. People who adore Haiti, or at least have a frustrating love-hate relationship with it, talk about this elusive force as if it can be universally seen or smelled or touched.
The first-time visitor isn’t likely to think Haiti is elusive, however. It is direct and confrontational, a sensual hit.
For better or worse, the introduction is through the nose. The pungent, inescapable smell of burning charcoal, the dust from the unpaved portion of the airport road, the sweat of people conducting a frenzied charade commerce at the Iron Market — it’s full-bore olfactory assault.
The eyes take in color, riotous, pervasive, all over the place. Despite rabid poverty, the smallest buses, known as tap-taps, bear coats of paint in stripes, designs, figures and sayings. Storefronts have handpainted images of food, hairstyles and clothing. The humblest shacks warrant dressing up, parrot-like, in lime green and deep turquoise, or pink and yellow.
Haitians themselves are the antithesis of drab in dress and personality. they are proud and volatile. They love drama and arguments for their own sake, which may be why bargaining with street vendors is the only way business is done.
Heated debate nearly leading to fisticuffs engages two men outside a shop on a Sunday morning. One is young, barefoot, raggedly dressed. The other could be his father in a straw hat and better clothes. The elder heckles the younger about the way he is loading a 50-=pound bag of rice in a wheelbarrow. When the older man tries to wrestle the device away from the younger man, the latter explodes, maneuvering it his own way as a group of onlookers laughs at his fury. Show over, the crowd disperses and older man just chuckles.
Haitians are also hopeful, patient, and maybe a bit mad. the persistence of commerce against all odds — much more supply than demand — is one example. Women who have carried fruit on their heads to get to work squat next to their sidewalk displays of mangoes, watermelons, pineapples and lemons. On certain corners they are elbow to elbow with each other, stocking the same goods. They live in small shacks without potable water or sewers or electricity, but they have all this fruit. They women gossip, laugh and wait all day for the infrequent customers on the major thoroughfares and winding back roads of Port-au-Prince.
What sustains the masses is Vodou, a syncretic blend of African tribal rites from their native land and Roman Catholicism from Haiti’s interlopers. Even non-Haitian residents are affected by Vodou. Though they don’t practice the religion or worship its pantheon of gods, they believe in its power to influence health, romance and willpower.
(to be continued)
By Candice Russell
A portion of my Haitian Vodou flag collection travelled from South florida to Evansville, Indiana a while ago for a major exhibition — “Contemporary Art of Haiti: Paintings from the Collection of Bev Fowler and Textiles from the Collection of Candice Russell.” The show ran from February 8 to March 22, 1998. I was invited to speak at the crowded opening, which included some young Haitians conversant with the subject of Vodou.
I was also asked to write an essay that was the handout to visitors of the museum during its run. Titled “Haiti Now,” here is the text of that essay:
Arrogance or naivete compels the modern traveler to believe hat others will share one’s passion for a destination. On my tenth trip to Haiti, a place that enthralls me, I found how wrong I was to think that the island’s magic, was democratically infectious.
Friends and I were eating dinner on the verandah of the fabled Oloffson Hotel in Port-au-Prince. It was the first trip for Marianne, the sister of my Haitian travelling companion Ginna, and I expected an enthusiastic response when I asked her opinion of the country. “It’s dirty, crowded and chaotic,” she said dismissively.
Well, yes, Haiti is all those things, I thought. But it is much more, as Ginna and I knew from previous trips. It is Vodou drums in the night, melodic compas music on street corners, fanciful gingerbread houses from another century and art, marvelous art, everywhere you look.
Art, specifically paintings, was what drew Ginna and me to the beleaguered Daribean island in the first place. We came in search of bright tropical visions in so-called primitive style and were surprised at the range of expression. Museums in the capital had the best examples of long-dead masters like Hector Hyppolite. Yet there was an abundance of quality art by living geniuses, including the Vodou-inspired paintings of LaFortune Felix and andre Piere, in the better gallleries. On each trip since 1985, it was a delight to discover new painters such as Wagler Vital, Francoise Eliassaint, Geline Buteau, and Jorelus Joseph, recent winner of an international art prize in Santo Domingo. No matter what onerous political regime held sway, the urge to create in this desperatly poor country took precedence of dozens of artists.
The urge is all the more remarkable when you realize that Haitian art, though a significant export for the handful of artists the work supports, isn’t enough to keep any but diehard Haiti-lovers coming back. The tourist trade was moribund before Graham Greene wrote the thinly fictionzlied novel “The Comedians,” set at the Oloffson Hotel in 1966. The occasioal celebrity visitor like Julia Rroberts, Jean-Claude Van Damme and film director Jonathan Demme, an avid Haitian art collector, hasn’t transformed Haiti’s shantytown image to the outside world.
Most Haiti-bound Americans don’t have the island’s Club Med in mind. They come to this lost paradise not to soak up the sun but with more serious purposes in mind. They are missionaries, Peace Corps volunteers, emissaries of Bill Clinton, doctors, nurses, and land management specialists, all of whom want to help the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.
*Look for continuation of this essay on next week’s blog.
By Candice Russell
My dear friend, Dr. Carlos Jara, was a psychiatrist from Chile, a diplomat for the Organization of American States, and a Haitian art dealer with a superb understanding of art and artists. While we had spoken numerous times of writing a book together, this enterprise never materialized. Since it was hard to pin down the busy Carlos, my suggestion was a voice-activated tape recorder on his part — I offered to transcribe his words. But Carlos was taken from us too soon on May 9, 1999 and the world for his family and many friends was changed forever.
That is why I treasure all the more a brochure with color images of his paintings and one including the artist at his easel is all the more precious to me because Carlos wrote it about his favorite artist — “Les Visions Magiques de La Fortune Felix” (1987) in French, Spanish and English. To prove this statement, he once showed me the house he had rented in Petionville just to house the hundreds of La Fortune Felix paintings he had. The artist also built a bridge between Carlos and me because his painting “Ceremony,” pictured in Selden Rodman’s book “Where Art is Joy” and my book “Masterpieces of Haitian Art,” was the first Haitian painting I ever bought, with my being innocent of the knowledge about his fame in the pantheon of 20th century Haitian artists.
Carlos, who had personal friendships with many artists, put Felix above the others. He states why in the brochure: “The paintings of Felix show no concern with formal beauty: his lines are strong and his brush strokes vigorous; the pictorial message is expressed directly, with all its elemens presented simply and naturally integrated in a final dynamic harmony.”
He goes on to write: “Various parallels have been established between Hector Hyppolite (1894 -1948) and La Fortune Felix. both come from the Artibonite Valley, both were houngans. both were discovered as artists at a mature age, and they share a definite tendency toward mystical themes in their paintings. Moreover, the works of Hyppolite and Felix have traits which could be called expressionists. Finally, there is the audacity and the assurance which show through in the conception and execution of their creations. There is one respect, nevertheless, in which Felix excels the great figure of Haitian painting and that is the mastery of the use of color.”
It was probably the Gauguinesque palette of Felix’s “Ceremony” that attracted me to buy it, as much as the intriguing and unexplainable Vodou drama it depicts. Funny thing is, in all the years since, even in Carlos’ massive collection, I never saw Felix do another painting even remotely similiar to it.
And that’s because of one special trait noticed by Carlos, his strongest supporter and exclusive dealer — the artist never repeats an image. Oh, he may use the same characters like mambos and houngans and spirits, but he always varies the locations and scenarios so that each painting is a welcome surprise. this truly cannot be said of many Haitian artists, who hit upon a popular theme and rework it ad infinitum because they know it sells. Why is this? Carlos writes of the artist : “Since he has also maintained his distance from commercialism and the inevitable repetitions resulting from gallery commissions, one can predict an even more brilliant future.”
By Candice Russell
With presidential elections in the United States still a long way off, it doesn’t seem to matter to television pundits already speculating about who will run for the highest office in the land and who is likely to win. All of this makes me mindful of the dismal turnout nationally for this important time in our political lives (yes, we’re all affected in ways big and small by who is in office). It all seems the sadder when I picked up a copy from my home library of Alex Web’s “Under a Grudging Sun, Photographs from Haiti Libere 1986-1988.”
In often heartbreaking color images, he documents the struggle of Haitians to live and to vote, a privilege for which some of have had to lay down their lives .Funerals and wounded bodies are part of the mix of photos in this important but difficult book. This fight for political freedom may seem foreign to us, but it is a reminder that democracy in other places isn’t a given, even when it is established as it was in Haiti but the free election of Jean Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first freely elected leader. He was ousted by a coup then returned to the presidency on October 15, 1994 with the help of American armed forces on the ground (I know this because I was there in one of the most amazing experiences of my life).
There is so much beauty in Haiti and Webb’s camera captures that, too. Beautiful children with pleading faces, donkeys bearing items for market, marchands selling onions, gossipers standing next to an oh-so-blue sea, it’s all here. There are lovely churches and wrought iron balconies and brightly colored peacock-strutting buildings — the background for so much human drama. The worshippers of Vodou in the waterfall during the Saut d’Eau pilgrimage want to live their lives in peace as much as the people killed by anti-election gunmen and army recruits or those living on the brink of disaster in the Cite Soleil slum. These images collectively show desperation, mourning, freneticism, and disquietude. I cannot count how many men have assumed the presidency since Webb’s book was published. But the so-called crown of ascendancy that sits atop the leader’s head doesn’t sit there easily or without fear of political opposition to the point of violence. That uncertainty plagues Haiti. And now it is fear of another unknown — a repeat of the 2010 earthquake.
In an opening essay, Webb confessed he started this photo project, then dropped it for awhile — “my vision quailed in the face of history.” Who can blame him? Even a Haiti follower and writer as adept as Amy Wilentz has written that Haiti is a hard place to wrap one’s mind around. The lensman finishes his long, reflective essay by falling back on his photojournalist skills: “But I am certainly the wrong person to predict the future of sad and beguiling Haiti. I should perhaps just walk, and watch, and wait…”
The back cover says all there is to say about the grief that he captures. Men in blue shirts are carrying small black child-size coffins up the stairs to a pink church.
By Candice Russell
Lucky for you if you were one of the fortunates attending “Lespri Endepandant: Discovering Haitian Sculpture” at Florida International University’s Patricia and Philip Frost Art Museum in Miami, Florida in 2004. Lucky are those who purchased the thorough catalog, that includes all the items in the show in color and black-and-white along with biographies of the artists. The list of lenders to this landmark show that did not travel included people in Europe, Haiti and South Florida.
Glass bottles, mixed media constructions with doll heads by Pierrot Barra, and outstanding life-size sculptures expressing the crudest attributes of visualizations of the Vodou spirits — this show held nothing back in the way of presentation. Religion, sex, desperation, recycling — it’s all here, manifest by artists too often relegated to the sideline by painters who holds the highest rungs of prominence and distinction. Their work isn’t often pretty or even nice enough that one would choose to display such things at home in a place of honor. But they are so true to the spirit of Haitian art at its most honest and raw.
Of course, this last comment doesn’t apply to etal sculptures by Georges Liautaud, Murat Brierre, and Gabriel Bien-Aime that transforms metal oil drums into crucifixes, a vampire riding a bicycle, and a woman in the process of giving birth.
My personal favorite pieces in the show and catalog are the mixed media figures or wood, metal and other found, discarded objects are by Jean Camille Nasson and Jean Herard Celeur. They are dark, fetishistic, African-looking statues with a distinctive Haitian flair. Andre Eugene’s skeleton-head sculpture “Chef Section” with a stiff pipe for a penis is all about power and willingness to use it in the most brutal ways.
Patrick Vilaire and Edouard Duval-Carrie are represented in the section called “Contemporary interpretations.” There you will also find the fanciful and fun female angels by the inimitable and un-copyable artist Lionel Saint Eloi, who also does outstanding paintings.
Even the geniuses of papier-mache got their due in this show, including Michel Sinvil’s “Devil Bat.” Curator Elizabeth Cerejido did an outstanding job of gathering a wide array of objects in different forms, sizes and materials, without their having to share the exhibition stage with paintings.
It’s the sculptors who are in need of household name recognition among Haitian art collectors. While everyone knows Liautaud, how many know Saint Eloi?
With an opening essay by Donald Cosentino of U.C.L.A., the driving force behind the travelling exhibition “Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou” which I saw in Miami and New Orleans, the catalog is a must-have addition to the library of anyone who wants to know more about Haitian art. I only wish it and the show had been bigger — but that’s a minor complaint from someone who cannot get enough of Haitian art.
The catalog is nearly 100 pages long. Please contact me through this website –www.haitianna.com — if you would like to purchase a copy. I only have a few and there won’t be any more put into production.
By Candice Russell
Just as I made a plea to Haitian President Michel Martelly on behalf of the earthquake-demolished Le Centre d’Art, I am making another request that I hope he can fulfill — if not through his own government, through the help of non-governmental agencies, even foreign ones with French and Kreyol-speaking volunteers, to get the job done.
I make this request in light of the fact that Martelly is himself a musician and therefore more in touch with the value of artistic expression than his predecessors and successors in office. Knowing that your country is subject to cataclysmic weather events, from earthquakes to floods, here is my suggestion: please formulate an encyclopedic list of ALL the artists — visual artists, musicians, poets, dancers, singers — in Haiti. Concentrate on one city or region at a time. Gather information that is biographical about birthdates and addresses/contact information currently of domiciles, studios, and places of performance, and information about contacts like friends and relatives.
Why am I making this request? In part, it’s a remarkable record of Haiti’s cultural heritage at the moment. In part, it’s a means of knowing or trying to know who is still alive after a major weather disaster. At this point, there is still no official record of which visual artists died during the earthquake, nearly five years after the event. And then there is the aspect of cultural tourism, which is partly why the airport in Cap-Haitien was recently opened, in the hope of bringing foreigners to the city to visit the famed Citadelle fortess.
Imagine if there were such a directory of artists. Tour organizers in Haiti and outside could craft group trips of interested people who wanted to visit the studios of ten artists in less than a week and buy their art directly from them, as well as from galleries. What a boon that would be to the tourist industry, especially if travel writers spread the word about their positive experiences on such a tour in the American media — most major newspapers still have Sunday Travel sections where such stories could appear with splashy photographs.
This is something unique and different that Martelly could do, instead of just focusing on the political. Focus on the larger picture and your legacy in the future to help the Haitian people as they live. Haitian art in Haiti needs a boost. Once the infrastructure of roads is improved and criminal activity is lessened, Haiti-focused people may be more likely to want to visit with a purpose in mind — seeing and buying art. That activity of artistic creation continues; the earthquake didn’t stop it, though many, many lives were lost.
Martelly could even put out a call for people to come to Haiti to help him in doing the interviews and visiting the artists. Where are they? All over. My friend Jean (last name unknown) could always be found on downtown streets. We would pick him up in a car and he knew the directions to every artist’s house (though he didn’t own a car or drive) and all the artistic activities going on in the capital. How he knew these things, I don’t know. My point is – this information is out there and easily available. It just needs to be harnessed, organized and compiled for the benefit of Haiti and the world.
By Candice Russell
This is an open letter to Michel Martelly, the President of Haiti:
Dear Mr. Martelly,
As a Christmas gift to the Haitian people and the world, I implore you to commit funds and manpower to rebuild the vaunted Center of Art (Le Centre d’Art) in Port-au-Prince. Yes, I know you have had other things on your mind, like political protests and elections for other offices. Yet this is an important topic.
But, being a musician and an artist yourself, you should have cognizance of exactly what le Centre d’Art has meant to the development of Haitian art and the collecting acumen of untold thousands of visitors to the island since the 1940s. It is as much of a landmark for people who know and love Haiti as the Citadelle in Cap-Haitien. It is where so many art careers were begun and nurtured. Who can put a price on the synergistic conversations between artists over the decades that provided them with much-needed encouragement or set them forth on a new path of creation?
As a musician, you know how vital the arts are to a country. But also, Haitian arts of all kind are valuable experts to the rest of the world — much cherished and not duplicated anywhere else. Haitian art, in my opinion, is your best export — worthy of display in museums from Los Angeles to Paris, lionized in books, hanging in homes and offices in countries around the world. For new generations of artists, unfamiliar with the gallery system and in need of nurturing, le Centre d’Art is an indispensable cog in the wheel of discovery. By not rebuilding this vital institution in Port-au-Prince, you are squandering the hopes and dreams of many self-taught artists who need that kind of boost in their careers. Many may also need access to materials to create art that they cannot afford on their own.
My suggestion is to interface with France, Canada or Italy, even the U.S., to funnel funds dedicated to Haiti after the earthquake to be specifically earmarked for rebuilding the Centre d’Art. Yes, private donors may do this in years or decades to come. But why wait, when the need is so great right now? Let this rebuilt institution be a beacon of hope for new generations and a commitment of faith in the artistic promise of Haiti, which is always evolving, no matter what the political climate?
I have fond memories of visiting Le Centre d’Art under the leadership of Francine Murat. I remember marveling at its collection of Jasmin Joseph paintings and asking to go into the back rooms that were locked, home of many treasures.
This decision would be merry-making for many Haitian art lovers, not to mention Haitian artists who need a place to go, to find their artistic voices, to learn, find mentors, talk with other artists, and soar.
Please make it happen, Mr. Martelly. Thank you.
By Candice Russell
It is possible, as an art collector, to be drawn to the same subject or artist multiple times. Who knows why these affinities develop? It happened to me in the summer after I broke my ankle. Part of my recovery to full walking health was strengthening my ankle by swimming in my backyard pool. When I went to Haiti in August with a friend, our buying trip caught the notice of one gallery owner who remarked that I seemed to be drawn to images of La Sirene, the Haitian Vodou lwa whose domain is the sea. She works as a benefactor for people in trouble on the water — swimmers, fishermen and voyagers. No wonder I liked La Sirene.
In the case of another sub-category in my Haitian art collecting, I was more conscious. I love artwork that depicts Santa Claus, generosity, the Christmas tree and all the lights and glitter associated with the season. I own a two-foot-tall papier-mache Santa Claus, a painted metal Sant Claus and a Jacques Valmidor painting of Santa and a snowman, measuring 20 inches by 24 inches.
These are happy paintings celebrating a happy time. At Slotin folk Art Auction, I bought an 8-inch by 10-inch painting of Father Christmas by the great Alexandre Gregoire. It’s not as overt as my other Haitian Christmas pieces, but I love it all the same.
I also have a Saincilus Ismael of Joseph leading Mary and the baby Jesus as they ride on a donkey. One of my favorite is a 30-inch by 40-inch painting by Wagler Vital, pictured in my book “Masterpieces of Haitian Art.” It’s a village square with a stunning centerpiece of a beautifully decorated Christmas tree. I don’t know if this is how Haitians celebrate the holiday, but this festive painting makes me hope that there are public acknowledgments in town squares with lights and colors and tress (and maybe even a gift-giving Santa).
But the sweetest Christmas work is in my bedroom year-round because it is too nice to put away in January. It’s a painting by Jacques Richard Chery, ten inches tall and eight inches wide, of Santa Claus handing out presents to children. He carries a satchel of gifts and the children are beyond delighted.
My friend, Dr. Carlos Jara, an art dealer in Haiti and psychiatrist by profession in his native Chile, had a collection of crucifixion paintings, which he carefully amassed. These are even harder to source in Haiti, years ago and especially now.
What ever you decide to focus on, make the journey fun. Go to Haiti, if you can and visit galleries. Talk to people on the street. Even buy art from the street, if you feel confident to tell the good art from the bad art.
The beauty and wonder of Haitian art are seemingly limitless. Bossou, for example, when on Vodou flags, is either just the head with two horns or the full-bodied beast, usually tied up. Many different representations in visual form of the same Vodou spirit means a wealth of very different images by a variety of artists. There’s no better time to collect than now.