Category Archives: Haitian sculpture

“Invitation to Other Collectors of Haitian Art”

By Candice Russell

 

This week I received a go-ahead for a major Haitian art project. I am inviting others to be join me in this endeavor. If you are reading this blog, you love Haiti and Haitian art and perhaps have a collection of it. If you would like to know more about it, please send me a message on my Facebook page — Candice Russell’s Haitin art — and leave me your name, phone number, and/or email address so I can make contact.

 

I am interested in the art of Vodou — whether it take the form of a painting, a sacred textile, a wood sculpture or a mixed-media constuction of the sort done by Pierrot Barra. ┬áCertain painters exclusively mined the rich field of Vodou ceremonial preparation and enactment, like Hector Hyppolite, Andre Pierre and La Fortune Felix. Certainly there are other lesser known artists portraying Vodou spirits doing their jobs. I’m interested in these expressions, too.Hyppolite, for example, started the pictorial trend of portraying Vodou’s most fearsome myth — the legend of the zombi, with other artists in subsequent generations putting their own spin on the subject.

 

Photos of Vodou ceremonies in Haiti are also welcome.

Please get the word out. I’m trying to cast a large net and get started early. I hope for a wonderful response.

Thank you in advance for your interest.

“Crafting a Speech on Haitian Art”

By Candice Russell

Lucky me — this fall and winter I have been approved as a lecturer on the subject of Haitian art by Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Florida. What this means is a series of speeches on the campus and at various facilities in Broward and Palm Beach Counties, beginning in late September and continuing through January.

Of course, Haitian art is my favorite subject. I live surrounded by it, think about it daily, curate museum shows on it, wrote one book on it, and ponder how to write a novel about it. Haitian art is my constant.

But how to sum up the rich visual heritage of seven decades in a public talk of roughly forty minutes? Would it be better to concentrate on a single school of Haitian art, like the Saint Soleil artists Prospere Pierre Louis, Levoy Exil, Louisiane Saint Fleurant, Denis Smith and Dieuseul Paul, or the Cap-Haitien artists spearheaded by the Obin family? Or is a chronological overview better, scanning the accomplishments of Haitian artists by generation?

Should paintings be the emphasis of my speech? That seems logical. But to give short shrift to Haitian sculptors would be a serious misstep. Acknowledgment must be paid of their considerable contributions in the area of wood sculpture. No one is a better exponent of this than Nacius Joseph, whose Vodou personages like guitar-playing mermaids and daily life scenes like men rowing for freedom as boat people headed for the United States.

Sculptors of papier-mache have their titans, too, including Michel Sinvil and Lionel Simonis. Both craft figurative pieces of smallish to quite large size. They are geniuses, inspiring countless others to craft fantastic creations for Carnival parades.

Mixed-media sculptors deserve a verbal nod as well. Pierrot Barra’s other-worldly, even eerie constructions using doll heads come to mind as especially representative of art as an example of creative re-purposing of discards. Haitians probably aren’t as familiar with the terms “recycling” as we are in the U.S., but they do it all the time in their artwork.

Think of the recycled oil drums that have been hammered and punctured into girls riding bicycles, two-horned bulls symbolizing determination, and undersea creatures. This form of art thrives in Croix-des-Bouquets, not far from the cemetery where the crosses for the dead by Georges Liautaud were noticed, leading to this art form in metal and iron.

The speech cannot overlook Vodou flags, those gorgeously embellished ceremonial squares of cloth. So important in rituals, so prized by foreign cultures, Vodou flags are unique representations of spiritual creatures. They are exquisite examples of handwork and artistic conceptualization.

We haven’t even scratched the surface of Haitian art. One could easily spend an entire speech discussing the Guede family of spirits that govern death and the fate of the soul. Baron Samedi, Brigitte la Croix, and the others all have different jobs. Ceremonies for them around November 1 are especially lively, with men and women dressing in purple and black and assuming the gender identity of their opposites. Guede paintings and Vodou flags are among the favorites in my personal collection.

Do you see my dilemma?

 

“Masks in Haitian Art”

By Candice Russell

As a category in Haitian art collecting, masks are wonderfully evocative distillations of a living creature’s essence. While I own masks from Mexico made from coconut shells and carved wood, my favorite masks are from Haiti in a variety of materials. These three-dimensional Haitian sculptures deserve a special place in my home.

Whether human or animal is the inspiration, Haitian masks successfully convey personality and character through line, form and color. On the artist’s part, the process of creation involves study and thought.

What are the must-have considerations in creating, for example, “Cat with Open Mouth” in papier-mache? Measuring 17 inches by 11 1/2 inches by 4 inches, this black and white-striped head by an unknown artist is a respectful exaggeration in size of a typical domestic feline. Its green eyes are impossibly slanted for dramatic emphasis.

But it is the long pink tongue and jagged teeth of the cat that give it a fearsome appearance. Red ears and bloodshot eyes indicate the animal’s devilish intentions, as well as its genetic tie to much larger jungle cats like panthers and jaguars. All the same, there is a mischievous, even playful side to this mask that makes it collectible.

Also in papier-mache, “L’Ange Exterminateur” or “Exterminating Angel” made in 1995, is titled and initialed by the artist Lionel Simonis. As one of the top tier exponents of this medium, he makes the mask not just for display like “Cat With Open Mouth,” but also for wearing (it’s certainly lightweight enough). It is the size of a human face with holes for the wearer’s own eyes. This mask is a pretty woman with large red hoop earrings and a colorful headdress worthy of a Taino or an Arawak princess, in reference to the island’s first inhabitants. With her high cheekbones and coquettish eyelashes, she is a seductive reveler ready to let loose at the Carnaval.

The painter Roi David Annisey turned from canvas to coconut shell in creating “Green Face Mask,” an acrylic on coconut shell, measuring 13 inches by 10 inches. Shades of the verdant color enliven the head of what could be a Vodou (voodoo) spirit. The creature’s hair is bush after bush, punctuated by yellow, laverder and red leaves. Its nose is a cracked tree trunk, out of which emerge five red flames suggesting a passionate, even fiery disposition. A few tiny lavender teeth are seen in the open mouth, across which is an orange-red fern.

Is the mask Annisey’s version of Grand Bois? This Vodou spirit is known as a leaf doctor, concocting remedies from nature found in the forest. The mask is signed with the artist’s full name in its bushy hair.

In the realm of Haitian metal art, “Mask: Male with Flying Hair” by an unknown artist, is a standout. Measuring 31 inches high by 5 inches wide, it is painted in shades of green, blue, orange, and gold. The nose, nearly a foot long, has a raised surface due to numerous emphatic circles nearly punched through from the other side.

But it’s the hair — straight up and wavy, as if the figure were caught by surprise while underwater — that gives this mask a sense of amusement. Did he see a whale while fishing? Is he in the midst of a Vodou possession, letting a commanding spirit have its way with him? Masks can take different forms and transmit different personalities, but they all have a story to tell.

If you wonder how to display Haitian masks, I run to two schools of thought. Interior designers recommend groupings of like things, even masks of disparate materials. And groupings do create a graphic punch on a wall, becoming a room’s focal point. But don’t forget the comfort and joy of putting a cherished mask above your bedroom door as a guardian spirit.

A Great Haitian Humanitarian Has Died

June 21, 2009

The Reverend Gerard Jean-Juste probably did more for Haitian refugees in South Florida and, by extension, all of the country in his lifetime, than anyone else. A Catholic priest and a humanitarian, he defended the rights of this beleaguered minority and lived to see the growth of Haitian political power in Miami as more and more Haitians won elective office. So with these facts in mind, it is no wonder that when he died on March 27th following complications from a stroke and respiratory problems, people came by the thousands to mourn his passing.

According to a timeline in the Miami Herald, Jean-Juste moved to Miami in 1978 and was hired as the director of the Haitian Refugee Center. Eventually he had his own grass roots political watchdog group called Veye Yo. He returned to Haiti in 1991 for the inauguration of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first democratically elected president in Haiti’s history. But arrests on the basis of weapons possession and murder and suspension from his parisih duties at St. Claire Catholic Church were signs that he could be a divisive figure at a time when taking a stand in Haiti can have dire consequences. Released from jail, he continued to officiate mass and feed neighborhood children. All the charges against him were eventually dropped.

Last year he received an honorary doctorate degree from the University of San Francisco in recognition of his advocacy work. It was the generous, caring Jean-Juste that drew 3,000 people inside Miami’s Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church in early June, while thousands more stood outside in the rain. The Haitian community has lost an important man, an eloquent spokesman for his people, and a purveyor of good in the world.

–Candice Russell

Jean Camille Nasson (1961 – 2008)

January 17, 2009

It is with regret and sadness that I report the death of the great Haitian sculptor Jean Camille Nasson (1961-2008), who died last month. In a country plagued by natural disasters like floods, rampant poverty and political uncertainty, lives are cut short by a multiplicity of factors. And collectors are left wounded by the loss.

One of my favorite Haitian art possessions is an angel-devil figure carved of dark wood by Nasson. Its wings are made of metal and its head is festooned with tiny nails around which are wound brassy-colored metal threads. The figure has horns. In front of him is a metal cross attached with nails. Instead of eyes, there are empty sockets. The work is gritty and raw, yet breathtakingly sophisticated. Nasson evoked the duality of good and bad within the same personage. An explanation about this intriguing work came from Haitian art dealer Reynald Lally, who was exhibiting the work of Nasson and other cutting-edge Haitian sculptors several years ago in Miami, Florida. He said that Nasson, as a child, had been molested by a Catholic priest. This sexual attack left him with conflicted feelings about the church, which obviously were manifest in my sculpture.

Lally, who lives in Haiti, was kind enough to write about Nasson in an email to me: “His work with sculpture began at the age of eight, when a Catholic priest showed him how to make religious sculptures. He became friends with Haitian contemporary artist Mario Benjamin who showed him art books.

“Nasson started doing figures carved out of wood. He added nails, metals and other found materials. He made devils and Virgins Marys with antennas. I asked him why he placed antennas on his figures and he answered, ‘So they can send and receive messages.’

“His work can be found in museums around the world including Casas de Americas in Havana, Cuba, the Vatican collection in Italy and the Waterloo Center for the Arts in Waterloo, Iowa, among other places. The new stars of Haitian art from the Grand Rue — Guyodo, Celeur and Eugene — were highly influenced by Nasson. He always had a smile on his face. That is how I will remember him.”

Nasson’s remarkable sculptures were seen in the landmark Haitian sculpture exhibition “Lespri Endepandan: Exploring Haitian Sculpture” at Florida International University’s main museum in Miami, Florida several years ago, Writing for City Link newspaper at the time, I called these mixed media figures fetishistic and born of influences from Christianity and Vodou. Nasson’s sculptures held their own amidst works by Georges Liautaud, Lionel St. Eloi, Pierrot Barra and Edouard Duval-Carrie, among many others. Nasson was a titan and a true original in the ever-evolving Haitian art scene.

–Candice Russell