September 25, 2006
By Candice Russell
The most natural thing in the world is for Haitian artists to include animals of all sorts in their paintings and sculptures in wood and papier-mache. As an island country whose population is or at what time was primarily rural and agrarian, Haiti and its development have gone hand-in-hand with the progress of animals. Though they see them as sources of labor (even today, you’ll see cigar-smoking women riding side-saddle on horses in Port-au-Prince) or food (chickens, goats, bulls), that fact doesn’t lessen their significance in the minds of Haitians who depend on them for work and sustenance. Characteristic of this fact is the painting “Papa Ogoun and Papa Zaca” by Hector Hyppolite, picture in Selden Rodman’s book “Renaissance in Haiti: Popular Painters in the Black Republic.” The two papas are Haitian Vodou spirits brought to glorious mortal life riding horses, a regal form of four-footed transportation.
Great artists from the beginning of the renaissance in Haitian art, dating from the mid-1940s, have used animals as subjects. Micius Stephane, featured in the recent Haitian art exhibition “Allegories of Haitian Life from the Jonathan Demme Collection,” made more than a few paintings with dogs and cats in prominent roles. “Big Cat and Little Cat” (1965) shows only those two animals in a pretty domestic setting with lovely curtains. The white mother cat stands on the tile floor between two potted plants and looks lovingly at her baby white kitten. Cats, by the way, are deemed a sign of good luck in Haiti — perhaps because only people with money can afford to own them as pets. In “Scaring Away Birds” (c. 1963), Stephane shows a flock chased away by a thrown rock and the barking of a dog from a field of millet or corn that they might destroy.
Toussaint Auguste’s painting “Birds and Nests” (1949) also owned by filmmaker-collector Demme, shows five mother birds sitting on nests of eggs about to hatch, while a sixth bird sits on a branch regarding all the eggs in her nest. Auguste painted a metaphorical painting about the need for protection, guardianship and love.
Salnave Philippe-Auguste, Haiti’s Rousseau, is perhaps best known for a poster reproduced from his painting of a line of pink flamingoes. Anthropomorphizing of animals is the province of Jean Veny-Brezil, whose portraits of cat families in human clothing have a poignance that is beyond animalistic. These are relationship paintings, with all the cats engaged in selling flowers or some other uniting activity.
The jungle animal genre of Haitian art is thriving with a variety of artists painting zebras, lions, tigers, giraffes and elements in verdant forests. Is this some kind of racial memory on the part of Haitian artists dating back to their ancestors’ experiences in the homeland of Africa? Regardless of the inspiration, these paintings by such masters as Gabriel Alix are abundant in personality. Animal lovers are collectors of these works, which are riotously colored. Alix is also known for imaginatively adorning the branches of his rain forest trees with all manner of fruits.Animals also appear in papier-mache form — there’s a giraffe on my living room and a plump papier-mache zebra on a bookshelf.
One of my favorite animal items from Haiti was purchased by a vendor selling to people departing Haiti from the Port-au-Prince airport fifteen years ago. It’s a toy carved of wood that you hold in one hand and swing so that a carved chicken sitting on a platform and attached to a string pecks at little pieces of corn. The cleverness of Haitian artists at all levels knows no bounds.