Monthly Archives: August 2014

“A Great Painting by Andre Pierre”

By Candice Russell

A good friend gave me a remarkable painting not long ago. It was quite a gift — a painting by the inimitable and irreplaceable Andre Pierre, the houngan or Vodou priest who was the country of Haiti’s best-known and most lionized artist. He is known for his paintings of very dolled up versions of Vodou spirits. Pierre portrays them like kings and queens of rain forests and roiling seas. They wear elaborate gowns and handsome suits and always there is something on their heads. Their regality is unmistakably elevating; regular folks in Haiti look nothing like this, even on days of celebration like weddings.

The painting I was given portrays a female member of the Guede family of spirits, Brijit La Croix. She wears a dress in white and purple with a black sash around the waist, the ends of which are red fringe. Considerable thought went into her portrayal. She is adorned with jewelry, including outsized circular white earrings, a ring, and a pearl necklace. Her purple hat bears the initial “B” and the word “Croix” for cross.

And it is the cross that is the prominent symbol for this governess of the dead and determiner of the soul’s fate. Brijit holds a cross in her right hand. Black crosses are placed around her, along with smaller white crosses. An image of the skull and crossbones is “drawn” in the ground near her bare feet, with toenails prettily painted in orange.

This important Vodou spirit is surrounded by palms trees, with their leafy fronds in shades of purple, green and orange. Like all of Pierre’s paintings, this one is highly energized, as if the presence of Brijit La Croix is animating the forest she deigns to inhabit. According to the book “Veve” by Nancy Turnier Ferrere, she and her husband Baron Samedi are the parents of all the Guede spirits.

Further information was provided by the artist himself about this special female spirit. In an unpublished monograph for which Andre Pierre was interviewed, he aligned Brijit La Croix with Saint Ann in Roman Catholicism. “She is the mother of Mary, who wiped Jesus’ face as he was carrying the cross on the way to Golgotha,” Pierre said. “The face of Jesus remained on the cloth.”

In an earlier painting on the same theme, Pierre included the rooster as a symbol of Peter’s betrayal. The ease with which Haitian Vodou accommodates Christian stories and personages  is evident in his explanations. He calls Brijit La Croix “the queen of the cemetery.”

Did Andre Pierre always operate on a spiritual realm? According to my friend and art dealer Dr. Carlos Jara, the answer is “yes.” The artist would always pour a libation on three places in the ground when you visited, in order to honor and serve your ancestors. The only subject this peasant farmer ever thought to portray were his much-beloved and worshipped spirits. They were as real to him as the sky and grass are to everyone else.

That he made the spirits manifest to fellow Vodouists and non-believers is one important legacy of Haitian art. Andre Pierre was a mighty contributor and his outstanding paintings will be cherished for generations to come.


“An Exceptional Painting by Maria Dania Exil”

By Candice Russell

“Woman with Fish” (2004) by Maria Dania Exil is the type of exuberant painting characteristic of Haitian art in many people’s minds. The predominant colors of this oil painting on canvas, measuring 18 3/4″ high and 23 3/4″ wide, are bold, school bus colored yellow, red, fuchsia, and purple, against a background of teal blue, turquoise and green that shows outlined leaves against a teeming universe.

The subject of “Woman with Fish” is a not-quite-mortal woman in a yellow headdress. She wears a mysterious smile. Her three-fingered arms reach out of a striped, dotted and otherwise heavily patterned body, with the right hand almost bouncing a small version of the sun. Perhaps, she is the emanation emerging from its fiery soul, rendered large in comparison to it by her transition from one realm to another. She is the process of becoming whole, as is the fish that looms behind her head.

Perhaps they are in a watery domain under the sea’s surface. But this depiction of marine and terrestrial life is about potential — of things developing, but not quite there yet.

The mysteries of life, from conception to getting to earth, are explored by all the Saint Soleil artists, of whom this Exil is certainly one. Her father is Levoy Exil, one of the original five Saint Soleil artists, including Prospere Pierre Louis, Denis Smith, Dieuseul Paul, and Louisiane Saint Fleurant.

I bought the painting in question from Levoy Exil when he came to my home around six or eight years ago. The artist known as Tiga was in the process of dying at a Fort Lauderdale hospice and, in tribute to him, Exil and other artists whom Tiga had nurtured in their careers, came from Haiti to see him one last time. At that meeting, I also purchased a painting by Levoy himself — a friend from many years before — and two other small works by his daughter. At that time, she wasn’t well-known in either Europe or the United States, said the proud father, though he was trying to change that situation.

The sad thing is that Maria Dania Exil, whom I included in my book “Masterpieces of Haitian Art” along with all of the Saint Soleil artists, hasn’t gotten the traction of being well-known through museum exhibitions, newspaper articles, or critiques in art journals. In fact, this is the case with a lot of Haitian artists whose careers have stalled as the result of not getting their due in terms of exhibition venues, academic papers, and media attention.

Why is this? Where are the scholars stepping up to push and proselytize for artists like the younger Exil? In part, it has to do with the economic recession, which meant museums didn’t have the funds to mount shows and pay independent curators. Subscribers to newspapers and magazines dwindled to a trickle, as people gave up paper products for digital information via laptops and smartphones. The culture as a whole doesn’t read like it used to, so the possibilities of moving a career forward by a big media push in newspapers and magazines aren’t nearly what they used to be.

And some scholars either retired (Donald Cosentino of U.C.L.A. who mounted the travelling exhibition “The Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou”) or passed away (Selden Rodman). Haitian art is waiting for a new generation of spokespeople to trumpet its virtues. Where are they?

“Anima Sola: An Extraordinary Vodou Flag”

By Candice Russell

The genius of Haitian artists manifests itself in different ways. A few years ago, I purchased a Vodou flag unrelated to the depiction of Vodou spirits, which is the traditional portrayal on these sacred squares of hand-embellished cloths. This flag, called “Anima Sola,” is by Mireille Delice, a cousin of the even more famous Myrlande Constant, from whom she learned the technique of sewing Vodou flags. It shows two dark-skinned hands with manacles on the wrists, raising upward out of a fiery pit, indicated by beads of shocking red highlighted by yellow for flames.

What defines the person’s hands as female are three rings of gold and fingernails prettily painted with red polish. It is a stunning image and one easily recognized as a reference to Anima Sola, or lonely soul, suffering in purgatory. Based on Roman Catholic tradition, the image is popular in Latin America and Naples and Palermo in Italy. But it is usually more fully formed than the one presented by Delice in this exceptional Vodou flag.

Traditionally, Anima Sola is seen as a beautifiul, long-haired white woman of young age. She is behind bars in a cell. Her hands are in manacles to chains and her arms are raised upward in supplication. Surrounding her are the flames that will destroy her. In some images, this suffering soul in purgatory — between heaven and hell — breaks free and, when she does, she is destined for heaven. It is only through the intercession of the living and the diving that her internal suffering and liberation from limbo can take place.

But the legend of Anima Sola has far-reaching implications. It is thought that she arrived in purgatory as a result of unrequited love by trading the joys of temporal love for eternal salvation. In Haitian Vodou, Anima Sola is used in conjuring to bring back a former partner. The tormented spirit that invades the former partner compels his or her return to the one doing the conjuring — no wonder to do an Anima Sola spell is called “anti-love.”

According to the web site, “It is said that those who die while wearing a blessed brown scapular, as directed by Our Lady of Mount Carmel, will not suffer long in purgatory. The Virgin of Mount Carmel will arrive holding the infant Jesus in her arms, along with a group of angels. It is the angels who will pull the suffering (one) from the flames.”

This poignant folk religious image is simplified by Delice who portrays hands and arms extending out of the flames. Yet this simplification does not in any way diminish the power of what is being conveyed — a very real psychic and physical torture unimaginable to mortals. Looked at in another way, it conveys the confusion and agony of life in a more general sense. In Haiti, where there is an abundance of suffering, there is poverty, a lack of food, no access to opportunities like free education, and no hope of a better existence for the vast majority of people.  This flag is an expression of all the pain of the Haitians that remains unspoken as the people soldier on and do their best to survive daily hardships.

“A Photo-Journalist in Haiti”

By Candice Russell

This story by me originally appeared in the “On Exhibit” page of City Link weekly newspaper in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on March 24, 2004. It is about Maggie Steber, a former Miami Herald staff photographer, capturing the ongoing turmoil in Haiti.


With the recent ouster of Jean-Bertrand Aristide as Haiti’s first democratically elected president and the ensuing violence on the island, a photo exhibition at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida in Miami is particularly well-timed. “Maggie Steber: Haitian Photographs,” on view through June 6, is a grimly compelling window on a place misunderstood by the outside world. The widespread belief in Vodou and the unfathomable absence of political and economic stability on the western third of the land mass known as Hispaniola make the country a unique case in the Caribbean.

Steber is no stranger to Haiti. As a photo-journalist, she fearlessly covered the Haitian presidential election in 1990 and the tumultuous events surrounding it. Her 1991 book, “Dancing on Fire,” is a visual document of her experiences, and the photos in the exhibit represent the five years before and after the election. “Haiti is like an ache in the bones,” she notes on a wall panel. “It breaks your heart daily with its melange of beauty and suffering, its narcotic of politic dueling and the spirit world’s mysterious magic.”

Some of the untitled color images represent hope, if only in the pride of women and children captured in their Sunday best. A 1990 photo of apostolics praying on a mountain outside La Plaisance shows evidence of faith in a better day. More demonstrative in trying to contact their pantheon of gods and goddesses are Vodou celebrants dancing and drumming in Steber’s picture of a ceremony at the peristyle (enclosure) of Vodouist and fabric artist Sylva Joseph in 1989. The blurriness of the images suggests the frenzied motion of the ecstatic dancers reaching toward a world they cannot touch.

After following a man into a voting place in the Carrefour Feuile diestict of the capital in 1990, Steber captured him pondering a ballot by candlelight in the historic election that made Aristide president. The ballot is a sea of faces, numbers and images (rather than words) to help the mostly illiterate population mark the right choice.

Other images depict hopelessness. People from the Port-au-Prince shantytowns of La Saline and cite Soleil are shown fighting over trash at an American military camp in 1994. Even the discovery of discarded batteries is worth the struggle, a wall text suggests. Another photo depicts a barefoot young man, shot dead and propped up outside a home as a warning to those who wanted to vote in November, 1987. These chilling images make viewers mindful of the continuing problems in Haiti that are bigger than Haitians alone can solve.

Daily life persists, as in the outdoor killing field in the La Saline slum, where a child is indifferent to the slaughtered goat carcasses hanging nearby. The chaos of market day in the small town of Jean-Rabel in 1988 is shown in the small hand mirrors, Colgate toothpaste, Irish Spring soap and grooming devices jumbled together. The mirrors reflect the shoppers, including the stoic face of a little girl; a toddler boy sits outside a home with a painted blue wall where someone has added an image of a long-haired Jesus in a heart shape.

Then, there is absolute heart-pounding grief, expressed in the tearful face of a boy held by mourning relatives at a funeral. Death is the handmaiden of life in Haiti, where politics hurries the process along for too many people. These remarkable photos by Steber suggest the intensity of the country, only 713 miles from Miami, but in significant ways, a world apart.



“The Art of Haiti on the Streets”

By Candice Russell

If you haven’t been to Haiti, you may not know that art isn’t just a commodity in tony galleries with spotless white floors. Of course, it is present there in paintings, wood sculptures, metal figures, and Vodou flags. I’m talking about a wider consideration of art in Haiti.

The artistic impulse is inherent within the Haitian people who don’t call themselves artists. They are expressing themselves in artistic ways in the careful stacking of fruit on a display in a downtown Port-au-Prince open-air market, in the colors chosen to paint a modest house to make it beautiful and distinctive, and in the tap-taps or large buses overcrowded with travelers. The tap-taps are brightly painted with stripes and other designs, prayers, and the images of American movie stars — what ever catches the owner’s fancy.

Drive high up in the mountains to Kenscoff and you’ll see houses of eye-popping color like a deep blue a few shades above navy  or lime green or pink. Set against green mountains, they are tropical manifestations of pride and artistry.

Of course, this same artistic impulse can be seen in the architecture of homes both magnificent and humble in Haiti. From the terraces of the old Montana Hotel, up the John Brown Road from the capital heading toward Petionville, one could see fabulous mansions with twin outdoor staircases worthy of the sultan of Oman or some other royal personage.   One can only imagine what they looked like inside, gorgeously appointed with expensive furniture.

In strolling the streets of Port-au-Prince decades ago, one could easily see two-story colonial era homes with tin roofs in teal and other bold colors. These architectural gems had stood their ground for a century or more and spoke to a style of home no longer in fashion for today’s construction. Often, these homes have shuttered windows and wrap-around porches, all to take advantages of welcome cross-ventilation in the years before air conditioning.

Danish filmmaker Jorgen Leth lived in one of these beauties. It was in Port-au-Prince behind a gate on a property with a swimming pool and room for a small golf course. Formerly, it was the home of Lawrence Peabody, a noteworthy American. Leth outfitted the home with his substantial collection of Haitian art — most of it acquired through his friendship with the late Dr. Carlos Jana. This large, two-story home with elaborate gingerbread fretwork was painted white like a gigantic wedding cake.

An architectural cousin of the Leth/Peabody homestead is the Hotel Oloffson, open to everyone. Its grandiose placement at the end of a large park-like property is impressive. So is its swimming pool and verandah overlooking the gardens. That is where most meals are served. It’s also the best place to unwind with a cold beer after a day on the town. The large, legendary bar just inside on the first floor is a meeting place for those in the know about Haiti, whether they are art collectors, academics, non-governmental workers, or inveterate travelers curious about the most exciting place in the Caribbean.

Go to Haiti and catch the artistic vibe for yourself. It’s a place like no other.