Monthly Archives: February 2015

“Essay in Catalog is Personal”

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.

“Tribute to a Great Artist”

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.”