Hotel in Haiti Big on Haitian Art

By Candice Russell

If I went to Haiti in 2014, I might choose to stay at the Best Western Premier in Petionville for one reason only — Haitian art is everywhere within the new 106-room property that opened this year. According to a December 27th story in the Miami Herald by Jacqueline Charles, the hotel can boast of 622 works of art from 100-plus Haitian artists.

While the homegrown aspect of decorating the space is admirable, it certainly isn’t the first time in Haiti that a hotelier has incorporated the art of the country into a design scheme. Look at the legendary Oloffson Hotel in Port-au-Prince, which itself is an architectural masterpiece, looking more like an ornate white-frosted wedding cake than an establishment for visitors to lay their heads. Art is all over the place.

Eat a meal on the verandah of the Oloffson and your plate will sit either on a hand-painted or woven place mat, courtesy of talented Haitians. Walk the grounds in front of the hotel and admire the painted statues referencing the Taino and Arawak Indians and the personages of voodoo (also known, more respectfully, as Vodou).

The hotel rooms at the Oloffson are similarly repositories of original Haitian art, as they should be — advertisements for the country’s visual expression of the highest order. A massive fantasy landscape painting in soothing shades of blue by Mecene Brunis hung over the bed in my favorite room on the second floor.

In the bar and lobby of the Oloffson are eye-catching artworks in papier-mache — oversized busts of the country’s historical figures and founding fathers. These are visions of sartorial elegance.

During the 1990s, the Oloffson lobby was also an art gallery of rotating exhibitions with original paintings supplied by gallery dealer Dr. Carlos Jara. Outstanding paintings by the underrated Jorelus Joseph, Saint Soleil masters, and many others were on display with clearly visible prices. The idea behind these exhibitions wasn’t just to decorate this social gathering spot, but to make sales and support living artists and their families.

This same situation is what I hope for the Best Western Premier — an ongoing commitment to showcase the best original Haitian art and to sell it, so that the artists can produce more and can expect a steady stream of future purchases by hotel visitors. But I’m not sure that this is the goal of Pascale Theard, the high-end leather goods designer who is responsible for realizing the artistic vision of the hotel. “I want people to see that Haitian art can be extremely modern,” she told the Miami Herald.

Theard has installed chairs in guest rooms that were made by hand in the village of Marmelade. The walls feature scenes of peasant life made from cut-out banana leaves. According to writer Charles, there are “red, green and blue sunflower-inspired panels from Croix-des-Bouquets that illuminate the pool area at night.”

The hotel restaurant, Le Michel, features bronze-colored recycled drum masks. Theard’s efforts, after working with creative Haitians over six months, were intentional: “I wanted to take it to another level, one that is more avant-garde, more contemporary.”

If that is so, then why not include paintings by famous artists associated with the modern and contemporary, such as Bernard Sejourne, Lyonel Laurenceau, and Raymond Olivier, among others? What about other contemporary artists new on the art scene in this century? Why didn’t Theard consult with Axelle Liautaud, the designer and owner of the Gingerbread Gallery in Petionville, whose impeccable taste could have added a new dimension of art to the hotel?

While it’s a nice gesture to put more than 300 framed paintings in guest rooms, why are they only made of banana leaves (a throwback to postcards for tourists in bygone days) and not acrylic and oil paints? Let’s face facts. It was the paintings of people like Hector Hyppolite, Rigaud Benoit, Wilson Bigaud and many others that got the ball rolling on the mid-century Haitian art renaissance in the late 1940s. Why not showcase true art?

In her nod to old-school Haitian art, Theard has paintings on display by the widely lauded painters of the Saint Soleil movement. But the ones in the Best Western Premier in Petionville are reproductions, not originals. Is she aware that Levoy Exil, one of the original core members of the group, is still alive and working? So is his daughter, Maria Dania Exil. Why not put their works in the hotel? Why not hold a premiere party in the hotel lobby with the Exils as special guests and generate print and TV coverage and excitement among hotel guests? Then make sales. Everybody wins.

Granted, Theard and I have different definitions of Haitian art. But I don’t know why she missed an opportunity to nurture painters, Vodou flag makers, and sculptors of oil drum art living near the hotel. She could make that space a regular showcase for them as individual artists whose reputations she could enhance through display and commercial enterprise. Theard could do much more for the cause of Haitian art through monthly exhibitions by Haitian artists in diverse media. Think of the rewards for all involved.