“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.