Jean Camille Nasson (1961 – 2008)

January 17, 2009

It is with regret and sadness that I report the death of the great Haitian sculptor Jean Camille Nasson (1961-2008), who died last month. In a country plagued by natural disasters like floods, rampant poverty and political uncertainty, lives are cut short by a multiplicity of factors. And collectors are left wounded by the loss.

One of my favorite Haitian art possessions is an angel-devil figure carved of dark wood by Nasson. Its wings are made of metal and its head is festooned with tiny nails around which are wound brassy-colored metal threads. The figure has horns. In front of him is a metal cross attached with nails. Instead of eyes, there are empty sockets. The work is gritty and raw, yet breathtakingly sophisticated. Nasson evoked the duality of good and bad within the same personage. An explanation about this intriguing work came from Haitian art dealer Reynald Lally, who was exhibiting the work of Nasson and other cutting-edge Haitian sculptors several years ago in Miami, Florida. He said that Nasson, as a child, had been molested by a Catholic priest. This sexual attack left him with conflicted feelings about the church, which obviously were manifest in my sculpture.

Lally, who lives in Haiti, was kind enough to write about Nasson in an email to me: “His work with sculpture began at the age of eight, when a Catholic priest showed him how to make religious sculptures. He became friends with Haitian contemporary artist Mario Benjamin who showed him art books.

“Nasson started doing figures carved out of wood. He added nails, metals and other found materials. He made devils and Virgins Marys with antennas. I asked him why he placed antennas on his figures and he answered, ‘So they can send and receive messages.’

“His work can be found in museums around the world including Casas de Americas in Havana, Cuba, the Vatican collection in Italy and the Waterloo Center for the Arts in Waterloo, Iowa, among other places. The new stars of Haitian art from the Grand Rue — Guyodo, Celeur and Eugene — were highly influenced by Nasson. He always had a smile on his face. That is how I will remember him.”

Nasson’s remarkable sculptures were seen in the landmark Haitian sculpture exhibition “Lespri Endepandan: Exploring Haitian Sculpture” at Florida International University’s main museum in Miami, Florida several years ago, Writing for City Link newspaper at the time, I called these mixed media figures fetishistic and born of influences from Christianity and Vodou. Nasson’s sculptures held their own amidst works by Georges Liautaud, Lionel St. Eloi, Pierrot Barra and Edouard Duval-Carrie, among many others. Nasson was a titan and a true original in the ever-evolving Haitian art scene.

–Candice Russell