“Remember Hector Hyppolite”

By Candice Russell

Where would the mid-century Haitian art renaissance be without the discovery of Hector Hyppolite? Let us remember his unique contribution to raising up the visual culture of Haiti from the 1940s until today. The anniversary of his birth is almost upon us — September 16, 1894.

In his seminal book “Where Art is Joy: Haitian Art, the First Forty Years” (1988), Selden Rodman devotes chapter two to the circumstances surrounding the discovery of Hyppolite. American conscientious objector De Witt Peters, who would open his Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince as part of his overseas service, noticed the doors of a bar painted with birds in red and green among detailed flowers during a trip to the coastal village of Mont Rouis.

That was in 1943. It would be a year later when Peters began to investigate the anonymous painter of the doors. He found him in St. Marc and learned he was a houngan or Vodou priest. He convinced Hyppolite to join him in the capital and paint for the center. The artist established himself in a waterfront hut andn set to work, delivering sixteen paintings made with furniture enamel.

The response to this first delivery was mixed. As Rodman writes: “Peters saw that the pictures were uneven and crude, with a sameness of trees and skies, bulging eyes, and grotesque anatomies, but he was astounded by their invention.”

Famous visitors to Haiti shared Peters’ enthusiasm for the paintings of Hyppolite. None other than Andre Breton, spokesman for French Surrealism, and Cuban painter Wifredo Lam became his first collectors. Breton, in fact, bought five Hyppolite paintings at eight dollars each.

Rodman brought then-young American novelist Truman Capote to Haiti to meet Hyppolite. The writer admired the painter “because there’s nothing in it that has been slyly transposed; he is using what lives inside him: his country’s spiritual history,its sayings, and worship.”

In fact, Hyppolite was torn between the time it took to create his paintings with Vodou personages like “Agoue and His Consort” and “Ogoun on His Charger” and the practice of Vodou to which he was called. Rodman cites the conflict as perhaps the reason why the artist’s output was uneven in consistency. He struggled with the age-old 20th and 21st century conundrum of finding balance between all the demands of a busy life.

But, at a certain point, he considered himself more of an artist than a priest (and priesthood was also the calling of his father and grandfather). Even so, Rodman writes: “His technique was never wholly adequate to translate his visions into effective plastic images.”

Folklore, zombis and black magic interested him in paintings, Rodman writes. So what that they lacked execution of conventional perspective? He died in 1948, too soon to see the profound effect he would have generations of Haitian artists eager to imitate his style or to achieve the pinnacle of fame he did within his lifetime (an achievement eluding too many Haitian artists).

Of course, in the decades since Hyppolite’s passing, he has become the poster child of high prices achieved at auction. No other Haitian artist comes close, though the works of Edouard Duval Carrie are getting there. Tens of thousands of dollars have been paid for Hyppolite paintings since the 1980s. It is rare to see one at auction or to even hear of one for sale from a collector.

This week, raise a toast to Hector Hyppolite and his impact on a country and a culture always worth celebrating.

-the end-

 

 

 

“Crafting a Speech on Haitian Art”

By Candice Russell

Lucky me — this fall and winter I have been approved as a lecturer on the subject of Haitian art by Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Florida. What this means is a series of speeches on the campus and at various facilities in Broward and Palm Beach Counties, beginning in late September and continuing through January.

Of course, Haitian art is my favorite subject. I live surrounded by it, think about it daily, curate museum shows on it, wrote one book on it, and ponder how to write a novel about it. Haitian art is my constant.

But how to sum up the rich visual heritage of seven decades in a public talk of roughly forty minutes? Would it be better to concentrate on a single school of Haitian art, like the Saint Soleil artists Prospere Pierre Louis, Levoy Exil, Louisiane Saint Fleurant, Denis Smith and Dieuseul Paul, or the Cap-Haitien artists spearheaded by the Obin family? Or is a chronological overview better, scanning the accomplishments of Haitian artists by generation?

Should paintings be the emphasis of my speech? That seems logical. But to give short shrift to Haitian sculptors would be a serious misstep. Acknowledgment must be paid of their considerable contributions in the area of wood sculpture. No one is a better exponent of this than Nacius Joseph, whose Vodou personages like guitar-playing mermaids and daily life scenes like men rowing for freedom as boat people headed for the United States.

Sculptors of papier-mache have their titans, too, including Michel Sinvil and Lionel Simonis. Both craft figurative pieces of smallish to quite large size. They are geniuses, inspiring countless others to craft fantastic creations for Carnival parades.

Mixed-media sculptors deserve a verbal nod as well. Pierrot Barra’s other-worldly, even eerie constructions using doll heads come to mind as especially representative of art as an example of creative re-purposing of discards. Haitians probably aren’t as familiar with the terms “recycling” as we are in the U.S., but they do it all the time in their artwork.

Think of the recycled oil drums that have been hammered and punctured into girls riding bicycles, two-horned bulls symbolizing determination, and undersea creatures. This form of art thrives in Croix-des-Bouquets, not far from the cemetery where the crosses for the dead by Georges Liautaud were noticed, leading to this art form in metal and iron.

The speech cannot overlook Vodou flags, those gorgeously embellished ceremonial squares of cloth. So important in rituals, so prized by foreign cultures, Vodou flags are unique representations of spiritual creatures. They are exquisite examples of handwork and artistic conceptualization.

We haven’t even scratched the surface of Haitian art. One could easily spend an entire speech discussing the Guede family of spirits that govern death and the fate of the soul. Baron Samedi, Brigitte la Croix, and the others all have different jobs. Ceremonies for them around November 1 are especially lively, with men and women dressing in purple and black and assuming the gender identity of their opposites. Guede paintings and Vodou flags are among the favorites in my personal collection.

Do you see my dilemma?

 

“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 www.luckymojo.com, “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.

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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.

 

“Famous Vodou Festival at Saut D’Eau”

By Candice Russell

I couldn’t let the month of July pass without mentioning a Vodou festival in Haiti of great importance. It is the Festival of Our Lady of Carmel, held from July 14 to 16, at the waterfall in Saut D’Eau near the town of Ville Bonheur. A pilgrimage is made to the site in a procession led by Rara musicians. This joyful parade is preceded by a ceremony in a church — proof that Vodou and Christianity go hand-in-hand.

For three glorious days, celebrants bathe in the cooling waters, washing away the heat of summer and wishing for spiritual deliverance. Since water is sacred to two significant Vodou spirits, Damballah and Ayida Wedo, they are thought to also be present. This, at least, was reported in the book “The Serpent and the Rainbow” by Harvard University ethno-botanist Wade Davis, who cited the spirits’ appearance at the waterfall. (A hyperventilating Hollywood take of Haitian Vodou is found in the movie adaptation of his book with the same title, which Davis later disavowed. But that’s another story).

People said they saw the Vodou spirit Erzulie, often associated with the Virgin Mary, at Saut D’Eau. A French priest deemed the sighting mere superstition and cut down a tree at the site. His negativity did not prevent Saut D’Eau from becoming a major destination for religion pilgrimage.

Submergence in the waterfall and the pool it creates is done while praying and asking favors of these religious personages. Erzulie, who, in all manifestations, is associated with rivers, streams, lakes and waterfalls, is thought to be able to cure infertility. If bathing in these waters, singing, praying, and drinking rum and coconut juice may unlock the key to having a baby for infertile couples, it’s no wonder the site and festival are so beloved.

The web site of the global traveler The Nerdy Nomad explains how this image of the dark-skinned Virgin Mary, known as Erzulie Dantor, became known to Haitians. It says that the Polish icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa was brought to Haiti by Polish soldiers fighting on both sides of the Haitian Revolution in the early 1800s.

On page 157 in my book “Masterpieces of Haitian Art,” a wonderful painting by Gerard Valcin called “Vodou Cascade” (1984) from the collection of the Waterloo Center for the Arts in Waterloo, Iowa pictures this event of hope and transcendence. In the painting, most of the celebrants are clothed. But there are a few in various stages of half- or complete undress. In this lovely verdant setting, there is only the belief that the Vodou spirits will come. There is no sign of Erzulie, Damballah or Ayida Wedo. As always, faith will sustain those who visit Saut D’Eau.

Her roots in history go back farther than that. The image of the black Madonna first appeared in Christian iconography more than 1,000 years ago. Evidence exists that she is descended from the Egyptian goddess Isis. But her genesis relates to something even more basic — the Great Earth Mother, with her blackness being a symbol of the most fertile soil

“Writing a Haitian Art Book” — Part Two

By Candice Russell

This is a continuation of a story begun last week about the writing of my book “Masterpieces of Haitian Art.” There are those people who would debate the legitimacy of including in such a book anything other than paintings, since that was the medium that got the ball rolling on the mid-century renaissance of Haitian art. But those are people with whom I strongly disagree.

Since when is a three-dimensional sculpture a lesser form of art than a two-dimensional painting? How fair is it to exclude the geniuses of other media because their works aren’t created with canvas and paint? Put this way, it seems unthinkable NOT to include them.

And, so they appear in “Masterpieces of Haitian Art,” without a word of refusal or dissent from my editor at Schiffer Books in Atglen, Pennsylvania. One can legitimately say that the creators of Vodou flags are painting with sequins and beads when they create these sacred textiles. A cottage industry has grown up around them, ever since Antoine Oleyant and Clotaire Bazile pioneered their outreach beyond the Vodou communities in Haiti.

There were so many exceptional works that came through my hands in different forms that choosing which to include in the book was extremely difficult. Vodou flags range in style from charmingly childlike to positively sophisticated. Each one exerts a strong pull on me. The exactitude of Jean Baptiste Jean Joseph, who stands in a class by himself, is appealing. So is his use of luxurious materials, like velvet for the background cloth. His choice of subject matter also sets him apart from his peers.

Stylistically different from each other, both Bazile and Oleyant are the titans of the Vodou flag medium. Traditional in his portrayal of the spirits, Bazile is known for his enclosing borders, akin to quilt-makers in the United States. It’s as if he is protecting his images. Oleyant always exhibited a freer hand in executing his pieces and a more liberal interpretation of his themes.

Who can deny the work of Myrlande Constant, perhaps the best-known Vodou flag maker among women artists? Her “Simbi” in my book of a woman in a white gown walking out of the ocean with flowers falling from her hands is the kind of work that resonates with everyone who sees it.

Papier-mache, long under-appreciated as a medium perhaps because of its humble origins from water and paper, is also honored in my book. Thank you to Michel Sinvil and Lionel Simonis, the kings of this medium, whose fanciful creations are an essential contribution to the subject of Haitian art. Simonis’ mermaids are the height of whimsy. But, in a completely different tone, is “La Vie Drole,” a tribute to the people lost at sea in trying to cross the ocean from Haiti to a different life in Florida. Sinvil’s figures are large and magnificent; they include “Relax Lady,” a woman carrying a baby, and “Bearded Angel.”

If you go to Haiti and stay at the Hotel Oloffson, large papier-mache busts of historical figures and revolutionary heroes are used as decoration in the guest rooms. It’s another way to honor the papier-mache tradition of art in Haiti and its prominence at Carnival parades.

 

“Writing a Haitian Art Book” — Part One

By Candice Russell

At book signings for my book “Masterpieces of Haitian Art,” I am asked by readers about what was involved in the selection process for the pieces that are within its pages. The answer lies partly in the necessary limitations set by the publisher. I was told not to exceed 300 pieces of art to be reproduced in color. My final total went over that number by a few, but not much.

With those parameters in place, it was clear that this book wouldn’t be the be-all and end-all on the topic of masterpieces of Haitian art. There are far too many in the world to have been contained in 256 pages. But the book stands as a statement about Haitian art that people who had never seen it would appreciate and those who thought they knew Haitian art would have their minds blown by the heights of creativity in the book.

The fact is, I had only myself to consult in regard to choosing the artwork. There were no committees involved, no panels of scholars mulling over what to include and exclude.

Naturally, any book with the word “masterpieces” in the title had to include the titans like Hector Hyppolite, Rigaud Benoit, and the Obin family. And they are represented. But, just as important in my view, are the lesser-known and even unknown artists like Antoinette “Jose” Valmidor, Bety Veillard, and Natacha Philogene, who deserved their place on these pages.

Because art is subjective, my choices are up for debate. I welcome such discussions (though I would have shrunk at the thought of them 14 years ago). This is largely due to the fact that the book may get people thinking and talking about my favorite subject, Haitian art, which is all to the good. Also, I hope that my book motivates someone else with a completely different take on the topic to write a book of their own. The literature on Haitian art in the 21st century needs more voices, more champions. If my book angers you enough to express another, entirely divergent viewpoint, this I would consider to be a wonderful development.

Choosing just enough art for the book was like “Sophie’s Choice.” Wanting to show the range and variety in some careers, I included up to four works in a single medium by an artist. It would have been remiss of me to only show the angel paintings of Jean Baptiste Jean, for example. He is also known for spot-on depictions of daily life, including the catastrophic aftermath of a flood and a bicycle race through the streets of Cap-Haitien. So both sides of the artist’s oeuvre are in the book.

Though my personal taste tends to run in the opposite direction of modern and sophisticated, I included artists who epitomize this description and whose works I greatly admire. This group includes Rony Leonidas, Luckner Lazard, Jacques Enguerrand Gourgue, and Milhomme Racine, among others. I appreciate their contributions as much as those of the under-sung artists who deserve to find supporters of their work.