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“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.

 

“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.

 

“A Great Fictional Book About Haiti”

By Candice Russell

The following is an article I wrote that was  originally published on September 20, 1998 in the Sun-Sentinel newspaper in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It is my review of a novel by Haiti’s best-known literary export, Edwidge Danticat. “The Farming of Bones” (Soho Press, 312 pages) is a fictionalized story set against actual historical events. It is the kind of compelling drama that would make a terrific film adaptation. Directors in Hollywood — are you listening?

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Every country has at least one literary torchbearer, someone whose perspective on folkways and history resonates with a foreign audience. For Haiti, that person is Edwidge Danticat, a young woman with a formidable reputation after writing two books — the novel “Breath, Eyes, Memory” in 1994 and the short story collection “Krik? Krak!” in 1995.

Danticat, 29, left the beleaguered island that is both Haiti and the Dominican Republic when she was 12. A graduate of Barnard College and Brown University, she presents her view of a little-known event in Haiti’s recent past in “The Farming of Bones,” a forceful, evocative fictionalization that should win her new fans.

She personalizes what can be called a holocaust against Haitians — the torture and massacre of 20,000 Haitians in the Dominican Republic in 1937. The narrator is Amabelle Desir, an orphaned Haitian child found by the river and put to work in a Dominican home as a maid. It is salvation that puts a price on her freedom.

By age 25, Amabelle is still an innocent, a trusting woman who asks little for herself in service to Senora Valencia. Her lover, Sebastien, who crossed the border from Haiti to the Dominican Republic in search of work, labors in a nearby sugar cane field. He wants a way out of this hard life, even before rumors circulate that they are in danger.

Signs and portents prefigure what’s to come. Senora Valencia gives birth to twins, a short-lived occasion for joy. When her army officer husband drives hurriedly home, he accidentally kills a man on the roadside, Sebastien’s friend from from the old country. Soon after, one of the twins dies.

The long, impossibly hard journey of Amabelle away from the home she has known, her separation from Sebastien, and surprising rescue are meticulously detailed. These passages are almost painful to read because the suffering and grief of so many are so great. Like Stephen Crane in “The Red Badge of Courage,” Danticat puts the reader in the depths of circumstances where survival is unlikely.

How or why Dominican President Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo sought to systematically exterminate Haitians is not explained here. They had lived in the country for decades, doing the dirtiest work. Some Haitians had even become prosperous.

This isn’t a book about political statements, troop movements, and peace treaties. It’s about the fallout of the unexplainable on people without a chance. A Haitian could be killed for the transgression of a simple mispronunciation of the word “parsley.”

This cross-cultural tale of bravery is infused with belief in mystical connections, superstition, and dreams. Strong characters are delineated in a few words.

Spanish-born Papi, the guilt-wracked grandfather of the twins, thinks there is a link between what he did in war years ago and his own domestic losses. Kongo, a respected Haitian elder, is a voice of reason among young men bitter about their persecution in the cane fields.

The aftermath of the holocaust follows Amabelle to a new life with Yves, her companion in escape, in her birth city of Cap-Haitien. It is an existence filled with regret and pain, as if the juncture of hope were irrevocably crossed and forgotten.

The title refers to the brutal labor of the cane fields. It is also something more, as Amabelle persists in her search for Sebastien and a figurative vestige of her parents, who drown in a river on the wrong side of the border.

In the fractious history of Haiti, the world first independent black republic, the country has found a powerful voice in Danticat.

 

 

“Buying Art in Haiti”

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Art gallery of Issa el-Saieh in Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Photo by Candice Russell

By Candice Russell

People might not believe it if you say that Haiti, the economically poorest country in the Western hemisphere, is the richest in visual expression. But it’s not hyperbole.

This true statement is justified by sound reasoning, since some Haitians who become artists are able to lift themselves and their families out of poverty and into a status of middle class or even wealth. The most successful ones have travelled to other countries as honored guests, as their artwork made its way onto the walls of museums in Europe, Canada, and the United States. As scholars like Selden Rodman and authors like Andre Breton brought attention to the wonders of Haitian art, collectors caught Haitian art fever and made pilgrimages to the country in search of greatness.

They didn’t have to look far. But navigating the gallery scene in the period from the mid-1980s to the early 2000s required a force of will and determination that put one’s patience to the test. After a day of pawing through hundreds of dusty canvases in un-air-conditioned galleries, always in search of the next most wonderful thing, I would be completely spent by around 4 p.m. and almost unable to move out of my hotel bed for dinner in the restaurant downstairs. I was also visually over-stimulated by a surfeit of beauty. My dreams followed suit with a cacophony of competing images.

I was always thrilled with my purchases, no matter where I found them. Atypical of the galleries I most enjoyed visiting with their vast variety and low prices were those owned by the Nader family, including the large one owned by Georges Nader in downtown Port-au-Prince, the gallery of his son, Georges Nader Jr., in Petionville, and the son’s cousin, Habib Jiha with his own space a few blocks away. These were spotless places, easy to navigate, and well-illuminated. But the sticker shock on the beautifully framed paintings often sent me away without anything. To their owners’ credit, these comfortable, pristine spaces could easily have been transported to Paris, Quebec, or New York.

The real treat in gallery hopping for me was in places like the gallery of Issa el-Saieh, up the steep road from the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince. In a country where paintings literally hang from trees, Issa adhered to a standard of excess in his gallery that I found overwhelming at first. There seemed to be absolutely no sense of order. Metal sculptures were leaning against closed jalousie windows. Figurative papier-mache sculptures of prodigious size, much bigger than the average suitcase, were moved so far out onto the tile floor that pathways between the artworks were challenging to navigate. Prices weren’t on stickers on the backs of artworks — you had to ask what they were.

Visiting Issa’s jam-packed space proved to be a treat over the years. I always looked forward to exploring there, because he always had new things and it was impossible to see everything on one visit — no matter how enthusiastic I was.

That changed one year when I stayed with my California friend Angela Winquist at Issa’s home, adjacent to the gallery. I remember it being filled, naturally, with exceptional art, including a large, unexpected painting by Jacques Richard Chery in his living room. This day-in, day-out access to the gallery allowed me the luxury of going through all three rooms, with stacks upon stacks, and things going sideways.

Issa always knew where to find things. If, for example, you found a painting of ducks by Antoinette “Josie” Valmidor, the “cook woman” in Issa’s kitchen, and wanted to see more of her work, Issa knew just where to find it. This led one to believe that the appearance of randomness and disorganization was only in the eyes of visitors, and not in the mind of the owner of the place.

It was at Issa’s that I found works by Antoinette  “Josie” Valmidor’s brother Jacques in bright primary colors — a wedding scene, a family at a picnic, a fantasy landscape with a castle, and chickens as glorious stars of their own canvases. While you could find the expensive artists, too, it was the discoveries of artists that no other gallery had that helped make visiting this gallery so special.

I loved sitting with Issa near the shutters in the main gallery, drinking sweet cups of expresso on hot mornings, talking about various things. He was a true character. During one visit, he tried to talk me out of a painting I had found in his gallery. What kind of gallery owner does this? But Issa was insistent. “Selden Rodman saw it and didn’t buy it,” he warned me of the 24-inch by 24-inch painting in black-and-white by Saint Soleil master Levoy Exil.

 

This wasn’t enough to dissuade me. I bought the painting, kept it, and still get great pleasure not only from the work, but the story that accompanies it.

 

“An Important Book on Haitian Vodou Art”

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By Candice Russell

Anyone who is committed to Haitian art has books to support this interest.  From time to time, I will analyze the books in my personal library that expose Haitian art in creative ways.

“Veve: Ritual Art of Haitian Vodou” (2005 from ReMe Art Publishing and Sandra Osse) by Nancy Turnier Ferere, with an introduction by Gerard Alphonse Ferere, is a full-color, hardback book with an abundance of illustrations. It is one of the best books for identifying veves — the ritual drawings made on the floors of Vodou temples from easily sifted materials through the fingers, like flour or coffee grounds. Naturally, the artist in Ferere cannot help but add her own imaginative flourishes to these designs symbolic of the lwas or spirits in the Vodou pantheon.

The book, in English, French and  Spanish, is also a gold mine of explanations about the religion. For Hounto, the lesser-known spirit of Vodou drums (essential to any ceremony, as well as key in Haiti’s history to become the world’s first independent black rebpulic in 1804), the author writes about the significance of drums, “As consecrated instruments, they are supposed to have the power to communicate with the lwas and facilitate their trip to earth, by producing rhythms that are the reflection of their traits.”

Ogou Feray has a triangular base with a center pole and three rounded shapes of differing size upon it. This is the “lwa of metallurgy and patron of blacksmiths, the Vulcan of Haitian Vodou.”

I know from my other books that Ogou Feray is associated with war and victory in battle. His favorite colors are blue and red, the colors of the Haitian national flag.

Ferere pictures Simbi, lwa of rivers and lakes, as a circle with a feminine border adorned with curlicue shapes and multiple points or little stars to ward off evil. The power of water and aquatic vegetation is this male spirit’s domain. She writes, “According to a legend, Simbi, like LaSiren, often takes women away with him under water, keeps them for awhile, and releases them after granting them healing powers.”

The lwas have definite preferences. But they act on people’s behalf by returning favors for obedience to their demands by influencing romantic relationships, the fate of crops, matters of justice, and economic prosperity, among other important areas of life.

In the thoughtful introduction by Gerard Alphonse Ferere, he writes about the lwas: “These are not individual gods, but instead the multiple manifestations of a unique God. When it comes to their hierarchy, in spite of the differences that may exist as to the importance of their respective responsibilities, they can only be equal, since they are all the same God. This mystery of multiplicity of persons in a single divine entity exists in many religions, including Christianity.”

Who can deny the power of Ferere’s conclusion? He writes, “People who accuse Haitian Vodou of ‘primitivism’ do not realize that, beyond its religious functions, it constitutes an enormous cultural wealth. Indeed, more than religion, it is also tradition, family, lifestyle, social life, folklore, literature, music, dance theater, visual art, etc.”

Vodou is Haiti and Haiti is Vodou, an inextricable linkage worthy of celebration. This exemplary book only adds to the serious literature on the subject and the art of Haitian Vodou.

 

 

 

COME TO HAITIAN ART SHOW!

Please call 954-792-9887 for directions to my home in west Broward County, Florida on Saturday, December 8 and Sunday, December 9 or the following weekend — Saturday, December 15 and Sunday, December 16 from 12 noon to 5 p.m. all days.

This is when I sell special Haitian artwork from my personal collection, along with new artwork — exquisite metal sculptures both painted and unpainted, gorgeously embellished Vodou flags (sequined and beaded sacred textiles), and small paintings, perfect for gift-giving. In addition, there are outstanding paintings by the Saint Soleil artists and others like the under-sung Jacques Valmidor.

If you cannot make it to the annual show, please ask me for a photo packet, customized to your taste and budget. Mention what style of art and what medium most interests you and we can proceed with a free photo packet, with sizes, descriptions and prices.

Come and be dazzled by what you find. — Candice Russell   

Haitian Artists Get a Break

Macy’s, the well-known department store, is launching its Heart of Haiti Collection, with an average of thirty-five per cent of each sale going directly back to Haitian artists. We’re talking about paintings and metal crafts to be sold at branches of Macy’s. There are forty items available, including a $10 metal pendant, a $275 oil painting, and many items priced more reasonably from $25 to $60, with the idea being that almost anyone could afford an original piece of Haitian art. Candle holders, clutch purses, napkin rings, trays, mirrors, coasters and fruit sculptures are among the offerings. Roughly 350 artists have been employed in this effort.
Highly acclaimed metal sculptor Serge Jolimeau has work in the Heart of Haiti Collection. With ten employees, according to a Sunday story in the Miami Herald, he was quoted as saying that the order from Macy’s has been a boon to him and his staff: “A lot of people are working.”
The project grew out of a May meeting convened by the William J. Clinton Foundation to figure out how to revive the Haitian art community. Good for Clinton and good for Haiti, where so much progress after January’s earthquake seems to be in pathetic slow motion. And this first collection is not just a one-shot deal. A spring collection is already in the works.
If you want to attend a launch partying South Florida, head to Dadeland Macy’s Home Store at 7675 North Kendall Drive in Miami this Thursday at 6 p.m.. Several Haitian artists whose work is featured in the collection will be on hand to show and discuss their work.
–Candice Russell
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Haitian Art Show in Miami, Florida

“Tap-Tap: Celebrating the Art of Haiti” is currently on view at the Frost Art Museum located on the campus of Florida International University in Miami, Florida. This modest show, drawn from the museum’s permanent collection, features a papier-mache tap-tap, a colorful bus topped with fruits and vegetables and people riding on the back end, and wonderfully primitive paintings by the under-rated Wagler Vital, including one titled “Fishing Boats.” As written about by Tom Austin in Sunday’s Miami Herald newspaper, the exhibition also displays work by papier-mache master Lionel Simonis, painter Gerard Fortune, and Edouard Duval-Carrie, unarguably the best-known living Haitian expatriate artist.
A brochure accompanies the exhibition. It is free to all visitors, as is the show, which continues through September 5. For more information, telephone 305/348-2890 or visit the museum at 10975 Southwest 17th Street in Miami, Florida 33199.

–Candice Russell

Aid to Haiti and Questions

Food for the Poor, a non-profit organization based in Coconut Creek, Florida with a big hand in Haiti’s post-earthquake recovery, mailed out this week a full-color, oversized brochure highlighting its achievements. It was refreshing to read what this charitable entity has accomplished so far — the building of 802 housing units, 45 water projects, 361 tractor-trailer loads of food and water distributed and 449 tractor-trailer loads of various other relief supplies delivered. But the work is far from done.

To learn more about Food for the Poor or to donate to its continuing efforts, telephone 954/427-2222. The mailing address is 6401 Lyons Road, Coconut Creek, Florida 33073.

While it is good to know that someone is doing something about providing substantial help in Haiti, rather than just promises of money, what rankles me is the absence of any entity willing or able to coordinate efforts to help the future of Haitian art and artists in Haiti, both living and deceased. Is anyone in the Haitian government coordinating an effort to preserve the paintings and other art objects damaged but still salvageable from the earthquake? What about the Biblically inspired murals at the Saint Trinity Episcopal Church in Port-au-Prince? Is there a register of artists who passed away during the tragedy and a list of who survived?

Maybe with all that needs to be done in Haiti, it is too soon to be asking these questions. But my curiosity remains keen to know the answers.
–Candice Russell