THIS ESSAY WAS WRITTEN in September, 2004 for a local alternative newspaper about an exhibition of Haitian art, both Vodou flags and paintings, that I curated for the Boca Raton Museum of Art in Boca Raton, Florida.
By Candice Russell
My first awareness of Haitian art came during the early 1980s in the course of a midday meal at a Washington, D.C. restaurant. Though the dining room had a low ceiling and dark wood paneling, the mood of the place was unaccountably cheerful because of paintings in bright tropical colors. Beach scenes and landscapes caught my eye and the restaurant owner explained that they were from Haiti, a place known to me only through the Steely Dan song “Haitian Divorce.”
In the decades since that fateful day, I have traveled to Haiti dozens of times in pursuit of art. Collecting became a borderline obsession as I sought outstanding works by name artists in Port-au-Prince galleries. Not everything, of course, was within this journalist’s budget. I wasn’t a big-time gallery owner from New York or Paris with deep pockets or an international aid worker or a monied Japanese tourist, all of whom subsidized Haitian art with regularity. But considering Haiti’s status as the poorest country within the Western Hemisphere, as well as its reputation for fine art, it was possible to build a worthy collection on modest sums. The same is probably true today, though the sites are fewer as the gallery scene has shrunk and the conditions tougher for discovering great art.
“Sequined Surfaces: Haitian Vodou Flags” and “Paintings from the Candice Russell Collection” are two exhibitions on view now through November 7 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art (561-392-2500). Both shows bear my stamp as curator. All artworks, which come from my collections, take their inspiration from spirituality and the misunderstood world-class religion of Vodou, known pejoratively in the U.S. as “voodoo.” Even the exotic word has negative connotations. Former President Ronald Reagan coined the term “voodoo economics.” Hollywood B-movies have luridly associated voodoo with cannibalism, though as the religion is practiced in Haiti there is absolutely no connection.
In truth, Vodou is a combination of African tribal beliefs, brought by slaves from Africa to the island centuries ago, and Roman Catholicism, foisted on the slaves by their French colonial captors. Passed down through the generations orally, rather than in written in form, Vodou remains surprisingly complex in terms of the relationship between the gods and goddesses and the traditions used to honor them.
Attending my first Vodou ceremony in Jacmel, Haiti in 1985, I was led by the wrist by a man named Vitesse on dirt roads after dark to a thatched-roof structure near the beach. After making a small monetary donation, I sat and watched people in every-day dress sing and dance the night away for hour after hour. As the only white person, I had the feeling I was seeing the preliminary aspect of a ceremony rather than the real thing, which would probably occur the moment Vitesse walked me back to my hotel. Yet I was witness to a near-possession as a young woman in pink shorts and matching hair curlers aggressively thrust her torso in synch with the demands of an unseen spirit world.
Observing other Vodou ceremonies in Haiti over the years hardly me a veteran of the scene, as each one was so different. When my friend Ginna and I arrived in Leogane, a hotbed of Vodou, the sight of us set the people near a Vodou temple into a frenzy of excitement. They couldn’t wait to plug in their instruments, dance and sing for us. We were there at the right time of year since the end of October and the beginning of November honor the spirits of the Guede family who govern the fate of the soul after death. It’s a time revelry and celebration when men dress up as women and women dress up as men.
Before I left on this trip, a Haitian friend in Miami had warned me not to get caught up in Vodou ceremonies, a statement that made me laugh because I didn’t understand how this could possibly happen. But in this Leogane cement temple with the pulsations of the drum, the singing and the excitement, I was drawn to join in. The only thing that stopped me was my friend. I leaned over to Ginna and asked if she wanted to get up and dance. “No,” she said emphatically, surprised at my reaction. So I sat and maintained the role of the outsider. To this day, I wonder what it would have been like to participate and whether the seduction of the Vodou spiritual world could have drawn me to the other side.
Vodou is an integral part of Haitian art, which also takes inspiration from daily life and fantasy. On view at the Boca Museum are paintings by masters like Wilson Bigaud, La Fortune Felix, Gerard Valcin and Prospere Pierre Louis depicting the spirits and legends associated with the religion. Bigaud shows a zombie being led from a cemetery, a myth with basis in fact about the dead brought back to life. In my very first Haitian art purchase, Felix portrays a ceremony in Gauguinesque greens and purples. Papa Zaca, the god of agriculture in hungry Haiti, fills the canvas in a painting by Valcin. The late Louis, son of a Vodou priest and a prominent member of the avant-garde Saint Soleil movement of painters, uses a primitive life form to suggest the genesis of existence. If you go to the exhibition, there are written explanations next to each work.
Artifacts used in Vodou ceremonies are displayed at the other show at the Boca museum. Vodou flags are squares of cloth elaborately sewn with sequins and beads to spell words of identification and personify Vodou gods and goddesses in either symbolic or mortal form. When sewn with ties on one side, flags are used ceremonially to welcome special guests to Vodou ceremonies. They are also unfurled to attract the spirits. Made as expensively as the resources of a Vodou community can afford, flags are glittering manifestations of faith that catch the light of candles and the attention of beings on another plane. Seen in a museum context, they are beautiful textiles of anthropological importance.
The fact that so much magnificent art has come out of Haiti is worth pondering, though not easily explained. Limited in resources and desperate to stay alive, the masses in Haiti struggle with the basics of finding shelter, food, and work on a daily basis. Many self-taught artists, as most Haitian artists are, face the same difficulties in light of political instability and a moribund tourist industry. Yet their intuitive genius for color, form and composition has created a proud legacy of art and the greatest per capita explosion of art for art’s sake in the Caribbean, if not the world.