Monthly Archives: August 2006


September 1, 2006

By Candice Russell

For art collectors enamored of Haiti, a glimpse of island life on the big screen is sufficient to fire up a desire to visit in person. But going to Haiti isn’t as easy or safe as it used to be even three years ago. Haiti-maniacs like myself are having to make do with other people’s cinematic interpretations of Haiti. A new film in theaters called “Heading South” or “Vers Le Sud,” since the language is occasionally French with English subtitles, is a sensual and disturbing view of Haiti in the late 1970s, in the innocent sexual times before AIDS reined in wantonly licentious behavior.

Charlotte Rampling as a Bostonian literature professor and Karen Young as a Georgia divorcee who discovered her bliss on a Haitian beach with a well-muscled teen-age boy play rivals for the affection of the handsome Legba. He attempts to please all the women who want his company, playing no favorites because they reward him with money and gifts in return for the pleasure of his sexual performance. A considerable gap of decades separates Legba and Rampling’s character, making her the biological peer of his grandmother, but no matter to either party. Gigolos dominate the elite scene at La Petite Anse, the beachside resort where the film’s action is set, and immorality or ethics seem to be no one’s concern.

While intense jealousy plays out between the women, Legba has troubles of his own with a well-connected ex-girlfriend who wants him back. The threat of danger no less than the desperation of Haiti for poor, beautiful women hangs over the drama. Director and co-writer Laurent Cantet, working from a novel by Dany Laferriere, conveys the tension between foreigners and Haitians at nearly every turn. The relationships are pathetically unequal and devoid of respect or understanding. All the insouciance, rum drinks and coupling cannot vanquish a sense of foreboding. It’s sad, it’s true and it’s worth seeing.

From what I could gather from the end credits, the beach scenes were shot in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island mass of Hispaniola with Haiti. Discerning collectors who see “Heading South” may notice background glimpses of Vodou flags in beachside cabins and metal sculptures by Serge Jolimeau on the walls of the plein air restaurant. I’m still waiting for a film about Haitian art from a contemporary fictional or non-fictional perspective.

Jonathan Demme, who ended “The Silence of the Lambs” with Anthony Hopkins talking on the telephone in Haiti, is the logical director of choice for such an ambitious project. He previously made the documentaries “Haiti: Dreams of Democracy” in 1987 about the overthrow of the Duvalier dictatorship and “The Agronomist” about the murder of a noted peaceful man of the land. Demme’s support of human rights in Haiti and his large Haitian art collection underscore his sympathy for the place and the people.

If Demme were to make the ultimate film about Haitian art in Haiti, it would be enough to counter the depressing excesses of the lamentable “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” a big-budget Universal Pictures film that perverted and sensationalized the non-fiction book of the same title by Wade Davis.

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Gay Artists Flourish in Haiti

August 26, 2006

By Candice Russell

On the Caribbean island of Haiti, proud declarations of homosexuality go against the cultural norm of keeping intimate matters private. In spite of this fact, homosexual artists like the painter Prince Jean Jo, and Jean Baptiste Jean Joseph, a genius of the voodoo flag medium who lives in Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti, are creating names for themselves and legacies of art that will outlive them in museums and private homes. Both artists have prized work for sale during my annual in-home Haitian art extravaganza in Plantation, scheduled every weekend between Thanksgiving and Christmas..

Prince Jean Jo, a native of Jacmel who died in 1996, was stereotypically flamboyant. According to the book “Images from Haiti: Jorgen’s Leth Collection,” the artist “was a controversial figure in the provincial setting because of his demonstrative homosexuality.” That didn’t matter to savvy gallery owners like the late Dr. Carlos Jara, who carried the artist’s raw, graffiti-inspired canvases with overtly gay themes alongside jungle scenes, fantasy landscapes and voodoo ceremonies painted by Haitian masters. These in-your-face depictions of stiff phalluses and lesbian lip locks by Prince Jean Jo, showcased by Jara in an exhibition at the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince in 1991, were out of step with a culture known for public modesty. Other painters, with strong political biases, including Stivenson Magloire, know the value of making their symbolism dense enough to avoid easy decoding by an enemy regime. Prince Jean Jo, whose real name was the far less colorful Jean Jose Lafontant, didn’t care who he might offend by painting what was in his heart and mind.

Working in conscious imitation of Haitian-American Jean-Michel Basquiat, the deceased graffiti painter who became a fine artist in New York City, Prince Jean Jo went beyond painting canvases. He chose to experiment with different forms in mixed media collages, one of which is pictured in “Images from Haiti.” Made from wood, textiles, a coconut shell and scary-looking drips of red oil paint, “Voodoo Nouveau” (1991) makes reference to Haiti’s politics and history. He is remembered fondly by Emeraude Michel Jara, the widow of Dr. Carlos Jara, who lives in Montreal, Canada: “Prince Jean Jo was a very friendly guy who knew a lot about literature and art. He worked as an English teacher.”

To reach the home and studio of Jean Baptiste Jean Joseph, a thin man of 39 fond of Nautica clothing, means driving down a dusty, unpaved road in the small town of Croix-des-Bouquets. The self-taught artist holds court in a space overwhelmed with his artistic output, with sequined and beaded squares of cloth in the making and in finished form hanging everywhere including the rafters. These voodoo flags depict in symbols and figures the spirits within the voodoo pantheon that are thought to control prosperity, health, romance, and the state of crops, among other things.

What sets his work apart is a wider range of subject matter and a vibrant use of unusual colors than his contemporaries. Joseph depicts traditional imagery, too, such as the regal-looking Virgin Mary known in Haitian voodoo as Erzulie, goddess of love. But it’s his whimsical portrayal of angels, fabulously long-tailed cats, and playful lizards, as much as his use of rich satin fabric and jewel-tone beads that distinguish the artist as someone very special.

Working side by side with Joseph is a team of teen-age boys who sit bent over clamped squares of white cotton cloth, sewing the designs made by the artist. Less demonstrative than Prince Jean Jo, Joseph does everything quietly, including negotiation for a purchase of multiple items by visiting foreign collectors. There is a lot to choose from — similarly embellished vests, hats, eyeglass cases, and bottles.

New to his studio are a charming array of Christmas decorations including puffy hearts sequined and beaded on both sides, angels with multi-colored wings, stars, and other shapes. Joseph is alone in Haiti as a creator of these beautiful items which are designer pieces from a master of the textile medium. If one detects a touch of magic in his work, it is to be expected, since he began making voodoo flags after a dream urging him to do so. Without a mentor, Joseph the factory worker became one of Haiti’s best-known living artists.


An Essay by Candice Russell

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.

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The Haitian Art Company, in business in Key West, Florida since 1977, is for sale. Owner Boris Kravitz, who lives in Haiti, is selling the historic corner property with residence upstairs for $1.6 million. That includes $1 million in inventory. One can only hope that the buyer maintains the gallery as the Haitian Art Company and doesn’t sell it to a condo developer, remaindering the artwork to a wholesale buyer who couldn’t care less for it. Kravitz is known for discovering artists and selling paintings next to photos of the artists, whom he knows personally. The gallery is in the midst of a major sale. If interested in purchasing the gallery, telephone (305) 296-8932 or visit the website Or email for a prospectus at

Candice Russell


Dispite political unrest, the business of Haitian art thrives. Thank you to all the members of the Haitian Art Society, a gathering of collectors, gallery owners and museum officials from around the U.S., who came to my home in mid-May as part of a weekend-long South Florida visit. All attended the show “Allegories of Haitian Life: The Collection of Jonathan Demme” at the Bass Museum on Miami Beach, a show I co-curated with Axelle Liautaud. The one and only venue for the show was this one, so the opportunity to view the private holdings of major art collector and film director Demme was indeed special.

I met new friends from the Haitian Art Society like Bill Bollendorf of Pittsburgh and Kent Shankle of the Waterloo Center for the Arts in Waterloo, Iowa, which has a dedicated space for Haitian art and a large permanent collection of it as well. I saw old friends too, like super-collectors Beverly Sullivan of Washington, D.C. and Ed Gessen of southern California. Between the champagne and the Italian meatballs, the group that arrived on a Greyhound bus in front of my suburban home had a lot to see and talk about. But the visit of these Haitian art lovers was brief — only 90 minutes before they headed back to Miami and dinner at Tap-Tap Restaurant on South Beach, where Haitian art is on the walls in wonderful murals and on painted furniture. The menu’s deliciously Haitian.

Candice Russell

Haiti – Not Safe!

August 13, 2006

Now is not the time to visit Haiti, unless you are accompanied by armed guards like the United Nations’ Kofi Annan. Ordinary residents, including foreigners who have been in Haiti for decades, are being kidnapped or, worse, murdered according to recent reports in the Miami Herald. Canadian missionary Ed Hughes, who runs an orphanage, was taken from his home in a town north of Port-au-Prince in late June, held for ransom and eventually released. He decided to return to Canada rather than remain in Haiti, putting himself and his orphanage at further risk. What will happen to the 120 children he fed and supported every day? No one knows. It is unlikely that fellow Canadians will rush to fill the breach. In May of this year, 29 people were kidnapped in the capital, according to the United Nations peacekeeping mission. That number rose to an alarming 49 kidnap victims in July, including the sixty-something wife of an Italian man. He was brutalized, tied and beaten death as his wife was led away to captivity. Eventually, she was released after her family paid an undisclosed sum of money.

Candice Russell

Possessed: The Art of Haiti

Haitian Art Exhibition that I Curated at Coral Springs Museum of Art

By Candice Russell

When most people think of Haitian art, what comes to mind are island paintings in bold tropical colors depicting scenes of daily life. While primitive paintings have found a large and popular following in the U.S. and other countries, Haiti is getting to be well-known for other forms of artistic expression. These alternative media including metal sculptures and beautifully embellished textiles are showcased in a new exhibition “Possessed: The Art of Haiti” at the Coral Springs Museum of Art now until August 19.

The vibrant and informative show explores the tradition and meaning behind the metal sculptures crafted from recycling the metal from oil drums. This art form grew out of the discovery of iron crosses in the cemetery in Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti, a small town located an hour’s drive from the capital of Port-au-Prince. The maker of the crosses with curlicues and other adornments was Georges Liautaud (1899-1991), who was encouraged to use steel, metal, brass and iron for other purposes than honoring the dead. The results were magical. Liautaud made angels, figures from comical stories, animals, crucifixions and personages from the Haitian religion of Vodou.

The bulk of the metal sculptures at the museum belong to Montreal, Canada resident Emeraude Michel-Jara, the widow of important Haitian art dealer Dr. Carlos Jara. These rare works are a testament to Dr. Jara’s friendships with artists in Haiti including metal masters Serge Jolimeau, Gabriel Bien-Aime, Luce Turnier and Lionel Saint-Eloi. Some artists in the show prefer to adorn their metal sculptures with coats of paint to add shadow, texture and personality to their creations. Whimsical examples include “Big Fish” by Christobal and “Cats in a Tree” by Norbert.

Sharing the stage in “Possessed” are sacred squares of cloth meticulously hand-sewn with sequins and beads to honor the spirits of Haitian Vodou. For that reason, they serve a purpose that is more than decorative. Used by Americans as wall hangings or pillow covers, Vodou flags can be figurative or symbolic in representing the male and female spirits who control all aspects of life, from the fertility of crops to successful romances. Made to be as expensive as the resources of a community will allow, these flags are glittering manifestations of faith.

Thirteen artists who make Vodou flags are found at the Coral Springs Museum of Art including Clotaire Bazile, known for his traditional portrayal of the spirits, and the late Antoine Oleyant, who used the cloth more as a painter in his free-handed creations. Amena Simeon, one of the growing number of women artists in this medium, is represented by “Couzin Zaka,” the bare-footed spirit of agriculture wearing a jaunty hat. Other examples by Prospere Pierre Louis and Wagler Vital, known primarily as painters, demonstrate the validity of translating their visions from canvas to another kind of cloth plus embellishment.

As a tribute to Haitian art, “Possessed” is cause for speculation and wonder. All the works in the exhibition are from untrained artists who never studied form, composition or color. All labored under the most difficult conditions in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere to create art for generations to come.