Daily Archives: April 25, 2014

“Meeting Andre Pierre” — Part Two

HoBy Candice Russell

This is a continuation of a blog I began on April 12. It is the second part of a story I wrote for City Link weekly newspaper in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when I was the visual art critic. The print date for this story about the legendary painter Andre Pierre is December 16, 1998. I feel fortunate to have met him on several occasions at his home in Haiti, a lively compound supporting several generations.

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No shady studio beckons Pierre, who is always close to his muse. He paints outdoors, under a thatched roof held up by trees and branches, while sitting in a green chair with a cane seat and a pillow. Dogs, chickens and goats roam close by. But the artist isn’t distracted by these animals or children playing a few huts away.

It’s clear that this simple life appeals to Pierre, as he creates paintings of mermaids like the goddess La Sirene and Baron Samedi, judge of the living and the dead. Through these spirits, Pierre believes that all things are possible. He’s living proof of that — by honoring the spirits, he has achieved success in his life, painting on commission for the ambassador of Venezuela and hosting a visit by the president of Senegal.

How strange to reflect on a very different art scene in Port-au-Prince just two nights before. My friend, Haitian art dealer Dr. Carlos Jara, takes me to a public exhibit by students of the National School of the Arts. There isn’t an original, interesting work among the dozen paintings set upon on easels. There are, however, several jaw-droppingly bad works by someone named “Dufo” who turns out to be the son of the famous fantasy landscape artist Prefete Duffaut. The worst portrays a large orange crucifix offset by 50 cent piece-size holes in the canvas.

Trying not to laugh, we exit quickly. “In all my years in Haiti, I haven’t seen one talent emerge from that school,” Jara says.

Pierre’s story is different from these students in search of a style. He’s self-taught and spiritually inspired. On the easel before him today is a nearly completed portrait of three Vodou spirits — Erzulie Freda Dahomey, Damballah Ouedo and Ogoun Batagri. The trio are regally dressed, like the kings and queens of a teeming jungle. Nature is alive in Pierre’s paintings. Even the seas and rivers he paints have an energetic quality.

What got him started as an artist 50 years ago was his belief in Vodou (voodoo), says the man who became a houngan, or Vodou priest, in the 1970s. He painted murals for the inside of a Vodou temple in Croix-des-Bouquets, a 45-minute drive from Port-au-Prince. They were noticed by an American anthropologist and author, Maya Deren, who passed on word about Pierre to De Witt Peters, another American in Haiti.

Peter went to the island in 1944 as a conscientious objector to World War II. In lieu of military service, he opened Le Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince, providing materials to artists and access to art-buying tourists. But it is ┬áDeren whom Pierre credits with launching his career.

There was a brief affiliation with a gallery owned by Issa el-Saieh in the capital, but the two men broke contact when Pierre accused el-Saieh of dishonesty. When Pierre is asked if he owned any of the hundreds of paintings he has created in nearly half a century, the answer is no, except for an unfinished portrait of el-Saieh. Laughing, Pierre says, “It will be finished when he dies.”