By Candice Russell
The Saturday afternoon salons of Dr. Carlos Jara at his home in the Debussy section of Port-au-Prince during the 1990s were legendary. Whether you came to Haiti as an adventurous traveler like myself, a diplomat, a charity worker, or a missionary, it is likely you knew about these regular events — a highlight in cultural arts circles. Always with coffee and drinks, sometimes with lunch, the salons were informal get-togethers of disparate people in the know, coming together at the behest of a man with a varied and esteemed reputation.
Jara was a psychiatrist in his native Santiago, Chile. He came to Haiti as a diplomat, working for the Organization of American States, and settled there with first wife, Marie-Isabelle. Following their divorce, he married Emeraude Michel, the sister of popular singer Emeline Michel. With an eye for art and an intuitive understanding of people, the gentle Jara made a name for himself in the competitive art scene. People — collectors and artists — gravitated to him for his spirit, stories, sense of humor, and impeccable taste. I was one of them.
From our first meeting on a Friday night at the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince, I knew there was something extraordinary about Dr. Carlos Jara. He wore a traditional outfit for the tropics — white pants and a white guayabera shirt. After introducing himself to me in the lobby, I agreed to visit his gallery the next day.
The Saint Soleil original five — Prospere Pierre Louis, Levoy Exil, Dieuseul Paul, Denis Smith and Louisiane Saint Fleurant — were prominently featured in Jara’s large selection of paintings. But so were other artists whose work I found scarcely, if at all, in the city’s other galleries, like Abbot Bonhomme, the creator of sylvan rain forest scenes with parrots, and Phelix Brochette, whose plump people compared favorably to the paintings of the much more expensive Saint Louis Blaise.
Jara also had the largest selection of paintings by Stivenson Magloire, the troubled adult son of Louisiane Saint Fleurant, I had seen anywhere. Many of the works seemed to have been created in haste, as if the artist were in a fury of getting them off his mind and into the world. For that reason, Magloire could be called as prolific as the fast-working Gerard Fortune. But also, unfortunately, Magloire was producing only a handful of great works amid dozens of simply good ones in all sizes. And, of course, collectors want the paintings of outstanding quality.
Little treasures could be found at the Jara gallery, including paintings by Gerard Valcin, measuring eight inches by ten inches. Arranged in the living room were metal and forged iron sculptures of all description by Georges Liautaud, the pioneer of this medium. Or so it seemed. There were crosses, devil bulls, and market women among the sculptures. Jara would challenge visitors to guess which ones were by Liautaud imitators and which ones were fakes. It was impossible to tell, even down to the signature. But our host distinguished the bogus ones by tying tiny red scarves on them. He made his point. Buy only from a reputable dealer for the genuine article.
I bought my first Roger Francois painting from Jara, a proud bird that filled the canvas — “The Owl.” Only later did I come to appreciate how magnificent a painter Francois was.
Jara’s favorite artist of all was La Fortune Felix. He owned untold hundreds of his paintings, a portion of which were once kept in a separate home in Petionville, blocks from his own domicile. In Jara’s view, no one else could compare with Felix’s Gauguinesque palette and innovative portrayals of Vodou officiants and personages. “He never repeats an image,” Jara told me. This is true. Felix doesn’t do static variations on the same theme, but distinct and different narratives every time.
To make things easy for his customers, Jara had special wood units made to house paintings of the same size. One could stand and thumb through these, neat, clean stacks and choose accordingly. In an enclosed area adjacent to the dining room were more wood bins for larger paintings on masonite. I always wound up buying more from Jara than I intended and never regretted a purchase.
From Jara, I learned to appreciate Etienne Chavannes, Gelin Buteau and Wagler Vital, among many other artists. I appreciated the education I got from him about art and artists, because he was always generous with his time to share his experiences. Haiti benefitted greatly from his all-too-brief illumination of the art scene.