Monthly Archives: June 2014

“A Symbolic Haitian Vodou Flag”

By Candice Russell

Have you ever noticed how some Haitian artworks crystallize the essence of the Vodou spirits they represent, but also do much more? Such is the case with a stunning small flag by a master of the medium, Jean Baptiste Jean Joseph. “Twins Joined,” measuring 17 inches by 17 1/2 inches, pictures two figures — neither male nor female — joining together with raised hands. Their outer arms become one in an exagerratedly large arch over their heads.

Yes, the flag portrays the Marassa, the divine children of God, known for their mischievous personalities. But symbolically, it is about people coming together, a celebration of union and compromise. It could be an image in an ad for political compromise between U.S. Congressional rivals or a televised public service announcement about marital togetherness.

Joseph, who is perfectly capable of adding gender-specific facial features to his subjects on flags, chose not to do so in “Twins Joined,” with successful results. The figures’ anonymity means one could interpret them as a man and a woman, sisters, a gay romantic couple, or any other combination of humans. The addition of a four-leaf clover design outlined in turquoise has another intended effect of balancing all the elements. The artist repeats the clover design three times. These forms are colorful, abstract, and echo the curvaceous shape of the androgynous twins.

From a Vodou standpoint, the twins in this flag have significance. According to the late painter Andre Pierre, whose subjects on canvas were exclusively Vodou spirits, “The twins guide all spirits.”

In her excellent book “Veve,” Nany Turnier Ferere says the Marassa are known for having “a voracious appetite.” To that end, special meals are organized in their honor. Those who follow the Marassa are constantly eating. These adherents also behave like spoiled children and are easily prone to cry.

Known for his use of luxurious materials like velvet and expensive satin, Joseph is also reputed as a colorist. He is unerring in his combinations, which are striking and unique. This flag uses the “scattered grain” technique, so named and pioneered by fellow flagmaker Clotaire Bazile. By this method, Joseph lets the background cloth (a felt-like material) in a deep sand color become a vital element.

One of the most imaginative flag makers, Joseph is the first person I know of to put domestic felines on flags. These aren’t the cuddly, well-fed versions of cats beloved in other countries, but their arched-back, skinny cousins — symbols of survival in a country where most people scramble for their next meal.

Another animal starring in a Joseph Vodou flag is his version of a deer or antelope with a preposterously long horn. Just like the zebras and elephants in fantasy landscape paintings, this creature doesn’t exist in Haiti.

Though Joseph is an ardent Vodouist whom I have seen vociferously defend his own visions of spirits to non-believers, he isn’t exclusionary when it comes to what he portrays on flags from other religions. In fact, he portrays angels with a fidelity that would make art curators at the Vatican proud. What inspires this flagmaker’s use of Christian iconography can only be suspected. Perhaps he is trying to appeal to the marketplace. Or maybe he is paying homage to Vodou’s incorporation of Christian symbolism in multiple ways. –

Part 2: “Interview with Haitian Art Collector Carole Cleaver”

By Candice Russell

This is the second and final part of an interview conducted by me and printed in the short-lived publicationn “Haitian Art Views,” a monthly newsletter devoted to Haitian art. The publication date was October, 2007. The subject is Carole Cleaver, widow of Selden Rodman, co-director of le Centre d’Art in the late 1940s and writer of books and articles about Haitian art. Cleaver and Rodman co-wrote “Spirits of the Night: The Vaudun Gods of Haiti.” At the time of the interview, she lived in Oakland, New Jersey.

Where do you go to buy Haitian art?

“Mostly in Haiti, but also the Eye Care auctions. I bought a beautiful Damien Paul metal sculpture at a Sotheby’s auction in New York. We tied it to the roof of the car and were nervous driving across the George Washington Bridge, thinking that the wind would blow it off!”

How many works are in your Haitian art collection?


If you had unlimited money, what would you buy?

“It might not be available. There’s a painting in a museum in Haiti — ‘The Three-Eyed King’ by Hector Hyppolite. I almost bought it on my first trip to Haiti when Issa (gallery owner Issa el-Saieh) had it. Selden advised me against it. I loved this painting on first sight.”

How do you live with, display and interact with your Haitian art?

“It’s definitely all around me on every wall. But if art is on the wall a long time, you tend not to see it. So I move things around.”

Is there something missing in your collection?

“I’d like to get a better, earlier Wilson Bigaud and a good Castera Bazile.”

If a fire forced you out of your home and you could only take one piece of Haitian art, what would it be and why?

“It’s a very large painting by Gerard (Fortune) called ‘The Celestial Part’ with a bathing beauty only wearing the bottom of a bikini. In the foreground are two market women on their haunches gossiping about her. It’s beautiful and amusing.”

How has Haitian art enriched your life?

“It’s wonderful to be surrounded by beautiful things. Haitian art is very colorful and the paintings are generally happy. Selden named one book ‘Where Art is Joy’ for that reason. We lived in Haiti fourteen years and met a lot of wonderful Haitian people. I appreciated their resilience and sense of humor. They were never oppressed by poverty. It was a wonderful environment.”

What advice do you have for beginning collectors?

“Look at a lot of things before you start to buy. Really follow your instincts. Buy what appeals to you and don’t go by name interest or what’s a good investment. Buy art because you love it.”

What does Haitian art need to gain academic acceptance and appeal for a larger number of people?

“It needs to be publicized more. Haitian art has fallen into decline because the political situation is so bad. People aren’t going to Haiti and Haitian artists aren’t painting because they can’t afford to buy materials.”

Do you plan to donate your Haitian art collection to a museum, sell it, or keep it in the family?

“We have donated the lion’s share, between 300 to 400 works, to Ramapo College, where the Selden Rodman Gallery was built to house it. There is more art than they can display at one time.”




“Interview with Haitian Art Collector Carole Cleaver”

By Candice Russell

This interview, which will appear in two parts,  was conducted by me and printed in the short-lived publication “Haitian Art Views,” a monthly newsletter devoted to Haitian art. The publication date was October, 2007. The subject is Carole Cleaver, widow of Selden Rodman, co-director of le Centre d’Art in the late 1940s and writer of books and articles about Haitian art. Cleaver and Rodman co-authored “Spirits of the Night: The Vaudun Gods of Haiti.” She lives in Oakland, New Jersey.

What is the first piece of Haitian art you bought and do you still own it?

“It was a painting by Antoine Obin. I got it directly from him in Cap-Haitien of a scene with women washing clothes in the river. It was my first trip to Haiti with Selden (in 1961). He bought a painting I liked a lot, but he had first pick. I asked his advice. I don’t have the painting because my house burned down.”

When and why did you begin collecting Haitian art?

“I came to interview Selden Rodman about his art collection. Three years later, we got married. He taught me a lot. I continue to collect. Generally, we agreed, since he was the one to hone my taste. I still buy things.”

Was it easy to find what you wanted in Haitian art?

“Oh, yes. We went to Haiti every year and visited very good galleries — Issa (el-Saieh), Carlos Jara, the Lallys (Christiane and Reynaodl), and Roger Coster, who ran  the Oloffson Hotel in the 1950s. Roger knew a number of artists, especially the Saint Soleil artists. He lived on the Kenscoff Road above Petionville and the artists would stop there on their way to other galleries. We bought a lot of Saint Soleil from Roger.”

Name the artists prominently represented in your Haitian art collection?

“We have given art to Ramapo College (nearby to her home in Mahwah, New Jersey). I think it’s important to give a variety and not one painter. I’ve been selling a number of things. I may move to smaller quarters. I try to have not more than one by each artist. The exception is Gerard (Fortune).

“I have a Hyppolite, a Philome Obin, a Seneque Obin, a Wilson Bigaud, a Salnave Philippe-Auguste, a La Fortune Felix, a Pauleus Vital, an Andre Pierre, a Louisiane Saint Fleurant, a Levoy Exil, a Prospere Pierre Louis, a Thialy, and a Celestin Fausin, a very early one. It’s the building of the Citadelle with little flowers, nothing like he did later on.

“I have a Ramphis Maloire. I sold all the Stivensons (Stivenson Magloire: he and Ramphis were the sons of Louisiane Saint  Fleurant, one of the original five Saint Soleil artists). He was one of Selden’s favorites, but not mine. I have an Edgar Jean Charles about the American invasion and a lot of (Serge) Jolimeaus (the renowned sculptor working in the medium of unpainted metal). He comes to visit me every year. I have two (Georges) Liautauds (the pioneer of the metal medium), very small sculptures by Georges Laratte (who works in stone), and a few Vodou flags.”


“An Art Lover Visits Haiti for the First Time”

By Candice Russell

Haitian art lover Ingrid Furlong of Fort Lauderdale, Florida took her first trip to Haiti with the Haitian Art Society last January. The week-long sojourn included a stay at the newly rebuilt Hotel Montana. “The hotel was wonderful,” says Furlong. “It was very well-kept and clean. The staff was helpful and the food was good. It was beyond my expectations.”

What were her impressions of the people and the place? “I just love Haiti and Haitian culture,” says the visitor. “The people were so warm and courteous. Port-au-Prince continues to be a mess. There are too many people in small or makeshift housing. We would look at these places as improvised with corrugated roofs. We didn’t spend a lot of time in Port-au-Prince; it was tough to get around, though the rubble (from the 2010 earthquake) is gone from the streets.  We only saw two road crews the whole time.”

And the art? “We visited the Bourbon-Lally Galerie, the Monnin Galerie, and the gallery of Axelle Liautaud,” says Furlong. “We also went to the artisans with galleries in Croix-des-Bouquets. We visited an ironworks in Port-au-Prince and the Grand Rue, where people make artwork from tires. We wandered around the pathways in Soissons-la-Montagne (where the Saint Soleil artists have a compound). We also went to the Hotel Oloffson to hear (the musical group) RAM, which was great fun.”

Though not a fan of the Vodou-inspired Bizango art, Furlong was able to capitalize on her interest in Haitian Vodou flags on this trip: “I met Lherrison, who makes Vodou flags with buttons and baby dolls. I arranged a meeting with Yves Telemaque because I wanted him to make me an Erzulie Danthor flag. I was excited to meet Jean Baptiste Jean Joseph. I have a number of his Vodou flags. One piece was incredibly abstract with Vodou symbols on it. He is growing internationally as an artist. I met Mireille Delice.”

Not just a browser but a buyer, Furlong says she also met painters Richard Nesly and Onel. “I thought all the prices were very fair,” she adds.

My own first trip to Haiti in 1985 was done solo. Call it brave or reckless, but I figured I could accomplish my goals with a plan in mind. This was a big mistake, as communication with the people I met was a problem at the airport upon my arrival and at the bus station in Jacmel. There were many revelations on that trip so, in retrospect, I’m glad I took the plunge alone.

Is it a good idea to travel independently to Haiti? Furlong says, “I don’t know. Travelling together on a bus, I felt quite secure. Everyone should go to Haiti for the art. Arrange a small group of people. I wouldn’t go around alone as a woman. But we did go to Jacmel (a seaside town on the other side of the island from Port-au-Prince) and wandering around there was fine.”

Tourism officials in Haiti will hang on the response given by Furlong to my last question. Will you return to Haiti? “For sure,” she says. “I could arrange a car and a driver through the Hotel Montana.”