Monthly Archives: July 2014

“Famous Vodou Festival at Saut D’Eau”

By Candice Russell

I couldn’t let the month of July pass without mentioning a Vodou festival in Haiti of great importance. It is the Festival of Our Lady of Carmel, held from July 14 to 16, at the waterfall in Saut D’Eau near the town of Ville Bonheur. A pilgrimage is made to the site in a procession led by Rara musicians. This joyful parade is preceded by a ceremony in a church — proof that Vodou and Christianity go hand-in-hand.

For three glorious days, celebrants bathe in the cooling waters, washing away the heat of summer and wishing for spiritual deliverance. Since water is sacred to two significant Vodou spirits, Damballah and Ayida Wedo, they are thought to also be present. This, at least, was reported in the book “The Serpent and the Rainbow” by Harvard University ethno-botanist Wade Davis, who cited the spirits’ appearance at the waterfall. (A hyperventilating Hollywood take of Haitian Vodou is found in the movie adaptation of his book with the same title, which Davis later disavowed. But that’s another story).

People said they saw the Vodou spirit Erzulie, often associated with the Virgin Mary, at Saut D’Eau. A French priest deemed the sighting mere superstition and cut down a tree at the site. His negativity did not prevent Saut D’Eau from becoming a major destination for religion pilgrimage.

Submergence in the waterfall and the pool it creates is done while praying and asking favors of these religious personages. Erzulie, who, in all manifestations, is associated with rivers, streams, lakes and waterfalls, is thought to be able to cure infertility. If bathing in these waters, singing, praying, and drinking rum and coconut juice may unlock the key to having a baby for infertile couples, it’s no wonder the site and festival are so beloved.

The web site of the global traveler The Nerdy Nomad explains how this image of the dark-skinned Virgin Mary, known as Erzulie Dantor, became known to Haitians. It says that the Polish icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa was brought to Haiti by Polish soldiers fighting on both sides of the Haitian Revolution in the early 1800s.

On page 157 in my book “Masterpieces of Haitian Art,” a wonderful painting by Gerard Valcin called “Vodou Cascade” (1984) from the collection of the Waterloo Center for the Arts in Waterloo, Iowa pictures this event of hope and transcendence. In the painting, most of the celebrants are clothed. But there are a few in various stages of half- or complete undress. In this lovely verdant setting, there is only the belief that the Vodou spirits will come. There is no sign of Erzulie, Damballah or Ayida Wedo. As always, faith will sustain those who visit Saut D’Eau.

Her roots in history go back farther than that. The image of the black Madonna first appeared in Christian iconography more than 1,000 years ago. Evidence exists that she is descended from the Egyptian goddess Isis. But her genesis relates to something even more basic — the Great Earth Mother, with her blackness being a symbol of the most fertile soil

“Writing a Haitian Art Book” — Part Two

By Candice Russell

This is a continuation of a story begun last week about the writing of my book “Masterpieces of Haitian Art.” There are those people who would debate the legitimacy of including in such a book anything other than paintings, since that was the medium that got the ball rolling on the mid-century renaissance of Haitian art. But those are people with whom I strongly disagree.

Since when is a three-dimensional sculpture a lesser form of art than a two-dimensional painting? How fair is it to exclude the geniuses of other media because their works aren’t created with canvas and paint? Put this way, it seems unthinkable NOT to include them.

And, so they appear in “Masterpieces of Haitian Art,” without a word of refusal or dissent from my editor at Schiffer Books in Atglen, Pennsylvania. One can legitimately say that the creators of Vodou flags are painting with sequins and beads when they create these sacred textiles. A cottage industry has grown up around them, ever since Antoine Oleyant and Clotaire Bazile pioneered their outreach beyond the Vodou communities in Haiti.

There were so many exceptional works that came through my hands in different forms that choosing which to include in the book was extremely difficult. Vodou flags range in style from charmingly childlike to positively sophisticated. Each one exerts a strong pull on me. The exactitude of Jean Baptiste Jean Joseph, who stands in a class by himself, is appealing. So is his use of luxurious materials, like velvet for the background cloth. His choice of subject matter also sets him apart from his peers.

Stylistically different from each other, both Bazile and Oleyant are the titans of the Vodou flag medium. Traditional in his portrayal of the spirits, Bazile is known for his enclosing borders, akin to quilt-makers in the United States. It’s as if he is protecting his images. Oleyant always exhibited a freer hand in executing his pieces and a more liberal interpretation of his themes.

Who can deny the work of Myrlande Constant, perhaps the best-known Vodou flag maker among women artists? Her “Simbi” in my book of a woman in a white gown walking out of the ocean with flowers falling from her hands is the kind of work that resonates with everyone who sees it.

Papier-mache, long under-appreciated as a medium perhaps because of its humble origins from water and paper, is also honored in my book. Thank you to Michel Sinvil and Lionel Simonis, the kings of this medium, whose fanciful creations are an essential contribution to the subject of Haitian art. Simonis’ mermaids are the height of whimsy. But, in a completely different tone, is “La Vie Drole,” a tribute to the people lost at sea in trying to cross the ocean from Haiti to a different life in Florida. Sinvil’s figures are large and magnificent; they include “Relax Lady,” a woman carrying a baby, and “Bearded Angel.”

If you go to Haiti and stay at the Hotel Oloffson, large papier-mache busts of historical figures and revolutionary heroes are used as decoration in the guest rooms. It’s another way to honor the papier-mache tradition of art in Haiti and its prominence at Carnival parades.


“Writing a Haitian Art Book” — Part One

By Candice Russell

At book signings for my book “Masterpieces of Haitian Art,” I am asked by readers about what was involved in the selection process for the pieces that are within its pages. The answer lies partly in the necessary limitations set by the publisher. I was told not to exceed 300 pieces of art to be reproduced in color. My final total went over that number by a few, but not much.

With those parameters in place, it was clear that this book wouldn’t be the be-all and end-all on the topic of masterpieces of Haitian art. There are far too many in the world to have been contained in 256 pages. But the book stands as a statement about Haitian art that people who had never seen it would appreciate and those who thought they knew Haitian art would have their minds blown by the heights of creativity in the book.

The fact is, I had only myself to consult in regard to choosing the artwork. There were no committees involved, no panels of scholars mulling over what to include and exclude.

Naturally, any book with the word “masterpieces” in the title had to include the titans like Hector Hyppolite, Rigaud Benoit, and the Obin family. And they are represented. But, just as important in my view, are the lesser-known and even unknown artists like Antoinette “Jose” Valmidor, Bety Veillard, and Natacha Philogene, who deserved their place on these pages.

Because art is subjective, my choices are up for debate. I welcome such discussions (though I would have shrunk at the thought of them 14 years ago). This is largely due to the fact that the book may get people thinking and talking about my favorite subject, Haitian art, which is all to the good. Also, I hope that my book motivates someone else with a completely different take on the topic to write a book of their own. The literature on Haitian art in the 21st century needs more voices, more champions. If my book angers you enough to express another, entirely divergent viewpoint, this I would consider to be a wonderful development.

Choosing just enough art for the book was like “Sophie’s Choice.” Wanting to show the range and variety in some careers, I included up to four works in a single medium by an artist. It would have been remiss of me to only show the angel paintings of Jean Baptiste Jean, for example. He is also known for spot-on depictions of daily life, including the catastrophic aftermath of a flood and a bicycle race through the streets of Cap-Haitien. So both sides of the artist’s oeuvre are in the book.

Though my personal taste tends to run in the opposite direction of modern and sophisticated, I included artists who epitomize this description and whose works I greatly admire. This group includes Rony Leonidas, Luckner Lazard, Jacques Enguerrand Gourgue, and Milhomme Racine, among others. I appreciate their contributions as much as those of the under-sung artists who deserve to find supporters of their work.

“A Great Fictional Book About Haiti”

By Candice Russell

The following is an article I wrote that was ¬†originally published on September 20, 1998 in the Sun-Sentinel newspaper in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It is my review of a novel by Haiti’s best-known literary export, Edwidge Danticat. “The Farming of Bones” (Soho Press, 312 pages) is a fictionalized story set against actual historical events. It is the kind of compelling drama that would make a terrific film adaptation. Directors in Hollywood — are you listening?


Every country has at least one literary torchbearer, someone whose perspective on folkways and history resonates with a foreign audience. For Haiti, that person is Edwidge Danticat, a young woman with a formidable reputation after writing two books — the novel “Breath, Eyes, Memory” in 1994 and the short story collection “Krik? Krak!” in 1995.

Danticat, 29, left the beleaguered island that is both Haiti and the Dominican Republic when she was 12. A graduate of Barnard College and Brown University, she presents her view of a little-known event in Haiti’s recent past in “The Farming of Bones,” a forceful, evocative fictionalization that should win her new fans.

She personalizes what can be called a holocaust against Haitians — the torture and massacre of 20,000 Haitians in the Dominican Republic in 1937. The narrator is Amabelle Desir, an orphaned Haitian child found by the river and put to work in a Dominican home as a maid. It is salvation that puts a price on her freedom.

By age 25, Amabelle is still an innocent, a trusting woman who asks little for herself in service to Senora Valencia. Her lover, Sebastien, who crossed the border from Haiti to the Dominican Republic in search of work, labors in a nearby sugar cane field. He wants a way out of this hard life, even before rumors circulate that they are in danger.

Signs and portents prefigure what’s to come. Senora Valencia gives birth to twins, a short-lived occasion for joy. When her army officer husband drives hurriedly home, he accidentally kills a man on the roadside, Sebastien’s friend from from the old country. Soon after, one of the twins dies.

The long, impossibly hard journey of Amabelle away from the home she has known, her separation from Sebastien, and surprising rescue are meticulously detailed. These passages are almost painful to read because the suffering and grief of so many are so great. Like Stephen Crane in “The Red Badge of Courage,” Danticat puts the reader in the depths of circumstances where survival is unlikely.

How or why Dominican President Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo sought to systematically exterminate Haitians is not explained here. They had lived in the country for decades, doing the dirtiest work. Some Haitians had even become prosperous.

This isn’t a book about political statements, troop movements, and peace treaties. It’s about the fallout of the unexplainable on people without a chance. A Haitian could be killed for the transgression of a simple mispronunciation of the word “parsley.”

This cross-cultural tale of bravery is infused with belief in mystical connections, superstition, and dreams. Strong characters are delineated in a few words.

Spanish-born Papi, the guilt-wracked grandfather of the twins, thinks there is a link between what he did in war years ago and his own domestic losses. Kongo, a respected Haitian elder, is a voice of reason among young men bitter about their persecution in the cane fields.

The aftermath of the holocaust follows Amabelle to a new life with Yves, her companion in escape, in her birth city of Cap-Haitien. It is an existence filled with regret and pain, as if the juncture of hope were irrevocably crossed and forgotten.

The title refers to the brutal labor of the cane fields. It is also something more, as Amabelle persists in her search for Sebastien and a figurative vestige of her parents, who drown in a river on the wrong side of the border.

In the fractious history of Haiti, the world first independent black republic, the country has found a powerful voice in Danticat.