By Candice Russell
A good friend gave me a remarkable painting not long ago. It was quite a gift — a painting by the inimitable and irreplaceable Andre Pierre, the houngan or Vodou priest who was the country of Haiti’s best-known and most lionized artist. He is known for his paintings of very dolled up versions of Vodou spirits. Pierre portrays them like kings and queens of rain forests and roiling seas. They wear elaborate gowns and handsome suits and always there is something on their heads. Their regality is unmistakably elevating; regular folks in Haiti look nothing like this, even on days of celebration like weddings.
The painting I was given portrays a female member of the Guede family of spirits, Brijit La Croix. She wears a dress in white and purple with a black sash around the waist, the ends of which are red fringe. Considerable thought went into her portrayal. She is adorned with jewelry, including outsized circular white earrings, a ring, and a pearl necklace. Her purple hat bears the initial “B” and the word “Croix” for cross.
And it is the cross that is the prominent symbol for this governess of the dead and determiner of the soul’s fate. Brijit holds a cross in her right hand. Black crosses are placed around her, along with smaller white crosses. An image of the skull and crossbones is “drawn” in the ground near her bare feet, with toenails prettily painted in orange.
This important Vodou spirit is surrounded by palms trees, with their leafy fronds in shades of purple, green and orange. Like all of Pierre’s paintings, this one is highly energized, as if the presence of Brijit La Croix is animating the forest she deigns to inhabit. According to the book “Veve” by Nancy Turnier Ferrere, she and her husband Baron Samedi are the parents of all the Guede spirits.
Further information was provided by the artist himself about this special female spirit. In an unpublished monograph for which Andre Pierre was interviewed, he aligned Brijit La Croix with Saint Ann in Roman Catholicism. “She is the mother of Mary, who wiped Jesus’ face as he was carrying the cross on the way to Golgotha,” Pierre said. “The face of Jesus remained on the cloth.”
In an earlier painting on the same theme, Pierre included the rooster as a symbol of Peter’s betrayal. The ease with which Haitian Vodou accommodates Christian stories and personages is evident in his explanations. He calls Brijit La Croix “the queen of the cemetery.”
Did Andre Pierre always operate on a spiritual realm? According to my friend and art dealer Dr. Carlos Jara, the answer is “yes.” The artist would always pour a libation on three places in the ground when you visited, in order to honor and serve your ancestors. The only subject this peasant farmer ever thought to portray were his much-beloved and worshipped spirits. They were as real to him as the sky and grass are to everyone else.
That he made the spirits manifest to fellow Vodouists and non-believers is one important legacy of Haitian art. Andre Pierre was a mighty contributor and his outstanding paintings will be cherished for generations to come.