Monthly Archives: September 2014

“Writing About Haitian Art”

By Candice Russell

The interest in Haitian art in print continues to grow. Just from my experience, I see that it is widespread among editors at magazines. One example: Dory Dickson, editor of The Migrant Worker Journals in Hammonton, New Jersey wrote about my book “Masterpieces of Haitian Art” in her summer, 2014 edition. It is printed in English and Kreyol.

Dickson interviewed me for the story. ┬áConsidering the audience for her publication, she quoted me as saying, “I want Haitians to be proud of their heritage. I want non-Haitians to be surprised and to wonder at the extensiveness of Haitian art, created in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, by people with very limited resources. It’s mind-boggling.”

She was also a champion to me personally by lobbying libraries in her area to carry the book, considering the Haitian population. Dickson encouraged readers of her story to do the same in their cities. So, thank you, Dory Dickson on behalf of Haitians and Haitian art.

For the November, 2014 issue of Fort Lauderdale Magazine, I wrote a 1,000-word story on my experiences in Haitian art, along with a list of resources on where to buy it online. It is exciting to be included in this beautiful publication’s ethnic issue. I also wrote about the different unofficial schools within Haitian art, including the Cap-Haitien school spawned by Philome Obin and his relatives, and the Saint Soleil school of five core artists — Prospere Pierre Louis, Levoy Exil, Dieuseul Paul, Louisiane Saint Fleurant and Denis Smith.

It is hoped that more people will become interested in the subject, as a result of reading my story. Or that it will open their eyes to the beauty and wonder of Haitian art.

That’s not all. I just finished a 1,000-word story on Haitian Vodou for the online magazine SALIENT, based in Chicago, Illinois. I believe it will be available in October. My goal in writing that story was to bring respect to the subject of Haitian Vodou, which is a world-class religion on par with Christianity and Judaism, despite not being treated as such.

I denigrated the co-opting of the term Vodou by Hollywood filmmakers, U.S. politicians, and entrepreneurs in New Orleans, who put Vodou in the names given to bars and laundromats in their fair city. Then I explained what Vodou really is — a belief system with its roots in Africa co-mingled with Roman Catholicism foisted upon slaves from West Africa by their colonial captors from France and Spain. It’s not cannibalism or werewolves or other such ridiculous misconceptions promulgated in the popular consciousness.

For AXESS magazine, published by Celebrity Cruises, I wrote 1,000 words on Haitian art for an issue that will be in the staterooms of passengers beginning in December and going forward for a year until December, 2015. This was fun to do. If you’re cruising, look for my four-page story (two pages just with imagery from my book) about the adventure of collecting and how I backed into my experiences with Haitian art.

All of this is written in the hope that readers will follow my lead and make their own paths in the collecting world of Haitian paintings, sculptures, and Vodou flags. There is so much outstanding art that continues to be created in Haiti. The artists there and in the countries where they moved crave our support.


“Haitian Art Takes the Stage”

By Candice Russell

For people like myself, collectors and curators of Haitian art shows, we can’t get enough of exhibitions, catalogs and books about our favorite subject. I wish there was a legitimate Haitian art museum in an American town or city that showed Haitian art non-stop, scheduled lectures about it and ancillary cultural events, like spoken word or poetry readings, Haitian dance troupes, and lectures. Well, one can dream.

With that said, I was surprised by the wealth of attention the small island country is creating throughout the U.S. and beyond this fall. The number of shows scheduled — all entirely devoted to Haitian art — is staggering and well out of proportion to what the average person would think of as Haiti’s footprint in the global art world.

I’m not going to cover them all. But if you’re in the neighborhood of any of the following places, I encourage you to visit them and support Haitian art.

Just this past week, Ramapo College of New Jersey in Mahwah, New Jersey opened “A Sense of Place: Cap-Haitien Paintings from the Collection of Jonathan Demme” in its Kresge Gallery. Artists featured include Seneque Obin and Alfred Gabriel.

The Agora Gallery in New York City’s Chelsea area is devoted to contemporary fine art. Currently, its attention is turned to Haiti in a show called “Enigmatic Realms.” The highly abstract to other-worldly figurative work of Port-au-Prince artist Shakespeare Guirand is featured. This nation’s art capital is paying attention to Haitian art.

On view now through October 27, The Thought Lot in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania is presenting “Haiti — Another Vision” featuring the work of contemporary Haitian artists like Anderson Ambroise and Vady Confident. Funds raised from the event will be donated to Partners in Health in Haiti, a non-profit community health provider and children’s art advocate. The funds will also support a workshop in Jacmel devoted to children’s art and led by Keely Kernan. For more information, telephone 717-816-5390.

The west coast of the country gets into the Haitian art act, too. “Haitian Art Exhibit” opens in the Ridley Gallery on the campus of Sierra College in Rocklin, California on September 29. It runs through October 24. For more information, call 916-660-7242 and ask for Lisa Marasso.

If you live in Europe or have a trip planned, the blockbuster Haitian art show of the season so far takes place at the Grand Palais in Paris, France from November 19 to February 15, 2015. Titled “Le Baiser d’Hyppolite ou l’art d’Haiti,” it covers an impressive swath of time — from the 19th century to today. The organizers have a mission. They say it “aims to transcend the magico-religious, exotic vision restrictively associated with Haitian art.”

What does that mean? Will the show only be devoted to Cap-Haitien artists depicting historical scenes and daily life? Will there be nothing of Vodou, the lynchpin of so much of Haitian art?

There will certainly be a color catalog produced with this French exhibition (hopefully, with a portion in English, too). One hopes that the exhibition inspires controversy, debate, and motivation on the part of others to present an opposing view (if one is necessary).

This abundance of Haitian art underscores the value of Haitian art on the global art scene. We hope it continues well into 2015 and beyond.




“Remember Hector Hyppolite”

By Candice Russell

Where would the mid-century Haitian art renaissance be without the discovery of Hector Hyppolite? Let us remember his unique contribution to raising up the visual culture of Haiti from the 1940s until today. The anniversary of his birth is almost upon us — September 16, 1894.

In his seminal book “Where Art is Joy: Haitian Art, the First Forty Years” (1988), Selden Rodman devotes chapter two to the circumstances surrounding the discovery of Hyppolite. American conscientious objector De Witt Peters, who would open his Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince as part of his overseas service, noticed the doors of a bar painted with birds in red and green among detailed flowers during a trip to the coastal village of Mont Rouis.

That was in 1943. It would be a year later when Peters began to investigate the anonymous painter of the doors. He found him in St. Marc and learned he was a houngan or Vodou priest. He convinced Hyppolite to join him in the capital and paint for the center. The artist established himself in a waterfront hut andn set to work, delivering sixteen paintings made with furniture enamel.

The response to this first delivery was mixed. As Rodman writes: “Peters saw that the pictures were uneven and crude, with a sameness of trees and skies, bulging eyes, and grotesque anatomies, but he was astounded by their invention.”

Famous visitors to Haiti shared Peters’ enthusiasm for the paintings of Hyppolite. None other than Andre Breton, spokesman for French Surrealism, and Cuban painter Wifredo Lam became his first collectors. Breton, in fact, bought five Hyppolite paintings at eight dollars each.

Rodman brought then-young American novelist Truman Capote to Haiti to meet Hyppolite. The writer admired the painter “because there’s nothing in it that has been slyly transposed; he is using what lives inside him: his country’s spiritual history,its sayings, and worship.”

In fact, Hyppolite was torn between the time it took to create his paintings with Vodou personages like “Agoue and His Consort” and “Ogoun on His Charger” and the practice of Vodou to which he was called. Rodman cites the conflict as perhaps the reason why the artist’s output was uneven in consistency. He struggled with the age-old 20th and 21st century conundrum of finding balance between all the demands of a busy life.

But, at a certain point, he considered himself more of an artist than a priest (and priesthood was also the calling of his father and grandfather). Even so, Rodman writes: “His technique was never wholly adequate to translate his visions into effective plastic images.”

Folklore, zombis and black magic interested him in paintings, Rodman writes. So what that they lacked execution of conventional perspective? He died in 1948, too soon to see the profound effect he would have generations of Haitian artists eager to imitate his style or to achieve the pinnacle of fame he did within his lifetime (an achievement eluding too many Haitian artists).

Of course, in the decades since Hyppolite’s passing, he has become the poster child of high prices achieved at auction. No other Haitian artist comes close, though the works of Edouard Duval Carrie are getting there. Tens of thousands of dollars have been paid for Hyppolite paintings since the 1980s. It is rare to see one at auction or to even hear of one for sale from a collector.

This week, raise a toast to Hector Hyppolite and his impact on a country and a culture always worth celebrating.

-the end-




“Crafting a Speech on Haitian Art”

By Candice Russell

Lucky me — this fall and winter I have been approved as a lecturer on the subject of Haitian art by Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Florida. What this means is a series of speeches on the campus and at various facilities in Broward and Palm Beach Counties, beginning in late September and continuing through January.

Of course, Haitian art is my favorite subject. I live surrounded by it, think about it daily, curate museum shows on it, wrote one book on it, and ponder how to write a novel about it. Haitian art is my constant.

But how to sum up the rich visual heritage of seven decades in a public talk of roughly forty minutes? Would it be better to concentrate on a single school of Haitian art, like the Saint Soleil artists Prospere Pierre Louis, Levoy Exil, Louisiane Saint Fleurant, Denis Smith and Dieuseul Paul, or the Cap-Haitien artists spearheaded by the Obin family? Or is a chronological overview better, scanning the accomplishments of Haitian artists by generation?

Should paintings be the emphasis of my speech? That seems logical. But to give short shrift to Haitian sculptors would be a serious misstep. Acknowledgment must be paid of their considerable contributions in the area of wood sculpture. No one is a better exponent of this than Nacius Joseph, whose Vodou personages like guitar-playing mermaids and daily life scenes like men rowing for freedom as boat people headed for the United States.

Sculptors of papier-mache have their titans, too, including Michel Sinvil and Lionel Simonis. Both craft figurative pieces of smallish to quite large size. They are geniuses, inspiring countless others to craft fantastic creations for Carnival parades.

Mixed-media sculptors deserve a verbal nod as well. Pierrot Barra’s other-worldly, even eerie constructions using doll heads come to mind as especially representative of art as an example of creative re-purposing of discards. Haitians probably aren’t as familiar with the terms “recycling” as we are in the U.S., but they do it all the time in their artwork.

Think of the recycled oil drums that have been hammered and punctured into girls riding bicycles, two-horned bulls symbolizing determination, and undersea creatures. This form of art thrives in Croix-des-Bouquets, not far from the cemetery where the crosses for the dead by Georges Liautaud were noticed, leading to this art form in metal and iron.

The speech cannot overlook Vodou flags, those gorgeously embellished ceremonial squares of cloth. So important in rituals, so prized by foreign cultures, Vodou flags are unique representations of spiritual creatures. They are exquisite examples of handwork and artistic conceptualization.

We haven’t even scratched the surface of Haitian art. One could easily spend an entire speech discussing the Guede family of spirits that govern death and the fate of the soul. Baron Samedi, Brigitte la Croix, and the others all have different jobs. Ceremonies for them around November 1 are especially lively, with men and women dressing in purple and black and assuming the gender identity of their opposites. Guede paintings and Vodou flags are among the favorites in my personal collection.

Do you see my dilemma?