By Candice Russell
You won’t see many of them on the streets in Port-au-Prince or Jacmel when you visit Haiti. But cats play a significant role in Haitian art. Domesticated felines, along with their symbolic implications, take front and center in the work of some artists. Yet, in other paintings, like the work of S.E. Bottex, cats are just part of the scenery, whether the image is of Jesus Christ at the last supper or people holding fish at a dock.
Jean-Claude Paul is perhaps the best-known artist for doing variations on the cat theme. His 20-inch by 24-inch paintings of cats, usually all in the same color (either white or black), stand tall and fill the frame like proud chorus girls. Paul’s felines dominate nature – they are the biggest element in his outdoor scenes, just like Haiti itself plays a larger role in the world than its size would suggest. Cats rule on Paul’s canvases.
Mother cats with the babies lined upon her back like alert sentinels are another favorite subject of Jean-Claude Paul on canvas. Since women run the households in Haiti, these cat families can be seen as examples of domestic order.
Cats are considered a sign of good luck in Haiti. They are the representations of bliss at home, where the owners have enough money to feed them and tend to their other needs of shelter and affection. But cats in Haitian homes also serve a function, catching snakes and mice that dare to enter by the front door or a half-open window.
Just like Jasmin Joseph, whose anthropomorphic animals take on human attributes, the cats in the paintings of Jean-Veny Brezil enact the roles of mortals. They even wear clothes. And they work, carrying and selling the fruits and vegetables in their baskets. Brezil’s groupings are particular. He uses a domestic trio of a mother cat and her boy cat and girl cat children. There is a plaintiveness in their faces that balances the sweetness of his paintings. While these paintings would fit in a children’s book, they are sophisticated enough to stand on their own in the home of anyone who loves Haitian art.
Artists working in other media in Haitian art have also found felines to be inspiration. An unknown artist created the oversized gray-and-white “Cat Face” in papier-mache that hangs in my bedroom. With big cheeks and a serious expression, this kitty looks ready to rumble, as male cats are wont to do. He symbolizes the strength of intended aggressive action, much like the Haitian Vodou (voodoo) spirit Ogou Feraille associated with war and metallurgy.
Cats have also made their way into the realm of Haitian metal oil drum art. I commissioned a work of cats in a tree and the result was beyond great. This painted metal sculpture features four nearly identical yellow cats with orange stripes, standing on the branches of a tree. Their noses are shaped like hearts. Another outstanding metal piece in unpainted metal portrays a large cat looking up at a small tree. These two wonderful artworks are by unknown artists.
Of course, cats are genetically related to large jungle animals like lions, tigers, and panthers. We’ll save the prominent role of big cats in Haitian art for another day.