Can a devastating natural event impact the direction of Haitian art? The question takes shape in the minds of Haitian art collectors. It is also partially answered in a recent Wall Street Journal article by Miriam Jordan with the headline “The New Realities of Haitian Painting.” With a byline of Jacmel, Haiti, the writer interviews Onel Bazelais, a Haitian painter who cannot help but turn his attention to the crumbled buildings and desperate people he saw in the aftermath of the January 12th earthquake. The painting he holds in a photograph that accompanies the story shows houses without their roofs and people abject in the streets, wondering what to do. The earthquake is inspiring Bazelais.
Other artists are following suit. My friend Eric Jean Louis, an artist who lives in Miami, Florida, says that Michel Monnin, a gallery dealer in Haiti, is paying the artists he knows to document the destruction and survival stories post-earthquake in paintings. While documenting the life around them has always driven Haitian artists, one cannot help but wonder if collectors want to hang paintings of the disaster on their walls. It takes a very special collector to want to own a visual documentation of such enormous horror. Certainly such imagery is not for the majority of Haitian art collectors, though it may be important to historians and museums.
Political coups and military overthrows have been the subject of Haitian paintings in the past twenty years. So have other natural disasters. I own a painting by the late Jean Baptiste Jean that pictures what happens after a flood, with people and debris in a watery mess. While I haven’t tried to sell the painting (because I like it too much), I doubt that many people would be interested in it.
With Haitian art commonly associated with joy and the transcendence of harsh realities, it is anyone’s guess where the artists of now will take their paintings in six or twelve months from now.