“Meeting Andre Pierre” — Part Three

By Candice Russell

This is the third and final installment of a story that I began to write on this blog on April 12. Originally published in City Link weekly newspaper in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on December 16, 1998, it describes encounters with Andre Pierre, Haiti’s most famous living artist, at that time. I appreciate the kindness he always extended to me on my impromptu visits.

*****************************************************************************************

As for his own legacy, he leaves it to others. High praise has come Pierre’s way for decades. French writer Andre Malraux called him “the greatest naive alive” in the 1976 book “L’Intemporel.” Selden Rodman, author of several books about Haiti, felt that Pierre deserved a full chapter in “Where Art is Joy: Haitian Art, the First Forty Years” (1988). Pierre’s paintings were featured in the recent travelling exhibit “Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou,” organized by UCLA.

When Lighthouse Point resident John Fulling discovered Pierre’s genius in the late 1980s, he set about the task of trying to own more of his paintings than anyone else. He also befriended the artist, commissioning him to do his largest and most elaborate works yet. With the hope of publishing a book, Fulling provided Pierre with a tape recorder and a translator so that he could explain the meaning of his symbol-infused paintings.

Nothing unrelated to voodoo ever appears in his paintings, which are rich in the complex history of the spirits. According to Ute Stebich in her 1978 book “Haitian Art,” “It does not bother Pierre that most of his work is bought by foreigners and nonbelievers. Relying on their special power, he sends his paintings out into the world to spread his mission.”

His only worries relate to the recent flooding from Hurricane Georges that destroyed his crops. “It’s a difficult time for the world,” Pierre says. “But while it’s bad for the world, it’s worse for Haiti because people don’t want to work the land. They want to go abroad.”

Under President Rene Preval’s brand of democracy, jobs are scarce and millions of people barely survive on a daily basis. But Pierre credits the exodus of boat people to something else: “Haitians never think of Haiti as a fatherland. They are imported people. When black people get some money, they want to get out. The real inhabitants, the real children of Haiti are the (Arawak) Indians. The Spanish and the French who came here killed the Indians to get their gold. When they wanted people to work for them, there were none, so they imported blacks from Africa.”

A philosopher as much as an artist, Pierre relates the story of the time he offered cups of coffee to American visitors, who commented that it was “good black coffee.” Pierre, jumping to the challenge of an argument, asked them to define the term “black,” which led to further discussion about God, man and the color of a shadow. Pierre’s point? “Everything natural has some black,” he says. “The first manifestation of God is black.”

Pierre can’t forget where his people came from or the values they taught him. “The memories of the people who died are your true wealth,” he says. “Through the sacrifices of voodoo, you remember the dead. I go to church twice a year but to the cemetery twice a week because all the people from your race live there.”

When asked if he fears his own death, Pierre smiles broadly and says, “I have not the right to be fearful about death because you have to leave everything and everything will leave you.”