“Writing a Haitian Art Book” — Part One

By Candice Russell

At book signings for my book “Masterpieces of Haitian Art,” I am asked by readers about what was involved in the selection process for the pieces that are within its pages. The answer lies partly in the necessary limitations set by the publisher. I was told not to exceed 300 pieces of art to be reproduced in color. My final total went over that number by a few, but not much.

With those parameters in place, it was clear that this book wouldn’t be the be-all and end-all on the topic of masterpieces of Haitian art. There are far too many in the world to have been contained in 256 pages. But the book stands as a statement about Haitian art that people who had never seen it would appreciate and those who thought they knew Haitian art would have their minds blown by the heights of creativity in the book.

The fact is, I had only myself to consult in regard to choosing the artwork. There were no committees involved, no panels of scholars mulling over what to include and exclude.

Naturally, any book with the word “masterpieces” in the title had to include the titans like Hector Hyppolite, Rigaud Benoit, and the Obin family. And they are represented. But, just as important in my view, are the lesser-known and even unknown artists like Antoinette “Jose” Valmidor, Bety Veillard, and Natacha Philogene, who deserved their place on these pages.

Because art is subjective, my choices are up for debate. I welcome such discussions (though I would have shrunk at the thought of them 14 years ago). This is largely due to the fact that the book may get people thinking and talking about my favorite subject, Haitian art, which is all to the good. Also, I hope that my book motivates someone else with a completely different take on the topic to write a book of their own. The literature on Haitian art in the 21st century needs more voices, more champions. If my book angers you enough to express another, entirely divergent viewpoint, this I would consider to be a wonderful development.

Choosing just enough art for the book was like “Sophie’s Choice.” Wanting to show the range and variety in some careers, I included up to four works in a single medium by an artist. It would have been remiss of me to only show the angel paintings of Jean Baptiste Jean, for example. He is also known for spot-on depictions of daily life, including the catastrophic aftermath of a flood and a bicycle race through the streets of Cap-Haitien. So both sides of the artist’s oeuvre are in the book.

Though my personal taste tends to run in the opposite direction of modern and sophisticated, I included artists who epitomize this description and whose works I greatly admire. This group includes Rony Leonidas, Luckner Lazard, Jacques Enguerrand Gourgue, and Milhomme Racine, among others. I appreciate their contributions as much as those of the under-sung artists who deserve to find supporters of their work.