By Candice Russell
This is a continuation of a story begun last week about the writing of my book “Masterpieces of Haitian Art.” There are those people who would debate the legitimacy of including in such a book anything other than paintings, since that was the medium that got the ball rolling on the mid-century renaissance of Haitian art. But those are people with whom I strongly disagree.
Since when is a three-dimensional sculpture a lesser form of art than a two-dimensional painting? How fair is it to exclude the geniuses of other media because their works aren’t created with canvas and paint? Put this way, it seems unthinkable NOT to include them.
And, so they appear in “Masterpieces of Haitian Art,” without a word of refusal or dissent from my editor at Schiffer Books in Atglen, Pennsylvania. One can legitimately say that the creators of Vodou flags are painting with sequins and beads when they create these sacred textiles. A cottage industry has grown up around them, ever since Antoine Oleyant and Clotaire Bazile pioneered their outreach beyond the Vodou communities in Haiti.
There were so many exceptional works that came through my hands in different forms that choosing which to include in the book was extremely difficult. Vodou flags range in style from charmingly childlike to positively sophisticated. Each one exerts a strong pull on me. The exactitude of Jean Baptiste Jean Joseph, who stands in a class by himself, is appealing. So is his use of luxurious materials, like velvet for the background cloth. His choice of subject matter also sets him apart from his peers.
Stylistically different from each other, both Bazile and Oleyant are the titans of the Vodou flag medium. Traditional in his portrayal of the spirits, Bazile is known for his enclosing borders, akin to quilt-makers in the United States. It’s as if he is protecting his images. Oleyant always exhibited a freer hand in executing his pieces and a more liberal interpretation of his themes.
Who can deny the work of Myrlande Constant, perhaps the best-known Vodou flag maker among women artists? Her “Simbi” in my book of a woman in a white gown walking out of the ocean with flowers falling from her hands is the kind of work that resonates with everyone who sees it.
Papier-mache, long under-appreciated as a medium perhaps because of its humble origins from water and paper, is also honored in my book. Thank you to Michel Sinvil and Lionel Simonis, the kings of this medium, whose fanciful creations are an essential contribution to the subject of Haitian art. Simonis’ mermaids are the height of whimsy. But, in a completely different tone, is “La Vie Drole,” a tribute to the people lost at sea in trying to cross the ocean from Haiti to a different life in Florida. Sinvil’s figures are large and magnificent; they include “Relax Lady,” a woman carrying a baby, and “Bearded Angel.”
If you go to Haiti and stay at the Hotel Oloffson, large papier-mache busts of historical figures and revolutionary heroes are used as decoration in the guest rooms. It’s another way to honor the papier-mache tradition of art in Haiti and its prominence at Carnival parades.