By Candice Russell
“Woman with Fish” (2004) by Maria Dania Exil is the type of exuberant painting characteristic of Haitian art in many people’s minds. The predominant colors of this oil painting on canvas, measuring 18 3/4″ high and 23 3/4″ wide, are bold, school bus colored yellow, red, fuchsia, and purple, against a background of teal blue, turquoise and green that shows outlined leaves against a teeming universe.
The subject of “Woman with Fish” is a not-quite-mortal woman in a yellow headdress. She wears a mysterious smile. Her three-fingered arms reach out of a striped, dotted and otherwise heavily patterned body, with the right hand almost bouncing a small version of the sun. Perhaps, she is the emanation emerging from its fiery soul, rendered large in comparison to it by her transition from one realm to another. She is the process of becoming whole, as is the fish that looms behind her head.
Perhaps they are in a watery domain under the sea’s surface. But this depiction of marine and terrestrial life is about potential — of things developing, but not quite there yet.
The mysteries of life, from conception to getting to earth, are explored by all the Saint Soleil artists, of whom this Exil is certainly one. Her father is Levoy Exil, one of the original five Saint Soleil artists, including Prospere Pierre Louis, Denis Smith, Dieuseul Paul, and Louisiane Saint Fleurant.
I bought the painting in question from Levoy Exil when he came to my home around six or eight years ago. The artist known as Tiga was in the process of dying at a Fort Lauderdale hospice and, in tribute to him, Exil and other artists whom Tiga had nurtured in their careers, came from Haiti to see him one last time. At that meeting, I also purchased a painting by Levoy himself — a friend from many years before — and two other small works by his daughter. At that time, she wasn’t well-known in either Europe or the United States, said the proud father, though he was trying to change that situation.
The sad thing is that Maria Dania Exil, whom I included in my book “Masterpieces of Haitian Art” along with all of the Saint Soleil artists, hasn’t gotten the traction of being well-known through museum exhibitions, newspaper articles, or critiques in art journals. In fact, this is the case with a lot of Haitian artists whose careers have stalled as the result of not getting their due in terms of exhibition venues, academic papers, and media attention.
Why is this? Where are the scholars stepping up to push and proselytize for artists like the younger Exil? In part, it has to do with the economic recession, which meant museums didn’t have the funds to mount shows and pay independent curators. Subscribers to newspapers and magazines dwindled to a trickle, as people gave up paper products for digital information via laptops and smartphones. The culture as a whole doesn’t read like it used to, so the possibilities of moving a career forward by a big media push in newspapers and magazines aren’t nearly what they used to be.
And some scholars either retired (Donald Cosentino of U.C.L.A. who mounted the travelling exhibition “The Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou”) or passed away (Selden Rodman). Haitian art is waiting for a new generation of spokespeople to trumpet its virtues. Where are they?