“Crafting a Speech on Haitian Art”

By Candice Russell

Lucky me — this fall and winter I have been approved as a lecturer on the subject of Haitian art by Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Florida. What this means is a series of speeches on the campus and at various facilities in Broward and Palm Beach Counties, beginning in late September and continuing through January.

Of course, Haitian art is my favorite subject. I live surrounded by it, think about it daily, curate museum shows on it, wrote one book on it, and ponder how to write a novel about it. Haitian art is my constant.

But how to sum up the rich visual heritage of seven decades in a public talk of roughly forty minutes? Would it be better to concentrate on a single school of Haitian art, like the Saint Soleil artists Prospere Pierre Louis, Levoy Exil, Louisiane Saint Fleurant, Denis Smith and Dieuseul Paul, or the Cap-Haitien artists spearheaded by the Obin family? Or is a chronological overview better, scanning the accomplishments of Haitian artists by generation?

Should paintings be the emphasis of my speech? That seems logical. But to give short shrift to Haitian sculptors would be a serious misstep. Acknowledgment must be paid of their considerable contributions in the area of wood sculpture. No one is a better exponent of this than Nacius Joseph, whose Vodou personages like guitar-playing mermaids and daily life scenes like men rowing for freedom as boat people headed for the United States.

Sculptors of papier-mache have their titans, too, including Michel Sinvil and Lionel Simonis. Both craft figurative pieces of smallish to quite large size. They are geniuses, inspiring countless others to craft fantastic creations for Carnival parades.

Mixed-media sculptors deserve a verbal nod as well. Pierrot Barra’s other-worldly, even eerie constructions using doll heads come to mind as especially representative of art as an example of creative re-purposing of discards. Haitians probably aren’t as familiar with the terms “recycling” as we are in the U.S., but they do it all the time in their artwork.

Think of the recycled oil drums that have been hammered and punctured into girls riding bicycles, two-horned bulls symbolizing determination, and undersea creatures. This form of art thrives in Croix-des-Bouquets, not far from the cemetery where the crosses for the dead by Georges Liautaud were noticed, leading to this art form in metal and iron.

The speech cannot overlook Vodou flags, those gorgeously embellished ceremonial squares of cloth. So important in rituals, so prized by foreign cultures, Vodou flags are unique representations of spiritual creatures. They are exquisite examples of handwork and artistic conceptualization.

We haven’t even scratched the surface of Haitian art. One could easily spend an entire speech discussing the Guede family of spirits that govern death and the fate of the soul. Baron Samedi, Brigitte la Croix, and the others all have different jobs. Ceremonies for them around November 1 are especially lively, with men and women dressing in purple and black and assuming the gender identity of their opposites. Guede paintings and Vodou flags are among the favorites in my personal collection.

Do you see my dilemma?