Haitian Art Loses a Master

“Haitian Art Loses a Master” — December 17, 2006

A titan of Haitian art has passed away. Haitian-born artist and educator Jean Claude Garoute, known to the art world as “Tiga,” died on Thursday of liver cancer in a Fort Lauderdale hospice. Before his death at age 71, four days after his birthday, Tiga hosted a steady stream of visitors to his bedside, including artists like Patrick Gerald Wah who traveled from New York to see him. A televised tribute to Tiga aired on New York television last weekend and was seen by the ailing Tiga, whose mind remained sharp until the end even though his body was ravaged by disease.

Another visitor was Levoy Exil, a painter in the Saint Soleil movement, known as the avant-garde of Haitian popular art. This seminal movement was started by Tiga in 1972 with five core artists including Exil, Prospere Pierre Louis, Louisiane Saint Fleurant, Dieuseul Paul, and Denis Smith in Soisson la Montagne. Only Exil and Smith are still alive. Saint Soleil paintings are characterized by explosive color, semi-abstract figures, doves as symbols of peace, and women as the source of creation. Connected to the dominant Haitian religion of Vodou, Saint Soleil also connects to a larger sense of sacredness, according to the writing of Tiga, who based it on four key words — dream, possession, creation and madness..

In visiting from his Thomasaint, Haiti home, Exil expressed gratefulness to Tiga for giving him the freedom and education that changed his whole life and allowed him to raise fourteen children.
“My relationship with Tiga is very spiritual,” Exil said after visiting him in the hospice. “He gave me three brushes and told me to do anything I felt like doing. President (Rene) Preval has great regard for Tiga and inquired after his health. He sees him as an icon or master of Haitian art.”

Exil explains that when he spoke to Tiga, “There is such electricity in the communication. Because of his illness, his body was practically gone but his mind keeps him so strong. If not for that, he would have been gone already. Tiga says that the moon receives the soul of a person and the sun burns the body to cleanse it so it can come back to life.”

Making peace with the fact of his impending death, Tiga had no fear about it, according to Exil. He merely saw death as a transformation of his energy and a continuation of his soul in another form. Those who knew and loved him are more prone to celebrate his life rather than mourn his passing.

Carnival in Haiti next February will be dedicated to Tiga and the Saint Soleil movement. Exil and Smith are working on the floats for the parades in Port-au-Prince and Jacmel, as well as their costumes. Tiga’s daughter Pascal Garoute will lead the parade. This Carnival plans to be one of the most spectacular celebrations in recent years.

Saint Soleil came along at the right time, according to Selden Rodman in the book “Where Art is Joy: The First Forty Years of Haitian Art.” The art market had become commercialized and painters felt more comfortable copying other people’s masterpieces than creating original works of their own. In 1996 Tiga wrote that Saint Soleil’s “primary purpose was the rehabilitation of art and the liberation of the human spirit through media corresponding to all senses: clay, drums, colors, voice, stone, ink, etc.”

French writer Andre Malraux became impressed with the Saint Soleil painters during a 1976 visit to Haiti and wrote in the book “L’Intemporel” about the movement as “the most striking and only controllable experiment in the magic world of painting in our century.”

Haitian art collector Reynolds Rolles of Plantation, who is also a fine art photographer, said, “Tiga could see your potential and give you the tools to develop them. He was honest, friendly and trustworthy. His best quality was his personality. Not only was he a great artist. His Saint Soleil movement put Haitian art on the map internationally and made art lovers see differently things they never saw before.”

Tiga’s art was featured in a benefit for the A.C.T.I.O.N. Foundation, a Broward-based non-profit organization promoting Creole art and culture, several years ago in the courtyard of the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale. Eric Boucicaut, the foundation’s president and an art collector, said, “The contribution of Tiga is immense not only at the level of visual art but at the level of culture. He had a theory of artistic rotation which entailed the use of many different media almost simultaneously. It worked with adults as well as young children and the mentally challenged who were his students.

“Tiga was a singer, philosopher, poet, researcher and fantastic sculptor as well as the creator of Saint Soleil, one of the most important movements in Haitian art. This is a major loss for Haiti. ”

Susan Karten, an American clothing designer and resident of Boca Raton, studied art with Tiga years ago when she lived in Haiti. She and her late husband Morton Karten had a business there (she still does) and lived in Haiti for thirty years. “He was very intense in a quiet way,” she says. “Tiga’s intensity made me create. He only let us use three colors — red, yellow and blue — because he said from those you can make anything.”

The only local museum show in the tri-county South Florida area devoted exclusively to the Saint Soleil artists was held at the Center of Contemporary Art (now the Museum of Contemporary Art) in North Miami, Florida in the early 1990s. Exil and Saint Fleurant came from Haiti for the show’s opening, then jointly created a mural commemorating this special event in an all-day event. Artist Philippe Dodard also participated in the painting. It was at this mural-painting that I purchased works on paper in black-and-white by both Saint Fleurant and Prospere Pierre Louis, along with a notebook of oversized pen-and-ink drawings by Exil.

Funeral arrangements for Tiga are pending in Haiti. He told Exil that he wanted to be cremated, to return to the fire.

— Candice Russell