Gay Artists Flourish in Haiti

August 26, 2006

By Candice Russell

On the Caribbean island of Haiti, proud declarations of homosexuality go against the cultural norm of keeping intimate matters private. In spite of this fact, homosexual artists like the painter Prince Jean Jo, and Jean Baptiste Jean Joseph, a genius of the voodoo flag medium who lives in Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti, are creating names for themselves and legacies of art that will outlive them in museums and private homes. Both artists have prized work for sale during my annual in-home Haitian art extravaganza in Plantation, scheduled every weekend between Thanksgiving and Christmas..

Prince Jean Jo, a native of Jacmel who died in 1996, was stereotypically flamboyant. According to the book “Images from Haiti: Jorgen’s Leth Collection,” the artist “was a controversial figure in the provincial setting because of his demonstrative homosexuality.” That didn’t matter to savvy gallery owners like the late Dr. Carlos Jara, who carried the artist’s raw, graffiti-inspired canvases with overtly gay themes alongside jungle scenes, fantasy landscapes and voodoo ceremonies painted by Haitian masters. These in-your-face depictions of stiff phalluses and lesbian lip locks by Prince Jean Jo, showcased by Jara in an exhibition at the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince in 1991, were out of step with a culture known for public modesty. Other painters, with strong political biases, including Stivenson Magloire, know the value of making their symbolism dense enough to avoid easy decoding by an enemy regime. Prince Jean Jo, whose real name was the far less colorful Jean Jose Lafontant, didn’t care who he might offend by painting what was in his heart and mind.

Working in conscious imitation of Haitian-American Jean-Michel Basquiat, the deceased graffiti painter who became a fine artist in New York City, Prince Jean Jo went beyond painting canvases. He chose to experiment with different forms in mixed media collages, one of which is pictured in “Images from Haiti.” Made from wood, textiles, a coconut shell and scary-looking drips of red oil paint, “Voodoo Nouveau” (1991) makes reference to Haiti’s politics and history. He is remembered fondly by Emeraude Michel Jara, the widow of Dr. Carlos Jara, who lives in Montreal, Canada: “Prince Jean Jo was a very friendly guy who knew a lot about literature and art. He worked as an English teacher.”

To reach the home and studio of Jean Baptiste Jean Joseph, a thin man of 39 fond of Nautica clothing, means driving down a dusty, unpaved road in the small town of Croix-des-Bouquets. The self-taught artist holds court in a space overwhelmed with his artistic output, with sequined and beaded squares of cloth in the making and in finished form hanging everywhere including the rafters. These voodoo flags depict in symbols and figures the spirits within the voodoo pantheon that are thought to control prosperity, health, romance, and the state of crops, among other things.

What sets his work apart is a wider range of subject matter and a vibrant use of unusual colors than his contemporaries. Joseph depicts traditional imagery, too, such as the regal-looking Virgin Mary known in Haitian voodoo as Erzulie, goddess of love. But it’s his whimsical portrayal of angels, fabulously long-tailed cats, and playful lizards, as much as his use of rich satin fabric and jewel-tone beads that distinguish the artist as someone very special.

Working side by side with Joseph is a team of teen-age boys who sit bent over clamped squares of white cotton cloth, sewing the designs made by the artist. Less demonstrative than Prince Jean Jo, Joseph does everything quietly, including negotiation for a purchase of multiple items by visiting foreign collectors. There is a lot to choose from — similarly embellished vests, hats, eyeglass cases, and bottles.

New to his studio are a charming array of Christmas decorations including puffy hearts sequined and beaded on both sides, angels with multi-colored wings, stars, and other shapes. Joseph is alone in Haiti as a creator of these beautiful items which are designer pieces from a master of the textile medium. If one detects a touch of magic in his work, it is to be expected, since he began making voodoo flags after a dream urging him to do so. Without a mentor, Joseph the factory worker became one of Haiti’s best-known living artists.