Possessed: The Art of Haiti

Haitian Art Exhibition that I Curated at Coral Springs Museum of Art

By Candice Russell

When most people think of Haitian art, what comes to mind are island paintings in bold tropical colors depicting scenes of daily life. While primitive paintings have found a large and popular following in the U.S. and other countries, Haiti is getting to be well-known for other forms of artistic expression. These alternative media including metal sculptures and beautifully embellished textiles are showcased in a new exhibition “Possessed: The Art of Haiti” at the Coral Springs Museum of Art now until August 19.

The vibrant and informative show explores the tradition and meaning behind the metal sculptures crafted from recycling the metal from oil drums. This art form grew out of the discovery of iron crosses in the cemetery in Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti, a small town located an hour’s drive from the capital of Port-au-Prince. The maker of the crosses with curlicues and other adornments was Georges Liautaud (1899-1991), who was encouraged to use steel, metal, brass and iron for other purposes than honoring the dead. The results were magical. Liautaud made angels, figures from comical stories, animals, crucifixions and personages from the Haitian religion of Vodou.

The bulk of the metal sculptures at the museum belong to Montreal, Canada resident Emeraude Michel-Jara, the widow of important Haitian art dealer Dr. Carlos Jara. These rare works are a testament to Dr. Jara’s friendships with artists in Haiti including metal masters Serge Jolimeau, Gabriel Bien-Aime, Luce Turnier and Lionel Saint-Eloi. Some artists in the show prefer to adorn their metal sculptures with coats of paint to add shadow, texture and personality to their creations. Whimsical examples include “Big Fish” by Christobal and “Cats in a Tree” by Norbert.

Sharing the stage in “Possessed” are sacred squares of cloth meticulously hand-sewn with sequins and beads to honor the spirits of Haitian Vodou. For that reason, they serve a purpose that is more than decorative. Used by Americans as wall hangings or pillow covers, Vodou flags can be figurative or symbolic in representing the male and female spirits who control all aspects of life, from the fertility of crops to successful romances. Made to be as expensive as the resources of a community will allow, these flags are glittering manifestations of faith.

Thirteen artists who make Vodou flags are found at the Coral Springs Museum of Art including Clotaire Bazile, known for his traditional portrayal of the spirits, and the late Antoine Oleyant, who used the cloth more as a painter in his free-handed creations. Amena Simeon, one of the growing number of women artists in this medium, is represented by “Couzin Zaka,” the bare-footed spirit of agriculture wearing a jaunty hat. Other examples by Prospere Pierre Louis and Wagler Vital, known primarily as painters, demonstrate the validity of translating their visions from canvas to another kind of cloth plus embellishment.

As a tribute to Haitian art, “Possessed” is cause for speculation and wonder. All the works in the exhibition are from untrained artists who never studied form, composition or color. All labored under the most difficult conditions in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere to create art for generations to come.