Art in Haiti: Brilliant colors, naïve perspective, and sly humor characterize Haitian art. Big, delectable foods and lush landscapes are favorite subjects in this land. Going to market is the most social activity of country life, and figures prominently into the subject matter. Jungle animals, rituals, dances, and gods evoke the African past.
TYPES OF HAITIAN ART
Haitian paintings are generally divided into two categories: naives and moderns. This division has been widely accepted in Haitian arts.
The naive painters are known as primitives, and it’s been said that their style lacks artistic education and discipline.
The modern movement in Haitian art, often referred to as the Haitian Renaissance, arose in the 1940’s. More precisely it can be dated to May 14th, 1944, when DeWitt Peters, an American painter then teaching in Haiti opened an art center, Le Centre d’Art, in an old house in the center of Port-au-Prince.
The modern painters have come to view the term “naif” as a negative connotation on the evolution of Haitian paintings. However, the term naive has more to do with independence from academic tradition, and it is a style that suggested artistic innocence.
The first of the ‘naive’ Haitian artists to bring his work to Le Centre d’Art was Philomé Obin, who had actually been painting images of Haitian history and life in his home town of Cap Haitien since 1908. Another naive painter and certainly the most celebrated of Haitian artists was the hougan (vodou priest) Hector Hyppolite.
Le Centre d’Art provided exhibition space and art instruction for the full range of Haitian artists – from completely untrained peasant artists to educated artists of the Haitian elite. The first exhibition was of twenty-five trained artists, but increasingly the center drew artists who were completely self-taught and worked in the ‘naive’ style for which Haitian art was to become known. Unfortunately, the Centre’ d’Art’s building was completely demolished in the Haitian Earthquake 2010.
In 1947 the first purchase of a work by a Haitian naive’ painter by MOMA.
In 1945 the visits to Haiti by French surrealist Andre Breton with Cuban painter Wilfredo Lam, each of whom bought several paintings by Hector Hyppolite. While somewhat self-servings claiming the Haitian artists as fellow surrealists, Breton did a great deal to legitimize and promote Haitian art in Europe and Latin America. That same year the Pan American Union hosted the first museum show of Haitian art in the United States.
In 1947 the first purchase of a work by a Haitian naive’ painter by the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MOMA).
During 1948-1949 the artists Wilson Bigaud, Philome Obin, Gabriel Leveque, Castera Bazile and others , painted of the magnificent murals at Port-au-Prince’s Episcopal cathedral of Sainte Trinité directed by Peters and the late American critic Selden Rodman.
In 1950 emerged the uniquely Haitian art form of steel drum sculpture. The art of Haiti is known worldwide and one of the most unique forms of art is the Haitian steel drum art. Metal drums, once used for transporting oil or other products are purchased near the port in the capitol city of Port au Prince.
A blacksmith named George Liautaud hammered out wrought-iron grave crosses for a living until Dewitt Peters and others encouraged him to try his hand at figurative sculpture. His students and followers, including today’s masters, Serge Jolimeau and Gabriel Bien-Aimé, further refined the art of hammering sculpture out of recycled oil drums.
They are brought to the neighboring town of Croix-des-Bouquets by hand cart or on top of a taxi to the metal artists’ workshop. Croix-des-Bouquets is the center of the Haitian metalwork movement. When driving through the primitive streets, one hears the sounds coming from the homes of various artists as they pound on the drums, expressing their art. As in any art form, some metal work is far superior to others. We have committed ourselves to seeking out the very best metal artists.
In 1957 The accession to power of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. For the next decade he and his tonton macoutes terrorized Haiti. Most tourists and buyers of Haitian art stayed away. In spite of this several fresh artists emerged, including André Pierre, Gerard Valcin and Salnave Philippe-Auguste.
In 1972 the opening of the Musée d’Art Haitien in Port-au-Prince, the first museum devoted to Haitian Art. It was dedicated the memory of Dewitt Peters, who had died in 1966. The death of Papa Doc Duvalier and the succession of his marginally less repressive son “Baby Doc” encouraged a new era of tourism to Haiti and greater exposure for Haitian artists.
Musée d’Art Haitien
1975 – The visit of French writer, critic and Minister of Culture, André Malraux, to the mystical artists’ community of Saint-Soleil. It gained international recognition when Andre Malreaux immortalized the movement by featuring Saint Soleil in his book “L’Intemporel”. Another artist who began to work in this period was the ever-playful pastry chef turned painter, Gerard Fortuné.
In 1978 more than one-hundred works of Haitian art were put on exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum and collectors were quick to note the exhibition had focused too much on untrained artists and “their traditional depictions of simple village and market scenes, rendered in vivid colors.
The 1980‘s brought the wider recognition of the art of the sequinned “voodoo flag” or vodou banner (dwapo in Kreyol). Previously regarded as a relatively obscure liturgical art it came into its own with such innovative artists as the late Antoine Oleyant and Josef Oldof Pierre.
The 1990‘s brought the inspiring and hope with rise of slum priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The artist still painting with the naive style and more joy.
In 2010 the devastating earthquake struck Port-au-Prince and its surrounding area. The Haitian art world suffered great losses in the earthquake. Museums and art galleries were extensively damaged, among them Port-au-Prince’s main art museum, Centre d’Art, where many art works were destroyed. The collection at Collège Saint Pierre also was devastated, as was the collection of priceless murals in the Holy Trinity Cathedral. Some private art galleries were also severely damaged, including the Monnin Gallery in Pétionville, and the Nader Art Gallery and Musée Nader in Port-au-Prince. The personal collection of Georges Nader Sr., the Nader collection was worth an estimated US$30-US$100 million.
Many artists cluster in ‘schools’ of painting, such as the Cap Haitian school (Eric Phanord, Jean Baptiste Bottex, Obin Telemaque) which features depictions of daily life in the city, the Jacmel School (Ezene Domond, Gesner Armand, Yvon Jean Pierre) which reflects the steep mountains and bays of that coastal town, or the Saint-Soleil School founded by Maud Robard (Levoy Exile, Paul Dieuseul, Prospere Pierre-Louis, Jean-Claude “Tiga” Garoute, Louisiane Saint Fleurant) which is characterized by abstracted human forms, and is heavily influenced by Vodou symbolism.
The kind of art trained varies from school to school. Some will go for traditional art while others prefer being creative. Some of the common styles as defined by Haitian artists include; realists, fantasists, impressionists etc. It is this schools which have nurtured the art talent to put Haiti top in the art world.
The painters of the Artibonite region in central Haiti, have developed their own style, which is quite recognizable. The style began with Saincilus Ismaël, who was influenced by Byzantine art he had seen in books. Ismaël began to paint in 1956 after visiting the Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince. His paintings are marked by exquisite detail. Every article of clothing, house, or tree is painted with a different intricate geometric pattern.
Much of the credit for the (Art in Haiti) as naive genre goes to Montas Antoine who revolutionized the idea that joy was to be an essential part of the development of the artists. His Street with Flowers typified that essence with “The joy of natural beauty! The joy of art!” The unique approach of celebrating beauty in color and with a brush became a popular trend among the artists. Even Hyppolite, who was much more focused on celebrating dreams and legends of the voodoo, found time to paint “still life” and tributes to Haitian women. In the later generation of artists, great artists such as Prosper Pierrelouis, Levoy Exil, and Louisiane St. Fleurant, would express joy in their painting by celebrating the spirits as symbols of joy.
The importance of Haitian art includes the wealth of treasure that Haitian painters have produced throughout the last half of the century. Accordingly, this has elevated the Haitian artists to greater prominence. Some of the painters have had their work featured abroad in some of the most prestigious museums and art galleries in the world, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The paintings of Michel Valestin are one such example and because of the content and subject matter they are celebrated by European and North American galleries and collectors. Other well-known artists such as Philome Obin, Gerald Bloncourt, Gesner Armand, Jean Pierre Theard, Ronald Mevs, Valestin as well as other young painters of the new generation such as Rodrigue Constant, Alain Camille and Serge Auguste, have profited from the exposure of their creations.
Critics argued that by omitting more experimental pieces, the show fostered a stereotype of Haitian art as primitive and naive. This division has not subsided, despite some changes, such as moving beyond the traditional colors and themes.
In a country of political oppression, one tends to speak in fables. Artists paint in fable as well. People are disguised as animals and animals are transformed into people. In an illiterate land, symbols take on great meaning. A rooster may represent Aristide and the red and blue colors of the Haitian flag, often represent his Lavalas party (as an example).
Wood is a precious commodity in Haiti. Lumber is costly because of a low supply and high demand situation. The most common way for Haitian’s to cook food is using charcoal made from small tree bits roasted underground. It is a high valued commodity and as such it is well respected. Artists have been creating wonderful sculptures out of this precious commodity for decades.
Haitians have been making crafts for years. Some religious icons and prayer vessels made with bottles and sequins. Small sculptures and boxes. Ornate wooden furniture, hand carved and painted are popular crafts. Leather sculptures and jewelry are popular choices for tourists. The vivid colors conjure up feelings of vitality and spirit of the people. Haitian art is rooted in the culture of the people. Haitian art and artists are highly reflective of the everyday experiences and life of Haitians. Paintings in particular express the history, the landscape, the struggles and the joy of the people.
Source: Haiti Libre, Wikipedia, Arts Haitian, Hatian Observer, American University, Indigo Arts.