My oldest memory of Haitian art dates back to the 1980s, as a little girl living in Port-au-Prince. I can vividly recall vibrant paintings hanging on the walls inside homes, at the airport greeting me back to the island upon my return from my trips to my (then) second home of New York City. As I descended the iron steps to walk under the hot glaring sun into the airport, I approached canvases swirling with vivid colors and the rhythm of drum beats as the drummers sang “Haïti Cherie.”
The discernible themes in these paintings—hanging on walls, resting against cement walls or on dust filled streets peddled by street vendors—depicted the rituals of ordinary daily life capturing the essence and beauty of the marketplace, lush country landscapes, farmers, carnival and vodou (European Catholicism mixed with African religions) ceremonies expressed through a dramatic pastiche of brilliant colors and bold patterns.
Dating back to 1944, these paintings—which have widely been referred to as “naif” (naïve)—were the instinctive result of self-taught artists, among them farmers and vodou priests who eschewed the traditional rigid academic training for their own original artistic visions. There are contemporary Haitian artists today who take issue with the “naïf” label for its pejorative connotation. Other critics and artists believe the term refers to the work’s purity, and not an indication of the artists’ lack of discipline or perspective.
These paintings brimming with soul have garnered worldwide attention and landed in art lovers’ collections. The canvases of one of the most respected and revered Haitian artist of this movement, Hector Hyppolite, are worth millions today.
But not all Haitians were celebrating the recognition naïf art was receiving. Some in the art community (along with the elites in the country) were vocal in their disdain for the seal of authenticity bestowed on unschooled naïf artists by the West. In 1978, Brooklyn Museum held an exhibit of over 100 works of Haitian art that was slammed for focusing solely on the untrained naïf artists’ pervasive village sceneries and not including experimental artists, thus promoting stereotypes of what defines Haitian art.
By the time I took notice of naïf paintings as a child, this style had reached its height in popularity and had spawned an army of mediocre copycats desperate to cash in on the trend. This genre came to embody Haitian art, for better or worse.
While Haiti’s most viable culture export has been its literature, Haitian contemporary art has been slow to gain the same kind of mass appeal. The most renowned and celebrated contemporary Haitian-American artist is no doubt Jean-Michel Basquiat. The son of a Haitian father and an Afro-Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat occasionally incorporated symbols of Haitian history and vodou in his work, despite never having ever visited the island. (He did travel to Ivory Coast in 1986.) Not since Basquiat has a Haitian artist gained so much notoriety.
It’s no wonder that Basquiat’s King of the Zulus painting recently made an appearance at the historical Grand Palais in Paris. This majestic piece held tangible aesthetic evidence that Haiti continues to be a fertile ground for visual art long after the naïf era with the Grand Palais’s latest exhibition, Haiti: Two Centuries of Art and Creativity.
Two hundred years of paintings, sculptures and video installations from 1804 to 2014 gives an impression of an almost overwhelming collection. But once inside, I was surprised to find that two centuries of art seemingly amounted to one (albeit large) room in the historic building. My initial impression of the scope of the exhibit was one of slight disappointment. How could the 170 works of art by around 60 artists on view summarize two centuries of Haitian art?
But as I made my way around the room, my skepticism dissipated. The three-wall space was simultaneously open, intimate and warm. I recognized that one room made it possible to linger and devote more time to closely studying each piece and contemplating the visual and thematic links between them.
Sure, several rooms in the historic Grand Palais dedicated to Haitian art would have given weight to the somewhat overstated title. But in the end, the volume presented allowed visitors to re-experience a previously seen work and find connections among the works. The one space united all the artists on Haitian soil and in the diaspora. Artists separated by political, economic or personal forces were reunited on the soil of the colonizer.
The exhibition unfolds non-chronologically, with a deliberate emphasis on contemporary artists, in a bid to distance the island from the romanticized shackles of naïf art. The exhibit is broken down into four thematic chapters that are interwoven in Haitian culture: Santit Yo/Untitled, Peyizaj/Landscapes, Lespri Yo/Spirits, and Chef Yo/Leaders. Tying these chapters together are three “tête-a-tête,” dialogues between two artists.
For many outside of Haiti’s shores, the island’s troubled history is emblematic of the country. Last month marked five years since a devastating earthquake shook Haiti, and surprisingly, references to this are few. Haiti: Two Centuries of Art and Creativity refreshingly goes beyond myopic dialogues about poverty and tragedies. The pieces that do broach the topic do so in unconventional ways that don’t touch on the physical destruction.
In the Peyizaj/Landscapes chapter, Berlin-based architect-artists Jean-Ulrick Désert captured the constellations in the sky above Port-au-Prince the exact moment the earthquake hit. The Goddess Constellations consist of a large red velvet panel studded with small metal disks embossed with images of Josephine Baker, which represent each star. (Baker famously sang of her love for Haiti in the 1934 film, Zou Zou.) Vladimir Cybil Charlier’s Postcard to Preacher Pat, a collage of images of Haiti, is her response to televangelist Pat Roberson preaching that the earthquake was the result of Haitians practicing vodou.
Following Haiti’s independence, portraits of leaders played an important part in birthing a strong, proud Haitian identity. The Chef Yo/Leaders chapter features a series of portraits of Haitian leaders. Portraits here don’t only celebrate the leaders; they also mock them. Fritzner Lamour’s Position Ravine Guinea Fowl takes the Duvalier family symbol (guinea fowl) and dresses them up in army uniforms to express his disdain for dictators Papa Doc and Baby Doc, and their ruthless army.
Haiti: Two Centuries of Art and Creativity gives a glimpse into the aesthetic intricacies of Haitian art on Haitian soil and beyond. These works are not only an illustration of Haitian endurance, but also its artistic prosperity and complexity.
Alexandra Phanor-Faury is a Haitian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York with a slight (OK, major) addiction to fashion and pop culture. When she’s not up in the middle of the night filling her online shopping carts and catching up on style blogs, she’s writing about fashion and entertainment for a number of websites and magazines. Check out her work and blog at AlexandraPhanor.com.