National Treasure: Haitian Art History and its Hidden Revolutionary Past

Edouard Duval-Carrié, Le monde actuel, ou Erzulie interceptée (The World at Present, or Ezili Intercepted), 1996, Bass Museum of Art

With the recent events developing in Haiti, the complicated history between the country and the United States has quickly surfaced. A group of American Baptists attempted to transport Haitian children out off the country without proper documentation causing an international media storm and a recent article from UK Guardian journalist Seumas Milne’s which questioned the U.S. Military’s motivation in “[commandeering] Port-au-Prince’s airport…[turning] away flights bringing medical equipment and emergency supplies from organizations…in order to give priority to landing troops.” This latent disregard seems to also be seeping into the discussion of the country’s history of art as well. In the earthquake’s aftermath, it is difficult to argue the importance of salvaging this artistic history while the reality of the devastation and number of lives lost continues to reveal itself. Yet, the recent foray of two U.S. media publications into this realm, and the aforementioned events, has led me to believe that the need for this discussion has come to us sooner rather than later.  It is the apparent unfamiliarity with Haitian culture, in this case, its art, that is most problematic and results in its artists and history to undergo further marginalization. By using its artistic history as a window into its national identity, hopefully, Haiti can be defined as more than one of the world’s poorest countries.

On January 24th, the Los Angeles Times reported the destruction of the Centre d’Art, a historical art center founded in Port-au-Prince in 1944, which helped to launch Haitian artists onto the international art scene. There are two major problems with the article that need to be discussed further. The first is the usage of the term “primitive.” This label was used to define Haitian artists by the founders of the Centre d’Art (two Americans and a Frenchman) as a way to market said artists within the international scene. The trend in the art world during this time was to find the next great “primitive” artist, an influence of Dada and Surrealist artistic movements that sought to reclaim an innocence felt to have been lost with the industrialization of Europe. Haitian artists who were willing to be perceived through this European/American hegemonic gaze could find a place within the international art market.

(Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times / January 23, 2009)

Centre d'Art damage (Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times / January 23, 2009)

However, there is a long tradition of Haiti’s creolized academic tradition of which a formal, figurative style in Haitian painting can be traced back to. Philomé Obin (1892 – 1986) had been painting thirty years before the center opened and is still considered one of the most influential artists on Haitian art today. His work stands as an example of the school of memorializing well-known events within Haiti’s revolutionary history, frequently referencing Haitian heroes such as Toussaint L’Ouverture and Charlemagne Péralte. Obin championed the school of nationalist art in Haiti and his influence can still be seen today in works by internationally known artists such as Edouard Duval-Carrié. To continue to refer to these artists and their works as “primitive” in this day and age without any context, as did the Los Angeles Times journalist Tracy Wilkinson, is, well, just plain lazy.

Philomé Obin (1892 - 1986), Crucifixion de Charlemagne Péralte pour la Liberté (Crucifixion of Charlemagne Péralte for Freedom), 1948, In the collection of Milwaukee Art Museum

The second problematic area of the Los Angeles Times article, and in which we can also refer to the New Yorker’s January 25th cover, is the continued use of the world “voodoo” when referring to the Haitian religion of vodou (also known as vaudou). The cover featured the painting The Resurrection of the Dead from contemporary Haitian artist Frantz Zephirin (a grand-nephew of Obin). The painting depicts imagery of vodou guide (“gods”), as they guard the passage between life and death. Both publications use the term “voodoo”, a Western construct laden with racial prejudice, with no further explanation of its immense role within Haitian art history or the formation of its national identity. Vodou is a combination of West African and Roman Catholic religions, comprised of deities, or lwas, which through worship, help practitioners get closer to the supreme god, Bondeyé. In her article Vodou, Nationalism, and Performance: The Staging of Folklore in Mid-Twentieth Century Haiti, Kate Ramsey discusses the role of the religion in the formation of the indigènisme movement, a conceptual rallying point for revolution against the U.S. occupation of 1915, rooted in ethnic and cultural identity. The religion was criminalized and those who observed its ceremonies were persecuted, forcing vodou to go underground and evolve into a locale of resistance for Haitians. During this time, vodou would become exoticized by American/European artists searching to connect to the “other”, such as choreographer Katherine Dunham and avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren, best known for Divine Horseman: the Living Gods of Haiti, a film documenting vodou ceremonial rituals and practitioners.

Frantz Zephirin, The Resurrection of the Dead (2007), On the cover of the January 25, 2010 of "New Yorker" magazine

Once vodou became legal in 1946, the Centre d’Art encouraged its artists to incorporate religious imagery within their artwork, as it was perceived as purely authentic (read “primitive”). Haitian artists who made the conscientious decision to allow themselves to be labeled as “other,” were able to achieve success within the international market. A prime example is the artist Hector Hyppolite (1894-1948), who through acceptance of the role projected onto him, exhibited in Paris and New York frequently and could claim patrons such as André Breton (father of the Surrealist movement) and American author Truman Capote. In his 2000 lecture, Voodoo Terror: (mis)representations of voodoo and western cultural anxieties, presented at the October Gallery in London, John Cussans discusses the “voodoo construct” and its four different distinctions: the voodoo doll; the zombie; the voodoo witch doctor; and voodoo possession. Through these continued representations, Cussans argues, vodou has been continually objectified and suppressed by U.S./European culture and its continued need to ethnographically “authenticate,” (or define through a Western gaze), what they don’t understand. Cussans concluded, “It is this tendency to return voodoo to vodou that must be reversed if we are to resist the compassionate continuation of vodou’s suppression effected by the misguided will to authenticity.” In other words, any concept of voodoo must be abandoned when approaching the Haitian religion; otherwise, we are doing nothing more than participating in the continued misrepresentation. This is the problem with the U.S. media publications. So ingrained in the American psyche has this misrepresentation become, these journalists didn’t even think to research the religion.

Hector Hypplite (1894-1948), La dauration l'amour (The Adoration of Love), 1946-48, in the collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum

The Centre d’Art and local galleries have reported the loss of many artworks contained in their collective walls, not to mention a number of represented artists. The recent tragedy has made Haiti the world’s disaster darling and it has been tremendous how people from all over the world have responded to the country’s need for help. Yet, we need to take a collective breath and become aware that we are treading on complicated ground.  The lack of reference to any real historical, artistic or political context from both publications highlights the challenging areas that arise whenever a Western power has offered aid to Haiti. We cannot sustain meaning as a global community if we keep repeating the historic mistakes of colonization. As we go forward, we need to raise our awareness to include the entire story, not fixing Haitians and their history in a marginalized space, putting aside our preconceived notions in order to truly help Haiti. If not, I guarantee, we will have another revolution on our hands.