In September 2016, I hosted Ingrid Schaffner and Bisi Silva to show them my collection of Haitian art and to discuss their imminent trip to the Caribbean in preparation for the Carnegie Int’l, 57th ed., 2018. Early in our visit they asked how I had become a collector of the island nation’s Vodou-based Surrealist art. I led them to a small painting in my living room and told them about a fateful encounter.
I first saw the mysterious painting at the home of my friend Bill Bollendorf, the Haitian art dealer. It was one among hundreds of works in a dazzling, throbbing jumble of art on his third floor. Somehow the small, luminous painting stood out, its allure oddly enhanced by its poor condition: it was water damaged, warped, and faded—a tarnished jewel. I peered at the signature, “C. Faustin,” and studied the image: the blue, bald, and nude Vodou lwa (spirit) Erzulie, goddess of love and creativity, stood at the left, holding a large knife in one hand and, in the other, the leash to a tenderly rendered, soon-to-be-sacrificed sheep. At the right was another blue nude, a long, thin man, who had his right hand on the head of the sheep and his left hand in his crotch, as if uncertain about what Erzulie would do with the knife. In the background was a sunrise, above it, an evanescent figure of a woman standing at the doorway of a hut. At the right was a man with a machete, heading into the mountains as if he were an escaped slave, a maroon, from the era of the Haitian Revolution. This hallucinogenic dreamscape of Vodou, eroticism, and history was captivating. I had never seen anything like it.
Little did I realize it at the time, but this was the moment I became a collector of Haitian art. I had encountered for the first time a work by one of Haiti’s leading Surrealists, the late Faustin. I was smitten. The man featured in the painting was Faustin himself. The woman pictured in white was his grandmother Célestina, the Vodou mambo (priestess) for whom he was named. When his artistic talent appeared during his youth, it was she who told him that he had been given to Erzulie. He spent the remainder of his restless, tortured, and tragically short life (1948–1981) trying and, he felt, largely failing to please Erzulie. Like Papa Legba, the lwa who in Vodou ceremonies opens the door between the physical and spiritual realms, Faustin opened a portal for me into one of the world’s richest and deepest but least-known artistic traditions. Produced by working people in one of the world’s poorest countries, Haitian Surrealism is an art “from below,” a folk art that grew out the African diaspora and the massively profitable but deadly Atlantic slave system.
As the poet Derek Walcott asked the Africa-descended peoples of his native Caribbean,
Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that grey vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.
Much of the Caribbean’s million square miles has been a vast and heavily populated graveyard since slave-ship captains threw overboard the bodies of tens of thousands of Africans who died in the horrific Middle Passage from West Africa to Caribbean slave plantations. While their bones lie scattered and unmarked on the sandy seafloor, their spirits inspire: the African diasporic music group Drexiciya, for example, whose imagined civilization at the bottom of the sea is inhabited by Africans who have learned to breathe underwater. These same spirits have also spawned such Caribbean artworks as Edouard Duval-Carrié’s painting Milocan or the Migration of Spirits: The Crossing.
Haitian artist Gerald Bloncourt wrote in the late 1940s that “in order to understand Haitian art, one must understand that this country has been an authentic cultural crucible, in which were mixed the Carib [and Arawak/Taíno] Indians, the Spanish invaders, the fearsome Brothers of the Coast, filibusters, and pirates of all kinds from France, the English and more than 30 African tribes.” The indigenous Taíno people called their island Ayiti (“land of high mountains”), but the invading Spanish renamed it Hispaniola. As part of the “cockpit of war,” as the Caribbean was called in the 17th century, the island experienced long and bloody imperial warfare as English, French, and Dutch marauders sought to capture Spanish silver and lands. The French carved out the western portion of Hispaniola in 1659, renaming it Saint Domingue.
Most of the Caribbean islands were slowly transformed into slave societies. During the three and half centuries of the trade, slavers brought more than five million Africans to the Caribbean, eight hundred thousand of them to Saint Domingue alone. Peoples from the 30 African cultures noted by Bloncourt were carried in chains to the island. From Barbados and Jamaica northward to South Carolina and Virginia and southward to Brazil, slavery came to dominate the economies of the western Atlantic.
As historian C.L.R. James explains, the plantation system, which inspired the antislavery slogan “sugar is made with blood,” produced “the greatest planned accumulation of wealth the world had yet seen.” Half a million Africans toiled in captivity to make Saint Domingue the lustrous crown jewel of the French imperial tiara, and it was there that slaves formed a new hybrid religion called Vodou, based primarily on the cultural beliefs and practices of the Fon ethnic group of the Kingdom of Dahomey (now the Republic of Benin).
In 1791, those same people knocked the crown off the French royal head. They rose under the leadership of the houngan (Vodou priest) Boukman Dutty and General Toussaint L’Ouverture to wage and win one of the world’s greatest revolutions. During a brutal war of 13 long years, they returned the island to its indigenous name and defeated not only France but Spain and Great Britain, each of which sought to capture the colony and reestablish slavery. Haiti would pay a great price for this historic victory—embargo by the United States and near bankruptcy caused by reparations for slaveholders in France imposed in 1825. The ensuing underdevelopment and poverty notwithstanding, Haiti’s artistic legacy extols the nation’s revolutionary origins, and the rebellious runaway slave, or “maroon,” as portrayed by Albert Mangonès has become a national symbol.
I have long been interested in the meldings and mutual influences of two Surrealist traditions: the European, mostly French, variety of high art; and the Haitian version “from below,” a people’s art rooted in the practice and iconography of Vodou, an art that arose from everyday life and proletarian experience. Hector Hyppolite worked as a sailor and later painted houses; Rigaud Benoit drove a taxi; Jasmin Joseph made bricks; Gerard Valcin set tiles; and Manes Descollines was a stonemason. How did these laborers become internationally known artists?
Most historians date the origins of the modern Haitian art movement to 1944, when American painter DeWitt Peters founded the historic Centre d’Art, which provided a venue for the emergence and cultivation of such native artists as Hyppolite, Benoit, Philomé Obin, and Castera Bazile. Yet few scholars have placed this founding in its political context. The center was established against the backdrop of an intensive campaign by the Haitian government of Elie Lescot and the Catholic Church against “superstitious beliefs,” in which tens of thousands of sacred Vodou objects were destroyed and many Haitians were forced to renounce long-held beliefs. The struggle over Vodou took place not only in hounfours (Vodou temples) but also on the wooden board, Masonite, and canvas used by painters, many of whom were devout Vodouistes.
More importantly, a series of cultural events between 1943 and 1946 brought visitors to the island, including Aimé Césaire, the Martinican poet and political activist who was a leading figure in the founding and growth of the Negritude movement, publishing the journal Tropiques beginning in 1939. Afro-Cuban artist Wifredo Lam visited Haiti in 1944, meeting with artists to discuss common diasporic concerns, asking what was specifically African in the Americas?
An especially significant visitor was André Breton, the leading French proponent of European Surrealism, who came to Haiti in December 1945 and was dazzled by the art he saw there. Encountering the work of Hyppolite, Breton claimed it embodied what he himself had aimed to produce. He declared himself a failure in comparison to the Haitian master. Breton subsequently gave a series of public lectures in Port-au-Prince that caused an explosive debate about art, politics, and society. He urged students to seize their freedom and to challenge the existing political and literary order of Haiti. In the aftermath of these debates, students and other radicals involved in publishing the journal La Ruche (The Hive) took to the streets, where workers soon joined them. A riot grew into a general strike, which in turn erupted into a five-day insurrection (January 7–11, 1946). Radical Surrealism, wedded to a broader resistance movement, played a major role in toppling Lescot’s repressive American-backed government. The visiting dignitaries and the worker-student alliance had opened what one participant called “a luminous breach” in the social and political order of Haiti.
Another visitor to Haiti in these years was the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier, who was likewise keen to explore the relationship between European Surrealism and the spirit-based variant he found in Haiti. The former, he said, was a tired, sterile trend that suffered from great “imaginative poverty.” In this “predictable jumble of drooping timepieces, dressmakers’ dummies, and vague phallic monuments, the marvelous is consigned to the umbrella or lobster or sewing machine, or whatever it may be, on an operating table, in the interior of a desolate room, in a desert of rocks.” In Haiti, he found an astonishing history that was a matter of surreal fact and a richness of spirit that was a matter of belief. He found, in short, something he didn’t find in in Europe: “the marvelous in the real.” “What is Latin America if not a chronicle of the marvelous in the real?” he famously asked. He attributed this quality to the deep well of mythology and spirit that could be traced to the country’s Native American and African cultural history.
The spirit-based art of the Americas, including Haitian Surrealism, would soon be considered a strain of Magic Realism, a grand tradition of which Carpentier was a founding father. The heirs of this tradition include writers Isabel Allende of Chile, Gabriel García Márquez of Colombia, Eduardo Galeano of Uruguay, and many Haitian artists, preeminently Faustin, Jacques-Enguerrand Gourgue, and Duval-Carrié.
If European Surrealism grew out of a revolt against the instrumental and highly destructive Western idea of “reason,” Haitian Surrealism grew from another source altogether: the effort to render visible an invisible spirit world, that of the lwa, who actively shaped social and political life, and to depict the “dream tales” of Vodou. It would be fair to say that Surrealism is not expressed by a “school” of Haitian artists so much as it is a consistent dimension of a great deal of Haitian art since at least the 1940s. It lays bare African American novelist Richard Wright’s claim that “Black people did not have to go out to find surrealism, for their lives were already surreal.”
A story is told of a meeting between Aimé Césaire and the French painter André Masson in Martinique. When Masson requested a challenging subject to paint, Césaire led him into the lush tropical rainforest of Absalon and said, no doubt with a glint of mischief in his eye, “Paint that.” When Césaire returned some time later, Masson’s canvas stood empty, the artist himself utterly defeated. The magical, surreal, spirit-filled, teeming life of the rainforest had overwhelmed the imagination of the metropolitan artist, just as Carpentier and many a Caribbean artist might have predicted.
History in Surrealism
When I walked into a different room of Bill Bollendorf’s house in late August 2007, I found Frantz Zèphirin, a third-generation Surrealist with a keen sense of history, sitting on a stool in front of a large canvas with a beer in his left hand and a paintbrush in his right. He was making small, precise, repetitive brushstrokes on an intricate painting called Ghede Wedding, in which Baron Samedi arrives on horseback to attend the wedding of Baron LeCroix and Maman Brigitte—all lwa of the dead. At his feet were two other canvases he had already structured with foundational color schemes. We spent the afternoon talking about a wide range of subjects, from Haitian art to the subject of my book The Slave Ship: A Human History. The artist could not have been livelier, gregariously painting, drinking, laughing, and telling stories, including one commonly heard in Haiti about how slave-ship captains would chain rebellious captives to the ship’s hull at the waterline to be eaten alive by sharks.
I had long admired Zèphirin’s use of history in his art. With a sophisticated political consciousness, he painted the Spanish conquest of Ayiti and the genocide against the Taíno people; the history of slave resistance in works featuring the rebels François Mackandal, Boukman, and Toussaint; and the monstrous domination of the island nation by American military imperialism and the International Monetary Fund. His is a voice of the voiceless, expressing through his art long-standing popular struggles.
When I returned for a second visit a couple of days later, one of Zéphirin’s canvases, about three-quarters finished, was to my surprise filled with the ghostly image of a slave ship. After our conversation, he had created a floating dungeon, out of which peered hundreds of haunted—and haunting—red eyes. The European crew were animals: an imperial alligator captain held a deed to the land on which the enslaved would be working. The first mate was Death incarnate. The Vodou deity of the sea, Agoue, was announcing the arrival of a shipload of new souls. On the sail of his boat in the background was his judgment about the situation: “We are in a lot of trouble.” Chained to the outside of the vessel were the insubordinate slaves about whom Zèphirin had told me, the neck plate of each suggesting a different African ethnicity. The message was “from many, one,” referring to the multiethnic Haitian people. Two of the enslaved, at the right Toussaint and at the left Boukman, break free of their chains, gesturing hopefully ahead to the Haitian Revolution they will lead. Zèphirin completed the painting as we talked. “Name a famous slave ship,” he said. I answered, “The Brooks of Liverpool,” referring to the iconic ship of abolitionist propaganda. He then carefully lettered the name and port in gold on side of the ship.
As Bisi and Ingrid hopped in small planes from island to island in the fall of 2016, the sea below deceived them by hiding this history beneath a shimmering bright blue beauty. In Haiti they found the stalwart Centre d’Art preparing for the second exhibition since its reopening after the 2010 earthquake. New to Bisi and Ingrid was the work of the brickmaker Jasmin Joseph. His painting of animal figures, formally posed and dressed—a lion king in a skirt flanked by ape and rabbit goons in shorts—had the distinctive air of personages and politics unknown to them. Lighter in tone were his brick works—ceramic mermaids, birds, and foliage—in the process of being unpacked. The curators regretted that they would miss the retrospective of this great Haitian modernist and outsider artist. Once Ingrid was back in Pittsburgh, she received an email from Centre d’Art collection manager Florence Conan. Attached was a letter she had just come across in the archive inviting Joseph to participate in the 1958 Carnegie International. Had he actually done so? Why yes, he had. Ingrid turned to number 231 in the exhibition catalogue:
Jasmin Joseph Born in Grande Riviere du Nord, Haiti, 1921. Lives in Port-au-Prince. Self-taught. The Protector, 1958, clay. H. 19 1/2, W. 8, D. 8 inches. Lent by Le Centre D’Art, Port-au-Prince.