A Happy Haiti

The Haitian art in Galeria La Sirena's exhibition doesn't quite match current events

In Gary Doursainville's painting "Friend or Foe," U.S. Marines are marching through Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Haitians stand on their wrought-iron balconies, beneath picturesquely curving treetops, watching the invasion. They smile and wave at the troops advancing through the pastel-colored streets. They're delighted, because these rifle-brandishing Marines are intent on restoring President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power.

If the painting, on view in a show of Haitian art at Galeria La Sirena, seems like a disconnect to current events, it is. Ten years ago, when Doursainville painted it, the Haitian army had ousted the duly elected Aristide in a coup, and the U.S. troops arrived to put him back into office. Last month, American troops came back for an entirely different purpose. This time, they "escorted" Aristide--the deposed president uses the word "kidnapped"--to exile.

This quick turn of events is typical of Haiti's tortured history. As the year began, Haitians were preparing to celebrate the 200th anniversary of their independence from France. Haitian rebels staged a successful slave insurrection in the late 18th century and then established the world's first black republic in 1804, ironically taking their inspiration from their colonial rulers' own revolution back home. But their triumph devolved into a sorry cycle of homegrown political corruption and outside intervention. The United States has shown up regularly, and actually ruled the place from 1914 to 1934, exacerbating racial and class tensions by giving preference to upper-class mulattoes. With a paper-thin layer of wealthy elites at the top, Haiti regularly ranks as one of the poorest countries in the Americas.

Doursainville's Marine painting notwithstanding, political tumult and poverty don't often make their way into Haitian art. (During the brutal reign of the Duvaliers, from 1957 to 1986, political critiques were hardly encouraged.) Made primarily for the tourist trade, Haitian paintings are small and portable, and typically celebrate the picturesque island and its "exotic" people. Self-taught artists apparently were already working early in the 20th century, but scholars trace the modern blossoming of homegrown Haitian painting to the Centre d'Art, an art school founded by an American watercolorist in Port-au-Prince in the early '40s.

Haitian artists typically concentrate on such things as flowers growing in profusion in the countryside, on fruits tumbling out of baskets, on full-bodied, black-skinned women dressed in brilliant yellow kerchiefs or red dresses. They paint fruit sellers jostling each other in crowded outdoor markets, lovers trysting in the woods, and even ghosts escaping from cemeteries. Turning the routines and rituals of daily life into painted poetry, the artists used a charming naïve style that deploys elementary drawing and flat planes of brilliant color. La Sirena's exhibition features plenty of these joyful subjects.

"Joie de Vivre," for instance, a 1970s oil on masonite by Fritz Merise, pictures a group of dancers and musicians in the countryside. The whole painting seems to dance--even the two pastel houses are askew, and the palm trees twist and shimmy. Between the dancing houses, a man and women clasp hands and tread with delirious abandon, while another man pounds a conical red drum and still another plays a flute. All the men wear bright-yellow straw hats, and the woman is in exuberant pink.

Country and city paintings alike luxuriate in a life lived outdoors. The island's curving green hills or the cascading waves of the surrounding Caribbean Sea nearly always show up; if not front and center, they poke up in the background. Gérard Bruny's "La Famille Rurale" is a pastoral that links the fertility of the land to the fecundity of its inhabitants. A dirt path meanders around breast-shaped hills, while in the garden, phallic plants burst out in pointed purple and yellow leaves. A father returns along the path to a wife great with child, and their children already born rush into his arms.

The land shows up even in the skewed geometry of the city paintings, where the streets are a patchwork of crazy angles, and their French-style town houses an unruly checkerboard of purples, pinks and greens. Jacques-Jean Baptiste's "Epicerie St. Pierre" (St. Peter Grocery), an oil on masonite from the 1970s, brings the fruit of the land onto the pulsating city streets. A woman sitting on the curb has a basket of grain for sale, and a man maneuvers a pushcart piled high with melons. A woman from the country rides in on a broken-down horse, while a man strides along in a mysterious cloak painted in green, pink and gold flowers. This strange costume, and an equally strange banner in his hands, is a reminder of Haiti's voodoo heritage.

Most of Haiti's noted artists of the early period were voodoo priests, and paintings still depict voodoo ceremonies and their practitioners' ecstatic visions. In Baptiste's "Zombie Awake," an oil on canvas from the 1970s, a seated woman in a white dress seems to be in a trance. Behind her two women bear lighted candles, a man holds a jug and cup, while another pounds a drum. They're all singing or chanting, open-mouthed. A Christian shrine on the wall behind them shares the painted yellow space with voodoo symbols--circles, spirals, hearts and arrows--testifying to voodoo's blending of African and Christian elements.

By 1990, voodoo artist Roger François felt free enough to incorporate unambiguous political symbols into his work. (In 1986, the United States had escorted Baby-Doc Duvalier out the country, and in 1990, Aristide was elected.) "La Famille Lavalas," a François oil on canvas, depicts the new president as a powerful rooster, the animal that symbolized his Lavalas party. This Aristide is the cock of the walk, with a manly comb on his head and resplendent blue feathers decorated with repeating yellow designs. The plant life around him is abundant, too, its purple and green leaves bursting into yellow and orange flowers. The ground beneath his claws is rich and green and full of possibility. In his wings the rooster holds three yellow bananas, a promise of plenty for Haiti's hungry.

The picture of what happened to all this hope has yet to be painted. It would be nice to assign the task to Doursainville, who gave his 1994 picture of the Marines the ambiguous title, "Friend or Foe." But he's no longer around to paint his skeptical vision. Doursainville is dead, and another artist will have to undertake the epilogue of Aristide.

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment

Tucson Weekly

Best of Tucson Weekly

Tucson Weekly