ON HAITIAN PAINTING.
By Edouard Glissant.
From: CARIBBEAN DISCOURSE: SELECTED ESSAYS. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1989, pages 155-157.
The painted symbol coexists with the oral sign. It is the tightly woven texture of oral expression that is introduced into (and the key to) Haitian painting. The Creole language in Haiti does not suffer the repercussions of the radical ambiguities created by writing, because of an early confrontation with writing and the creation of a dense cultural "hinterland." Haitian Creole is practically insulated from transformation. The painted symbol is its refuge.
To this extent any picture painted in this style is also a form of writing. It is created, for instance, on the earth in front of houses, in the manner of East Indian women on the occasions that honor the cycles of life; with natural products (starch, indigo, flour); on perishable material or as records in leather that put together the chronicles of the Indians of North America; or on the human body, in order to prepare for ceremonies or ritual exercises. That is a form of painting that produces a schematic version of reality; the beginning of all pictography. A painting that makes memory significant through symbols: the essentials of a kind of historiography of the community.
But this writing does not transcend reality. it is not a kind of literary process. It is the symbolic notation of a seldom-seen side of reality. It is both a means of communication and a transfer of knowledge for the very people who cannot write. It demonstrates by its visual form the specific nature of orality. All so-called naive painting proceeds by simplifications, in which the lack of technical expertise is part of its success. When a shepherd from the Landes or a Yugoslave peasant produces pictures, it is the same process at work: nothing contrived in the perspective, nothing artificial in the silhouettes, nothing watered down in the colors. The same thing happens in Haitian painting. But it comes all at once, in a massive accumulation.
The element of the marvelous. This ability to create fantasy from a difficult, even wretched, reality is the principle that J.S. Alexis had called the marvelous realism of the Haitian people. I feel that Haitian literature in French has striven to duplicate this sense of the marvelous, which is immediately conveyed in painting. The fact is that the French language often deforms -- (even in the creolized improvisations of Roumain and Alexis) because of a kind of contrived naivete -- what is immediate (sudden) in the marvelous. The marvelous is first and foremost an oral phenomenon. Caribbean humor, which is one of its manifestations, is difficult to transfer to written expression. Let us reiterate this fact: Haitian painting is derived from the spoken.
Next, the use of enlargement. That the real can be represented on an "enlarged scale" allows an ingenious rendering of the visible (diversion) to replace tampering with perspective. Those children who bear the weight of a fruit as large as they are, are really related to the idea of bearing a load as practiced by the Haitian peasant. This vision is neither idealistic nor "realistic."
Haiti's pictorial discourse thus proceeds by the piling up of the visible. I am aware of its capacity to represent crowds, huge piles, profusion. "Markets" by Felix or Wilmino Domon, "Creole Festivities" by Casimir Laurent, "Paradise" by Wilson Bigaud or Gabriel Leveque, "Rice Fields" by Bien-Aime Sylvain. Accumulation is the jubilant display of totality. In contrast certain interiors (like those that are painted by the Obin family: the painter's house "the Famous Painter Philome Obin Receiving a Few Foreign Clients," "The Artist's Studio" by Antoine Obin, and by the same painter "Antoine Obin Visits His Uncle," or the "Caricature of George Nader in His Gallery" by Gervais Emmanuel Ducasse) treat emptiness as a kind of fulfillment.
This emptiness is never "metaphysical." It is actually "swollen," like Hector Hyppolite's pregnant women (Reclining Woman; Nude and Birds; Blue Angel). One senses that the flatness of space is both shrewd and naive. That the "naive" element is necessary. For it conveys and allows the emergence of a basic feature: redundancy. There is an art of repetition that is characteristic of the oral text and of the painted sign described as naive.
Such a discourse therefore gains from being repeated at leisure, like the tale recounted evening after evening. Each of the "masters" of this pictorial art has "apprentices" who reproduce his style perfectly. Tourism has increased the production that has become more schematic without becoming an industry. The discourse is reproduced on its own but its vulgarization (the countless canvases exploiting the naivete of tourists) does not differentiate between "valid" paintings and an undistinguished pile of tourist art. We think we recognize from a distance the suspended cities of Prefette-Duffaut, when these images of levitation could be the work of an apprentice. Haitian painting challenges the magical notion of "authenticity" in art. It is a community endeavor. An entire people's discourse. The measure of its dynamism. This is a fitting conclusion to this cross-cultural poetics that we have tried to outline.
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