By Gerald Alexis
Paris: Editions Cercle d'Art.
French and English. English version reviewed
Reviewed by LeGrace Benson
About two meters of shelving will hold all the books about Haitian art on any list of known works, many now out of print. For those seriously interested in Haitian art, whether as collectors, as students and scholars, or simply as a means for understanding the country, there has been only one comprehensive history, the two volume work, Haïti et ses peintres de 1804 à nos jours, by the Haitian art historian, Michel Philippe Lerebours. This latter is invaluable, but often hard to find. Other studies, such as Haitian Art, Ute Stebich's catalogue for the Brooklyn Art Museum's important exhibition in 1978; Larry G. Hoffman's Haitian Art; The Legend and Legacy of the Näive Tradition, and the several titles by Selden Rodman deal almost exclusively with the self-taught artists whose works amazed the art world from 1946 onward. La Peinture Haïtienne /Haitian Arts, by Marie-José Nadal-Gardère and Gérald Bloncourt introduced viewers to the broader group of artists of that period, including many hitherto little noted but excellent women painters and modernists. There are some well-produced catalogues in German, French, English and even Finnish and Japanese, clear indication of world-wide appreciation of the art.
Gérald Alexis now makes an essential addition to the library, reaching back to the beginning of the Republic, fetching images from city and country, schooled and unschooled artists, cosmopolitans and traditionalists. With over 300 color plates in large format, an extensive bibliography, and an index of artists with brief biographies of each and photographs of many, this volume must be applauded for its comprehensiveness, its scholarly underpinnings, and the sheer beauty of the multiplicity of images.
As organizing principle, Alexis uses genre categories coupled with an insightful heeding of certain consequential themes that continually reappear in Haiti. His chapter headings present the genres: "The tradition of portrait and historical painting;" "Nature and daily life; "Voodoo[sic] rhythm and structure;" "Saint-Soleil;" finally, "Figuration and abstraction." The motifs and themes thread in and out of these types like tapestry filaments over and under the supporting warp. Thus Alexis binds the structure of the book to its subject with a secure congruence. And thus he sets himself a dare. Because he ventures beyond enumerating artists and works and localities in a chronology; he must deal with the tangle of themes, sources, motives and motifs, social, religious, political and economic circumstances that form the rich stuff of Haiti's painting. He is able to take the risks of such a project in part out of his detailed, wide-ranging and orderly knowledge of the subject of this book; able to do it also because he comes at the subject from inside the native environment. It is a Haitian's story of Haitian art, informed not only by research and study, but also from subtleties and nuances of experience scarcely to be put directly into words, yet powerfully informing the words.
Alexis recognizes that Haitian art did not spring full-grown from the brow of Dewitt Peters in 1944, although he accords full measure of respect for the importance of that moment. Moreover, he fully elucidates the truth that the arts of Haiti are truly Haitian. That it, none of the many styles, types or themes in the arts of Haiti are dependent either on one or another of the African heritages, one or another of the European heritages, or on some eclectic syncretism of the two. Haitian painting is not "Africa in the New World," nor is it a provincial version of the international styles generated out of that "capital of the art world," Paris. What this newest book about the painting of Haiti does it to present the nearly intractable complexity of it, the diversity of expressions, and the fact that it is Made in Haiti. All the Haitian paintings, whatsoever materials the artist may use from whatsoever sources, is a distinctive effect that could only have arisen out of Haitian place and time and people.
Perhaps other authors have made much of the weight of influences coming in from outside because Haiti is the locus for so many of these. The country from its beginnings is a case study in what some scholars call creolité. Even in pre-Columbian times, the island was a Caribbean crossroads, and there may have been, even then, some few adventurers from North America and Africa. Subsequent history shows such a concatenation of ideas, technologies, religious practices, eating habits, musics, and stories that anyone attempting to study the cultural history can easily be overcome with the elaborate ramifications. It is also true that many writers followed the excellent advice of Jean Price-Mars in valorizing the African heritage, found every possible link to Négritude of the period when the Centre d'Art came into being. The importance of this movement and of its impact on Haitian art must be recognized, and Alexis does so here and in other of his writings. But those viewing the art from outside, for various reasons tended to so strongly emphasize the African element in Haitian culture that they were usually rather negligent about how such elements were re-worked and often given radically different cultural presence. In other words, they saw the African rather than the Haitian. Alexis fully corrects this inadequacy of vision.
In taking on the challenges of such a major corrective relocation, Alexis sometimes tries to weave too many threads at once. This is particularly the case in his chapter on nature and daily life. It is an overwhelming chapter to read. Either nature or daily life are sufficiently intricate in Haiti and in Haitian art to merit separate chapters. On the other hand, the two are bound and rebound together in fact as well as in art, and in turn are separately and ensemble laced with themes and motifs from religious heritages. Any separation into discrete chapters would have to be arbitrary. And it must be said, that although Alexis summons his readers to engage in a piece of work, he provides the sustenance for this konbit.
Haitian painting is a large enough venture for a single book, or more, but some readers will regret the absence of Haitian sculpture. Alexis in "Les ferriers de la Croix-des-Bouquets et la création artistique," [Conjonction , No. 199, 1995 pp. 15-21] perceptively discusses this significant aspect of Haitian art, hence one can hope that another volume will bring knowledge of Haiti's sculptors to a wider range of readers.
The publishers, Éditions Cercle d'Art, should be congratulated on the quality of the 308 color reproductions. The match with originals is excellent, so that it is possible to study the variations in the uses of color, and even of handling, from the large, fine-screened illustrations. There are additional illustrations in the useful section on artists' biographies. There is an extensive bibliography as well. The book is thus well-suited for teaching about Haitian painting as well as for the delights of just looking at it. This volume would be impressive on your living room table, but don't let it just lie there. It is saturated with historical, cultural, and visual information and something of a work of art in its own right.
Other writings on art by Gérald Alexis:
Alexis has taught at Université Kiskeya, the Institut National des Arts, and is former Director of the Musée de l'art haïtien, College St. Pierre.
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