142. Art Naif
Stella Jean’s latest collection bears the signature of two forms of Haitian art: Art Naïf and the metalwork of the artisans of Croix-des-Bouquets. Michael Whittaker investigates the big Art Question itself and marvels at the artists of Haiti, whose art celebrates and mirrors the innate strengths of an island nation that has risen time and again to overcome adversity.
The first time I saw ‘a Picasso’, I was a boy, alone at a gallery. Pablo, in a sense, was my babysitter. At the time, I understood that the painting before me must be significant. People were squinting and stroking their jawlines with Grinch-like gestures of musing. There was a little rope that kept us at bay.
I looked and I squinted and I was confused. The painting was seemingly ‘childlike’. At school we were forever encouraged to be as ‘lifelike’ as possible in all renderings of ‘reality’. But, as I wondered at the very wonder that these people saw and gleaned from that ‘masterpiece’, I came to the conclusion that I could not, and should not, impose my own appreciation of meaning as definitive. It was apparent that what I saw, and accordingly my appreciation of it, was entirely an extension of my socialised experiences.
Ever since, conversations as to “what art is” or, equally frustrating, “what makes good art” have seemed inane. I hope I am not alone in this. Such questions are ancient and insurmountable. History itself displays the diverse spatial, cultural and geographic variances in art. It should also have warned us against commanding supposedly ‘evolved’ judgments upon art forms that we do not care to understand.
Instead, one’s varying idea(s) as to what (good) art is act to indicate upbringing, socioeconomic circumstance and ideological values. Rhetoric abounds. People unfortunately take their conception personally, repressing contemplations as to how their social and material conditions have influenced their conclusions. If we dare to take a more considered road, empathy can be fostered, leading us to understand, appreciate and perhaps take inspiration from, alternative aesthetics and art cultures. Let us realise that many different hands make great work.
Such a reflection is important in the appreciation of Haitian art. In recent years, a marked interest in ‘outsider art’ or ‘naïve art’ (there being many names surrounding such art) has formed. Essentially, such art is created without an interaction with the complex hierarchies of capital that ensconce the mainstream art market
In spite of (or indeed because of) this, these artists do not have pretensions of glory in the hallowed halls. Oftentimes, they cannot afford to. There is an immense power in work that is instinctual: it speaks of, and to, humanity in a particularly moving way. This art seems to not just be a self-fulfilling prophecy of hype. It is not self-consciously intellectual and indeed many of the artists involved are selftaught. Artists of such creative conviction, not encroached by expectations, articulate their inner vision, not relying upon the powers-thatbe in the art world to accredit it significance or meaning. Haiti has produced an astounding canon of such work.
Haiti is a dominion of extremes. It might be understood as the very epicenter, or at least a compelling example, of colonialism’s awful mechanisms.
Her people never stopped making art.
A most extraordinary part of the Haitian story is the defiant joy of a people whose history is so rife with catastrophic upheaval. Art continues to make these lives livable. Haitian
art illustrates and testifies the strength these people possess; the strength to remember that there is meaning in life and pride and hope in work. As Phillipe Dodard, a leading Haitian artist declares: “They say that God created man and man created art, and the fact that Haiti has so much political problems; it’s like art is a door way to a new life.”
Haitian art references her history: alluding often to slavery and her African roots, the old religions, her oral traditions, her legends, France’s imposition and ongoing influence, the nation’s iconic political emancipation and subsequent genocides and infighting, and the famed beauty and communal joys of the nation for which the ‘great powers’ clamoured; the “Jewel of the Antilles”.
In poverty, artistic bricolage is necessitated. Nothing is wasted as an opportunity to create and imbue meaning. Haitian-Italian designer Stella Jean is importantly championing the brave creativity of Haitian artists, employing artisans who forge beautiful jewelry from scrapped oil drums. There is a powerful metaphor at work here: from the overlooked and disregarded can come astounding work.
The Haitian attitude of determination extends to self-taught expression. Many seminal Haitian artists are unschooled and illiterate. Their art transcends this. Truman Capote wrote of Hector Hyppolite, perhaps Haiti’s most celebrated painter: “there is nothing in his art that has been slyly transposed, he is using what lives within himself”. Accordingly, Haitian art epitomizes an unmistakable “original purity”. In Haitian artwork lives the misery, glory, spirit and above all, the worthiness of this storied people and their art.
So, I implore you: do not disregard art that expresses a literally and metaphorically different perspectives from your own experiences of value. Difference is special. In difference, lies mutual growth.
“A most extraordinary part of the Haitian story is the defiant joy of a people whose history is so rife with catastrophic upheaval. Art continues to make these lives livable.”
Hector Hyppolite (Haitian, 1894–1948) Black Magic (Magique Noir), ca. 1946–47 Oil on board 25 1/2 × 37 1/2 in. (64.77 × 95.25 cm) Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Richard and Erna Flagg M1991.127 Photographer credit: Efraim Lev-er