142. Art Naif

The Hand of Fashion - - CONTENTS - Spe­cial thanks to the Mil­wau­kee Art Mu­seum

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

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