On view August 17, 2023 through March 17, 2024
The occupation of the Republic of Haiti by the US in the early part of the 20th-century lasted for more than three decades. By the time they left in the 1930s, after being mired in countless rebellions by the Haitian peasantry and a stiff opposition across the globe, Americans at home were well aware of the island to their south. Some of the cultural particularities of that nation piqued Hollywood’s interest and they did not miss on the salacious potential those unfamiliar customs could have on the public. Movies such as I Walked with a Zombie (1943) started a trend that to this day we cannot see its end, such as the international popularity of the television series The Walking Dead. Despite the cultural appropriation and misinterpretations of Haiti’s mystical traditions, the Caribbean Island captured the globe’s attention.
The opening of the Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince in 1944 by an American conscientious objector and a handful of Haitian intellectuals attracted artists from all walks of life to its galleries and open air studios. Artists streamed to the Centre from Haiti’s urban and rural communities and caused an immediate sensation in the art world. Presented at first as intuitive and naïve, what the artists proposed was in fact their vision of their world as they lived and saw it. After three centuries as slave labor in sugar plantations in the French colony of St. Domingue, and after a hard won freedom where they fought the most advanced army of its day—the French Army under Napoleon, and the scorn this created in most advanced nations, they were at last free to try to recollect their memories. The paintings on view in this exhibition, created between the 1950s and 1990s, demonstrate how Haitians finally felt liberated in their ability to reconstruct what they had lost or had been forbidden for so long—to honor their gods, spirituality, and sacred traditions. Through the prism of slavery and its hardships, their visions offered something new if not fantastic.
All of this did attract attention and for a time Haiti was visited by many tourists, amongst them art enthusiasts who became passionate collectors. Their connoisseurship and support of Haitian art has benefitted the permanent collection of the Tampa Museum of Art, who now holds one the most formidable holdings of Haitian art in the US. The fact the Museum has in its holdings such a large number of excellent works of art from their neighbor to the south enables visitors, as well as the many transplanted Haitians in the region, to grasp and admire a complex history through art and the spirit of Haiti.
A Passion for Haitian Art: The Albrecht and Heller Collections is presented in conjunction with Reframing Haitian Art: The Arthur Albrecht Collection and curated by Edouard Duval Carrié, guest curator.
About the Collectors
A Passion for Haitian Art: The Albrecht and Heller Collections and Reframing Haitian Art: The Arthur Albrecht Collection in the adjacent gallery present luminary artists frequenting the Centre d’Art since in its beginnings in the late 1940s, as well as second- and third-generation artists of the organization. Even though many of them are not strictly affiliated with the Centre, most had their beginnings there and moved onward. Collectors traveling to Haiti not only visited the Centre but other art galleries that sprung up in Port-au-Prince. A Passion for Haitian Art: The Albrecht and Heller Collections highlights two collections acquired over a similar period yet housed on opposite coasts of the US.
The Arthur Albrecht Collection, San Francisco, California
In 2022, the Arthur Albrecht Revocable Trust gifted the Tampa Museum of Art a collection of 20th-century masterworks by Haitian artists. The Albrecht Collection, comprised of 89 paintings and sculptures, and 55 pieces of related support materials, is one of the most esteemed collections of modern Haitian art and has never been on view to the public until today. Arthur Albrecht (1927–2018) was an avid collector with a deep love for Haiti. He lived with this collection in his home on San Francisco’s famed Lombard Street. Although much of his connection to Haiti and its artists is unknown, his collecting interests focused primarily on the first- and second-generation artists associated with the Centre d’Art, Haiti’s premier art school and visual art center. The collection had not left private hands until now and the paintings and sculptures were in need of care and conservation. With grant funds from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project, the Museum was able to clean and restore the collection nearly to the objects’ original condition. As seen in this gallery, conservation care revealed the pristine quality of line, form, and color that heralds this group as master artists.
The Kay and Roderick Heller Collection, Tampa, Florida and Franklin, Tennessee
Kay Culbreath Heller has Haiti in her heart. Her involvement with the island started when she worked at Hospital Bon Samaritain with Dr. William Hodges and his family in the remote small town of Limbé in northern Haiti. The art of Haiti caught her eye and imagination, and she once wrote, “Nothing prepared me for the life and vitality of Haiti.” With Beverly Sullivan of Washington, Kay found ways to promote the artists through large fundraisers and art sales stateside benefitting Haitian medical, arts, and humanitarian organizations. In 2000, Kay co-curated the first exhibition of Haitian art at the Tampa Museum of Art entitled Island Delights: The Spirit and Passion of Haitian Art.
This passion for Haiti extended to Roderick Heller, a distinguished lawyer and preservationist from Washington, DC who has employed his academic rigor to an all-encompassing project on Haiti’s art. He is assembling a catalogue raisonné of his favorite Haitian artist, Rigaud Benoit, one of the initial group of artists who joined the Centre in its early days. This is not an easy task as works of art by this artist and others are today scattered all over the world. The Hellers’ goal through international research is to help illuminate the artistic legacy and creativity of Haiti and its people.
Funds for the conservation of the Arthur Albrecht Collection were generously provided through a grant from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project