On view April 26, 2023 through June 23, 2024
Haiti emerged as a sovereign state after a massive slave rebellion overturned the established order in a dramatic and violent revolution. Since 1804, the island nation has embarked in continual attempts at self-rule but many of these efforts proved unsuccessful, never fulfilling the dreams of a better life cherished by the former enslaved. France, the former colonial power ousted by the rebellion and bitter at the loss of her crown jewel, made sure itself and its allies never gave the first Black republic a fair chance to compete fairly in the concert of nations. The successive governments of Haiti could not garner enough economic clout to make the transfer of impoverished and destitute slaves into a citizenry that could muster and foster a stable, progressive society. All in all, the former slaves were left mostly to their own devices when it came to nation building. Forming an identity needed and required with their new freedoms remained unresolved for centuries. Today, they remain in that constant quest for social cohesion but Haitians noteworthy accomplishments in the field of visual art helped define its national character.
Contrary to most of its neighbors in the Caribbean archipelago, one can say that Haiti’s visual culture emanates from its majority working class rather than from a well-tutored elite or directed from government led cultural initiatives. Early travelers’ accounts to the island revealed cultural flourishes peculiar and distinct from Haiti’s neighbors. Their narratives perceived the Black republic as a place of wonder. One could sense it in the reports detailed in Eugène Aubin’s In Haiti: Planters of Yesteryears, Negroes of Today (1910) or William Seabrook’s book The Magic Island (1929). Published in the early 20th-century, both books featured extensive photographic coverage of the island nation but revealed unsympathetic and unabashedly racist opinions of Haiti. However, the publications’ images included ornate wall paintings unique to the rural habitats and sacred sites of Vodou temples, which were profusely decorated inside and outside. These photographs provided a glimpse of what would become decades later, a “discovery” of Haiti’s creative legacy.
In 1944, Haitian intellectuals collaborated with Dewitt Peters, an American conscientious objector, to found the Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince. The institution provided access to art to all strata of Haitian society. Artists gravitated to the Centre d’Art and what they brought with them was, though very far from any academia, a varied, fresh, and startling artistic expression. Each artist depicted a world they envisioned or observed in their own way. At the time the devotional practice of Vaudo was prohibited yet the artists creatively revealed the outlawed spirits and lwas (Vodou deities) to the world. The artists also depicted a way of life—simple and ordered—as probably more a wish than everyday circumstances. The bucolic aspect of these works likely triggered the term “naïve” as an explanation of Haiti’s art yet it was anything but simple. The art served as a form of protest in that artists pointed out at what Haitian’s expected, wanted, and deserved, and not what they had.
This exhibition aims to reframe the context of modern Haitian art. The paintings in this gallery, all masterworks from the Arthur Albrecht Collection, attest to the unique and complex history of Haiti and its cultural legacy. Displayed at different heights yet in dialogue with each other, this installation metaphorically represents the artists’ ideas and ideals. Spiritual figures hover above mortals, as seen in works by André Pierre and Robert Saint Brice. Paintings by the Obin Family, Riguad Benoit, and Salnave Philippe-Auguste hang at a height that envelops the viewer rather than serve as a passive encounter with the artists’ world. The Albrecht Collection provides an overview of the production of art from an island nation, that despite adversity and strife, has and continues to strive in its creative practices.
Reframing Haitian Art: Masterworks from the Arthur Albrecht Collection was curated by Edouard Duval Carrié, guest curator.
Funds for the conservation of the Arthur Albrecht Collection were generously provided through a grant from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project.