A Convert Speaks Up for Haitian Art

June 10, 1997


NEW YORK -- Jonathan Demme, the movie director, was walking around the West Side back in 1987 when music from the Haitian Corner, an art gallery, caught his ear. Going inside, he browsed but didn't buy any paintings.

"They were a couple of hundred dollars each," Demme recalled recently, "and I was a flea market-junk store person. I'd buy art for $25 or $30."

But he was hooked. He returned to buy two works, which he thought of as decoration for his apartment.

That was then. A few months ago Demme was sitting with about 300 photographs of Haitian paintings, all his, trying to decide which works would be part of an exhibit. "I made two piles -- 'gotta' and 'don't have to,' " he said. "There are no 'don't wants'. And 'gotta' was the much bigger pile."

The results of his winnowing, an exhibition of more than 100 paintings called "Island on Fire: Passionate Visions of Haiti From the Collection of Jonathan Demme," will be on view at the Equitable Gallery, 787 Seventh Ave., at 51st Street, from June 12 through Aug. 16.

Demme, the director of "Silence of the Lambs," "Married to the Mob" and "Philadelphia," among others, owns one of the most comprehensive collections of Haitian art in the United States.

In many ways, subtle and not, collecting the colorful, image-rich works of Haiti's self-taught artists has changed Demme's life and his filmmaking. Haiti has become an abiding passion. "I fell in love with it," he said. "I keep meeting new artists and going back. You've got to go."

"The art sent me to Haiti," Demme continued, his hazel eyes narrowing. "But when I arrived, I met the people and saw the culture and the social situation firsthand."

Several months earlier, Jean-Claude Duvalier, the Haitian dictator known as Baby Doc, had fled into exile after a popular uprising, but the country had yet to approve a new constitution and hold elections.

In February 1987, a few months after his first visit, Demme returned with a camera crew to direct a documentary called "Haiti: Dreams of Democracy." Since then, Demme, who is 54, has produced several other documentaries about the island's troubles.

He turned activist, rallying others in the movie industry to the cause of democracy and demonstrating when he believed American policy to be wrong, such as when Haitians fleeing the island's 1991 coup were classified as economic rather than political refugees. Twice he was arrested, once two blocks from the United Nations and once outside the White House, on civil disobedience charges.

Demme, who is in the middle of pre-production work for "Beloved," the Toni Morrison novel he is about to begin shooting in Philadelphia, has pulled back from protest. "It was exhausting," he explained.

He has not stopped buying Haitian paintings, however.

"I am not an expert collector, but I am a passionate collector," he said. "I've got closets full of them," mostly in his home in Rockland County. He has even commissioned works, like "The Boat People" by the artist Fritz Mistira. "Part of what's great about Haitian painting is that it's really, really affordable," he said.

"You can get wonderful paintings at great prices."

Demme said he has become friends with Haitian artists and art dealers. And he has been influenced professionally.

"On an unconscious level, it has affected my work enormously," Demme said. He cites "the moods that permeate off the images and the combination of colors that send signals to your mind. My eyes are so grateful when I turn them to this art." Movies, he pointed out, must also please the eye.

As Demme revs up for "Beloved," which stars Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover, he said, "I've started moving pictures to my production office." The movie, set after the Civil War, tells the story of a young woman who flees slavery but struggles against its legacy and such personal traumas as cutting her own daughter's throat when she was 2 to keep her from being raised a slave.

One painting Demme has just moved portrays a mother and child "with blazing eyes, and the unavoidable sense of terminality," he said. It was painted by Christian Michel, a Haitian living in Philadelphia.

Demme said he had always been drawn to self-taught artists, though the value of their art is not universally accepted. Through his wife, a painter named Joanne Howard who he said "paints nature in a personal way," he has learned to appreciate academic art. But a few American folk art pieces are the only other works he has bought.

Pari Stave, the curator at the Equitable Gallery, has a personal interest in Haitian art and had heard of Demme's collection. She was intrigued partly because "he is an artist, and this is also an exhibit about an artist's eye," she said.

Demme, meanwhile, had been nursing his own zeal. "I longed to show these things even if people don't like them," he said. He wants to give the artists exposure in the United States, to exhibit the range of their work and to "show a positive face of a country and a people I love so much and that get chronic bad press."

The exhibit will be accompanied by the publication of a 200-page catalogue of his collection. In it, there will be several oral histories of artists recorded by Demme on his visits to Haiti. He has also produced a 15-minute video on one artist, Edger Jean-Baptiste, called "The Grand Master of Haiti." It is, Demme said, "the first time my filmmaking and art have fused."

And he is flying in four artists from Haiti -- Andre Pierre, Prefete Duffaut, Jasmin Joseph and Ernst Prophete -- for the opening reception.

For all his enthusiasm, however, Demme has not turned his film friends into Haitian art buyers.

"I haven't infected others," he conceded. "I'm circling Oprah. She is a serious art appreciator, and I'm hoping she sees what I bring down. And I'm going to go for it after we finish the movie."


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu