Introductory comment from Bob Corbett, December 2001

The items below are from a discussion which too place on the Corbett Haiti discussion forum in December 1997. I seem not to have all of the posts, but the setting was the first comment from Michel-Rolph Trouillot which challenged the notion that Haitian art sort of began with the "discovery" of Hector Hyppolite by Dwight Peters. Much of Haitian art history seems to sound like that.

14 Dec 1997

Michel-Rolph Trouillot

A quick addition to the issue of Haitian art before 1944. The Lycee Petion had art classes as early as 1816 so did Henry Christophe's national schools in the north. More important, Henry I opened a full-fledged specialized art academy.

The story that Haitians had to wait for Mr. Peters to discover their hidden talent is just one more story of arrogance.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot Department of Anthropology
Johns Hopkins University

17 Dec 1997

Daniel Simidor

I'd like to concur and expand on Rolph Trouillot's earlier statement about the arrogance of those who profess that "Haitians had to wait for Mr. Peters to discover their hidden talent." I'm satisfied, having recently reviewed a number of art pages on the world wide web, that this attitude is still current among many gallery owners and dealers of Haitian art. In contrast, a number of Haitian artists initially involved with the Centre d'Art have stated emphatically that they knew quite well what they were doing, and that they did not join the Center to learn how to paint but mostly to avail themselves of the supplies and tools available there and of the opportunity to get a "good price" for their works. The main contribution of the Centre d'Art, some have said, was that it brought Haitian art face to face with the mighty dollar. Three factors ought to be considered in that confluence:

  1. The decade of Indigenisme prior to the founding of the Centre d'Art had finally reconciled Haitians with their African heritage;
  2. The "anti-superstition" campaign waged in the 1940s by the Catholic Church and the Lescot regime had helped secularize Haitian art by destroying the places of worship that Haitian folk artists used to decorate for a living;
  3. The introduction of American tourism, championed by the Estime government, brought together a significant number of direct buyers and sellers for the first time.

DeWitt Peters was a minor American artist who came to Haiti in 1943 as part of an English teaching project instituted by the Lescot government. Later that year, Peters wrote to the ministry of education that he was opting out of teaching because he felt he could be "of more service in the movement to establish a school of painting here in Port-au-Prince." Also part of that movement were prominent figures in Haiti's intellectual, cultural and government circles, including Jean Price-Mars, Albert Mangones, Maurice Dartigue, Georges Remponeau and Gerald Bloncourt. Peters spent some of his own money ($2,000) for the opening of the Centre d'Art, but the Haitian government paid most of the salaries and running expenses, including the monthly rent. The letter head for the new organization proclaimed: "LE CENTRE D'ART, Sous le Haut Patronage du Departement de l'Instruction Publique et de l'Institut Haitiano-American."

Sometime in July 1944, Horace Ashton, Cultural Attache at the U.S. Embassy, sought to tie the Centre d'Art exclusively to the Haitian-American Institute, of which he was a Councilor. The Institute itself had been founded by Elie Lescot in 1942. Haitian critics claimed that it fared so poorly under Ashton's leadership that the Haitian government had to coerce its employees who had resided or studied at some point in the U.S. to enroll as members. In a letter of protest to Peters against Ashton's hegemonic ambitions, Albert Mangones, then General Secretary of the Centre's Administrative Committee, reaffirmed that the Centre d'Art was "a Haitian institution of artists, founded by the artists and for the artists." Peters, to his credit, sided with Mangones and the Haitian members of the administrative committee.

Everything then, from the flourishing of Haitian art in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to the artists' mastery over their craft, and to the influential role of Haitian official and cultural figures in the founding of the Centre d'Art, would tend to dispel the myths of "1944" as the moment of creation and of Peters as the "father" of Haitian art. But some myths have a peculiar life of their own.

Another facet of the arrogance in question is the attitude common to many dealers and collectors of Haitian art that all Haitian art begins and ends with the "primitive." Such an attitude assumes that Haitian art is unable to evolve into more complex forms and that Haitian artists do not have anything of value to reveal to the world. All the major exhibitions of Haitian art of the last twenty years have safely confined themselves to the world of the "primitive," peopled by fantasies and images from the spirit world. This is especially true of Jonathan Demme's lavish show at the Equitable and of the upcoming "Sacred Art of Haitian Vodou" at the Museum of Natural History. U.S. collectors and dealers ultimately control the market for Haitian art, and are stifling the growth of a younger generation of Haitian and Haitian-American artists whose works often embody newer forms and a less escapist vision of the Haitian experience. Fifty years after the opening of the Centre d'Art, Haitian art is unfortunately still caught in a shadowy world of foreign arrogance, greed, ignorance and racism.

Daniel Simidor

18 Dec 1997

Randall Morris

I have been waiting for a thread like this for the longest time. I would like to begin by saying that I am in full agreement, maybe if there is a state more than full I am in ecstatic agreement with the calling out of the arrogance of the idea of the Renaissance in Haiti. Mr. Simidor's points about materials and the opportunities to use them were particularly well-taken. But at the same time I want to destroy certain scapegoats that usually get called up in a discussion like this; namely the focus on self-taught artists being the reason for the stifling of emerging trained artists.

I should probably begin by introducing myself. I am a writer, poet, and circumstantially a co-owner with my wife of Cavin-Morris gallery in New York City. When we began we were probably one of five true galleries working with self-taught artists in the United States. I emphasize the word 'gallery' because most places that sell this kind of art (through their own choosing) are shops or stores that are less interested than we are in developing individual artistic careers and demonstrating the depth of cultures than in just exposing the work. This is not a critical statement but a defining of purpose. From the very beginning we were aware of the political and cultural depth and politically correct minefield of the art were showing. We began with Haitian but soon began to show some of the work by artists from the American South, both African-American and white. We toned that down after a while because of the shocking way the artists were treated. We decided that if we could not work with an artist directly on the same 50/50 basis we work with trained artists on we weren't interested. I published a number of politically charged articles in smaller art journals warning of the dangers and even comparing it to the situation in Haiti. Part of the way I see things may have to do with the fact that I grew up in a household where little differentiation was made between the Hyppolites and Liautauds my father bought directly from the artists in the 40 through the 70s and the works by trained artists that hung on our walls. I realize this probably skewed my appreciation permanently in a positive way.

I recently spent some time in Jamaica and wound up curating a show at the State University in Winston-Salem on the self-taught artists of Jamaica. Half-way through my research I began to see things about Haiti, the US and Jamaica and (I have no doubt about other places) that had been previously ignored in art history precisely because of this 'renaissance' mentality and a healthy dose of jingoism in each country, namely that each felt these artists were a unique phenomenon to each country. I began to compile a list and realized that in a thirty year period ( an artificial timespan at best) over fifty major self-taught artists were working simultaneously and had never been seen or shown together before. Mr. Simidor mentions Indigenisme as a factor, there was also Marcus Garvey's teaching, Negritude, the Harlem Renaissance (equally misnamed), the disillusionment of the world wars, the international bridges created by various musics, the Civil right movement in the US, the Mau-Mau rebellion, and on and on. Because Haiti was a tourist spot many collectors managed to buy the work and ignore the content. I know that certain artists were asked to veer away from some of the Vodou content in order to sell better. But I want to make a sidereal point here: Many of those who bought the Haitian self-taught artists probably didn't and don't care or know about contemporary art. They bought these paintings as something separate. The problem this creates is that, as in Jamaica, there was no gallery system of strength to promote the trained artists. The fact that the self-taught artists dominated the field does NOT belittle the importance of their work. The crime is that the trained artists were and are treated as patronizingly as the untrained artists were and are.

Haiti, Jamaica, and the US have incredibly deep and rich sources for their self-taught artists. The trained artists have the problem of not competing with the self-taught artists but of trying to fix a place for themselves in the art market at large which is sexist and racist and has always been. To blame the collectors begs the real question. You cannot fault people who want to specialize. You can criticize their judgment and knowledge on a case by case basis but collecting is a thing of personal choice. You cannot blame the collector of Surrealism for not collecting the Minimalists. The art system itself is at fault here not the collectors. The concept of 'primitive' is an outmoded one and an inherently racist one as is the concept of 'outsider'. But roots are roots. Blues are the blues. There are those who want to hear Robert Johnson and cannot begin to comprehend Coltrane.

Demme's show was not lavish. It wasn't even a pretence at a history of Haitian art. It was an essence of one man's collection for better or for worse. To put it down because it showed Vodou is not a valid criticism. It also showed some of the younger artist's political pieces. Even work by self- taught artists evolves over time. It is important that we understand the distinction. The art made today is not the art made in the forties. You say dealers and collectors control the art market. Where anywhere in the world is it otherwise. I have seen those websites. They are often ridiculous and self-congratulatory but they are not where you should be looking for contemporary trained artists. This is the lesson learned in the whole 'fad' of Latin-American art a few years ago. Those who remained ghettoized in 'Latin-American galleries' were often lost to sight; those who for whatever reason found themselves working with mainstream galleries are still around. It isn't just Haitian art that is caught "in a shadowy world of foreign arrogance, greed, ignorance and racism" it is all art. There is incredible genius in the Caribbean that needs gallery outlets. They also need gallery systems in their own countries that are NOT tourist oriented but then the problem becomes one of who will buy it. Look at Jamaica where trained and untrained are viewed simultaneously. The system is even more advanced than here in the US. And there still is an inadequate gallery system. Self-taught artists are enormously important and despite their 'sales' have still not been adequately entered into art history. The trained artists have a gargantuan enough battle without basing their real problems on collectors of self-taught artists.

As for dealers,,, sigh. Where to even begin. In my experience dealers are shaped by collectors. In Haiti most are not dealers but shopkeepers as they are here in the US. ( I am speaking of dealers of self-taught artists). Look at the individual dealers and be critical. They are mostly self-taught also. The dealers of trained artists in Haiti were mostly driven out because they could not make a living there. Some may be trying again. Again this can't be blamed on the self-taught artists. Come to the Outsider fair here in New York in January and look at the problem. The entire spectrum is represented there. An African-American friend of mine who is a partially trained sculptor was walking through the fair with his elderly father and family and people rushed out of their booths to shake the old man's hand because they assumed he was an old folk artist. He loved it because he thought they recognized him from when he was a Civil Rights activist minister from Newark. The problem is disgustingly pithy.

My last point for now and a summation is that the spirit world never went away. It still buzzes around us. Vodou is a valid misunderstood religion. One can't condemn subject matter. This is true in Jamaica, Cuba, and the US. Cuba is a great example of spiritual concerns being manifested in contemporary art without compromising the vision or the format. Look at Jose Bedia's work.

It is obvious then that we need a revisionist history of world art. It happens on many levels; the local; the diaspora and then the ivory tower of Contemporary. Part of the value of the Vodou exhibition was that it demythologized the temporal falsehoods of the Haitian 'renaissance' and demonstrated that a culture holds its aesthetics within its spiritual and secular life all the time. We need a show like that for the US and for the rest of the Caribbean. We ultimately are in complete agreement; the younger trained artists as well as the older unrecognized ones of Haiti and the Caribbean need exposure. But I am saying that their struggle is with the canon at large and their success has to do with luck and the defeat of narrow- mindlessness and racism and increased international exposure but not at the expense of the necessary self-taught artists.

Thank you for the chance to say this and I hope this discussion continues.

Randall Morris

19 Dec 1997

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

I've been following the Haitian art posts with interest and care and wish to address three areas:

  1. The "Renaissance" concept
  2. Primitive painting vs "self-taught" painters
  3. Voodoo in Haitian art
  1. Trouillot and Simidor are certainly correct that there was no genuine "renaissaince" of Haitian art. Art was being created all along, and nothing like the rediscovery of long lost art forms came through the efforts of DeWitt Peters. However, I think they attack a straw man. I sat down and began reading what various books and articles had to say about Peters. (Rodman may well be the one major exception and the person who is guilty of the "renaissance" fallacy.) The following quote is what I would put forward as very typical of the many books in my library:
    "Had it not been for DeWitt Peters, the American watercolorist who came Haiti during World War II as a teacher of English, Haitian art might not have acquired such worldwide recognition. In opening the Centre d'Art school in Port-au-Prince, Peters proved the catalyst behind the immense explosion of Haitian painting. He recognized the wealth of native talent and realized that all that was needed was a small push to make the visual arts in Haiti blossom exuberantly.

    "Naturally there were painters and sculptors on (sic) Haiti before the nineteen forties. Hector Hyppolite and Philome Obin, two the father figures of Haitian art, had painted all their lives. J. Chiappini's Portrait of Toussaint Louverture was painted two years before Peters established himself in Port-au-Prince and has long been regarded as a masterpiece of Haitian art. For these artists it was just a lucky coincidence that their lifetimes coincided with the explosion of Haitian art. They had needed no outside catalyst, but Peters' achievement ensured them a fame and success they could never otherwise have attained."

    Sheldon Williams in the Haiti section of: PRIMITIVE PAINTING: AN ANTHOLOGY OF THE WORLD'S NAIVE PAINTERS. Edited by Drago Zdunic. NY, 1981.
    I submit that despite the straw man descriptions this view is typical. It recognizes that painting and good painting was going on, that Peters was a catalyst who enabled painters to find materials and markets (which, by the way, enabled a huge number of them to become full-time painters and not part time ones who squeezed in their painting when they weren't driving a cab or other hard work.

    I'm not keen on Williams' several uses of the historical hypotheticals, since he doesn't need them. We don't know what would have happened had Peters never set foot in Haiti. But we do know what happened, and to choose to act as though he was not a central causal figure in the rise of Haitian painting belies all the facts. It seems a case where political ideology gets in the way of and thus ignores what actually happened in the world.

  2. Randall Morris often uses the term "self-taught" painters to refer to the Haitian painters. It is a fact that virtually all the "first" generation painters of the 1940s boom in Haitian art were self-taught. However, that term refers to the painters and not the style of painting. There is nothing to prohibit a trained painter from adopting the naive or primitive style (terms that refer to the genre, not the artist) of painting. Many later Haitian "primitives" have indeed been formally trained in classical art. In the gigantic book I quoted from are paintings of primitive artists from many nations. If one just randomly opened the book it would often be very difficult to say with any conviction whether this was Haitian painting or painting from elsewhere. I was just looking at some Chinese primitives which looked so much like Haitian primitives save the one identifying feature, the humans did have a "Chinese" look and not a Haitian one.

    Randall Morris made this point too. In his post and in his recent book on Jamaican artists he points out how incredibly similar are the traditions within this particular genre.

    Simidor seems to condemn this as a non-serious medium and that there is some "higher" and "more serious" art form to be desired. I'm quite suspicious of this distinction. Personally I find the simplicity of the primitive painters able to lay bare essences more cleanly for me than many of the more symbolic painters. This will differ with viewers. I am a person who likes my evidence concrete and available, not hinted at and speculative. Not everyone is like me, and I'm thrilled about that! But, for me the primitive painters reveal an insight into the hard reality of everyday life in everyday situations of common people. I don't see the world of the great intellectuals and all that. Nor do I want to when I go to the primitive painter. I want to see the world of the underclass and the simple folks, as presented in their everydayness, not in some analysis of their reality by intellectuals. Primitivism is, on my view, a very respectable form of art and worthy of the attention it gets.

    Simidor raises the difficult problem of the relation of the artist to the market and wants to hold that the market drives the artist. I'm just not too sure of this. Certainly in the Haitian case there is a strong argument to say that many of these artists of the early days of the Centre d'Art were very poor and there is no question that the attraction of the market was powerful. Here, too, I think there is evidence that Rodman was a major force, not Peters. In his little book on Haiti art (HAITI, 1959) Philippe Thoby-Marcelin, the famous novelist, tells of his disenchantment with the directions the Centre d'Art began to take. He was one of the founding fathers of the Centre, supporting Peters in 1943, and listed as one of the directors. However, by 1959 he had broken with the Centre and had this to say:
    "Unfortunately, during the summer of 1950, as a result of differences which I have no right to judge, a very important group of artists, including Price, Lazard, Pinchinat, Dorcely, Exume and Cedor, left the Centre to set up the Foyer des Arts Plastiques.

    "One of their main grievances centered around their feeling that Peters, under the influence of Selden Rodman, was unduly favoring the popular painters. [Corbett's note: most of these were primitives] Moreover, it seemed unjust to them not to provide for the younger ones of the popular painters an academic training which would make artists of them in the true sense of the word so that they might act as a bridge -- I use here the exact words of Cedor, himself as ex-naif who had had some success outside the country -- between the primitive experience ... and new forms of expression which [would permit them] to translate [their] feeling into a stylized realism." p. 11-12.
    Thoby-Marcelin resigned his connection with the Centre d'Art and threw his weight to the new group. I have no interest at this time in getting into that particular debate. However, this is some evidence that Rodman was playing a guiding and paternalistic role which both Trouillot and Simidor condemn. However, on his side Thoby-Marcelin seems to buy into the position which Simidor also echoes, that there is this "higher" or "real" art and that primitivism is not a genre description as much as a description of the nature of the art. I am one who does not accept that designation, and with thousands who have reveled in the joy of Haiti primitives, find extremely moving and satisfying art in the primitives and not mere decoration (though I also not convinced that decoration is such a wicked thing either!).

  3. Lastly Voodoo in Haitian art. I have recently catalogued just over 5000 Haitian paintings which appear in art books. One of the categories I am tracking is theme. Most of the painters I'm finding painted between 1944 and 1985 (they tend not to hit the books yet if they've painted later). Nearly 50% of all these Haitian paintings are of Voodoo themes. Is that surprising? Voodoo is the religion of the masses of Haitian people, and many of these artists came from humble origins and practiced the Haitian religion. Throughout the history of art religion is a dominant theme. Could one even imagine the loss to art history if Hector Hyppolite and Andre Pierre had not created their huge number of Voodoo masterpieces? When I've had the chance to stand in front of a canvas of either of those two and see a Voodoo painting, I have been profoundly moved, even shaken, and I am not only not a believer in Voodoo, but a committed atheist. But the power, spirit, transportation into a mystical world that simply leaps from the canvass to my heart is overwhelming. Would this be done away with to satisfy political aims? Such seems to me a disastrously dangerous argument. More that just dangerous, an argument whose consequences are so awful that it should be rejected out of hand.

    But, would the critics argue it is the market and not faith that drives them? Is it? I simply don't know. And I am not convinced that the critics do either. They don't seem to offer me any empirical evidence that this is so, but rely on theories that ignore the need for empirical evidence by simply claiming that the market is the primary explanatory tool of history. Such idealism doesn't convince me. I want to see the real evidence in the empirical arena, not the theoretical reductionism to simple and untestable principles.

Bob Corbett

19 Dec 1997

Randall Morris


To create a non-specific mass of energy called the market is what causes the definitional problems. The market has a great many facets to it from barter to cash. The market is the dealers and it is also the collectors and most importantly it is the artists. These are three moving parts which create endless variations.

When Hyppolite was decorating doors and walls and the sides of houmforts he was trading skills for other things whether money, food, rum or healing herbs. When he was selling works to Peters it wasn't so different AS LONG AS he remained true to his muse. I know from certain people who were there that Peters did sometimes try to change the direction of certain artists work in order to be more commercial. I would also venture to say that there was a period when there was not much differentiation in buyer's eyes between this work and crafts.

For some reason people persist in equating art with poverty. The purest artist is one whose work does not sell.

We see it here all the time. An artist is cool till he gets a gallery then he is a sell-out. I do feel however that in certain African-American cultures the role of the artist is a community one more often than an artworld one. Making art is a way of making a living and it is integrated into the cultural world. It is the artworld that makes it into something else.

To go any further into faith vs. market we have to step into a minefield; that of authenticity and quality etc. If the artist is one of true artistic intention then faith paints the painting and the artist sells it. If the artist is a hack then he will be told what to paint regardless of his faith. Yes there are many artists who paint Vodou who are not believed for one reason or another you can tell. And you know what else? The ones who are shamming it are usually not very good at all because they lack the vision that drives their work into the passionate realm of art. This isn't only a problem with Haiti it is universal. Can I tell you how many slides I get of artists telling me they are outsiders or folk artists or self-taught because they have heard that is what might be selling? We haven't been fooled yet.

People in Haiti need to make money. Period. Some paint. This is not the issue of Haitian Art. This is the issue of our own criteria. The truth is that there would be a drop-off if the paintings weren't selling but the artists who are left would be painting because they need to and those are the ones I would pay attention to.

Again this is not about whether I would like them. This art gets made whether or not there is a market. It is the tree falling in the forest. And when it is not made on board or canvas or iron it is made on walls, on the ground, in the cooking pot, in the ritual or in song. The market is an after-effect.



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