Haiti is simultaneously the poorest country in the western Hemisphere, in terms of most economic indicators, and perhaps the richest country in terms of its prolific artistic contribution, given the island’s small population. Vodou, which is the rebirth of African religion in the west, is often reflected in the great art we’ve come to know from Haiti.
Haitian painters along with other artists, historians and healers, often connect their artistic efforts with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. For more than 300 years, Africans were carried from their homeland, across the Atlantic Ocean into chattel slavery in the Americas and the Caribbean. The residual impact of this African Holocaust still reverberates in the world today through psychological trauma, genetic memory, community consciousness, and race relations where poverty and privilege loom large. To assuage the psychic pain, Haitian artists use canvas and ritual to create paths to healing.
During the recent Harrison Street Art Fair, Oak Park was blessed with a visit by two internationally known Haitian artists, Destin Domond and Prince Luc. This was their first trip outside of Haiti and no place could have been more welcoming for their first U.S. venture than Oak Park, according to one of their hosts. “They were both immensely impressed with the diversity of local people who came through Ridge Art to look at their work,” said Laurie Beasley, owner of Ridge Art, 21 Harrison St.
Although self-taught, both Destin and Prince come from rich painting traditions. “Destin comes from a family of artists,” Beasley explained. “The best known is his uncle Wilmino Domond, a highly-regarded artist of the classic period of Haitian painting, which began shortly after the Second World War and lasted up into the early ’60s. Prince Luc’s ‘artistic grandfather’ is Prefete Duffaud, who, along with Wilmino Domond, is one of the last living classical Haitian painters, and his ‘artistic father’ was the late Prince Jean Jo, whose iconoclastic work is similar to Jean-Michel Basquiat [perhaps the most famous Haitian painter as evidenced from the film Basquiat, starring Jeffrey Wright]. Both artists are deeply spiritual and their work utilizes Vodou iconography to represent the struggles of modern life as they experience it. Destin’s paintings have a dreamy underwater quality to them with the figures less precisely rendered and the colors muted but with an aqueous florescence. Prince’s work is precisely delineated, even his abstract pieces having a precise clarity,” said Beasley.
Prince’s acrylic “Zinglin,” which means broken glass, is a powerful piece in vivid red, yellow, blue, green and white, complete with broken glass on top of the rising pigment. “The light in the painting represents that when the problem is dark, we must seek illumination,” he said in French, which Beasley helped translate. “The broken glass represents violence,” he added. “In between the violence is a heart trying to come out, which is represented by the Vodou saint, Erzile.” Prince then guided us to an equally powerful work called “Lacoa de Manbre D’Haiti,” a bright orange, blue, white and brown abstract painting that could represent the island’s struggle for peace and prosperity.
Destin, who previously appeared at Columbia College’s “Vodou Riche” exhibit as part of the college’s year-long program on “Poverty & Privilege,” handed me a postcard of two of his paintings at the gallery including the hot “Untitled” acrylic on canvas that he painted in collaboration with Chris Wilson, an Alabama-based painter who did a residency in Jacmel at “Fosaj,” a famous gallery owned by Patrick Boucard, a well-known painter, sculptor and filmmaker, who translated Prince’s Kreyol dialect for me.
I met Boucard the day before at Columbia College when he appeared on a panel featuring Neysa Page-Lieberman, curator of the Vodou Riche exhibit; Veronique Leriche Fischetti, a Haitian sculptor-painter now living in New York; and Dr. Marilyn Houlberg, a School of the Art Institute professor and leading expert on Haitian Vodou Art.
How fortunate Oak Park was to have painters of their stature here to guide us on a journey to and from the African Holocaust.