Thursday, August 30, 2012

On the Transformed Existence of Dead Haitian Artists

By André Juste - Haiti Liberte

It’s late night. Trying to make some sense of the death of three artists-compatriots, I plop down on my studio’s sofa and pour myself a finger or two from a bottle of Barbancourt.  Rum, I’ve suspected for some time, doesn’t quite agree with me, but a friend had left a half-empty bottle on my tap-tap-colored bar. I pour from my glass a trickle onto the floor, a self-consciously learned gesture I’ve tried out a few times before.

           Frank Robuste has died. His early work, especially a forceful depiction of a rara dancer, had caught my eyes over 30 years ago. I would encounter him in progressive circles a few times since I first saw his fiery painting and even attended an informal display of his art at a mutual friend’s apartment. We would remain mostly cordial to each other. His paintings had devolved into this voguish, stylized cubism that harks back (by way of Bernard Wah’s curvilinear approach and Wilson Bigaud’s more sober “Conflict and Tension”) to modernist Cuban shows in mid-forties Haiti. More recently, he would regale me with some scintillating tidbits and quite bold observations about various personalities on the Haitian art scene, including his own brother Valcin II, who died before him. (Robuste discounted the supposed risks that his more well-known brother took for his political themes during the repressive days of Duvalierism. He had, allegedly, some tacit  tonton macoute  support — although, in truth, the razzle-dazzle of  his  cubist style might well have been protection enough.)

            At my behest, Robuste visited my upstate New York studio along with another friend last year on a late-October weekend that was suddenly blanketed with a foot of snow. As we hesitantly prepared a cow-foot bouyon (stew), he helped me insulate my sieve-like windows, including those in this now rum-moistened studio. His conversation, and especially his response to a coffin-like sculpture of mine, made him come across as a  mystic or hougan (Vodou priest). After some steaming bouyon and many hours of talk on the politics of the Haitian art world, he recommended some concoction for my health as well as that of my daughter. He even gathered some leaves for me before returning to Haiti, where he died in July. He would have approved of my libation, though perhaps not my sipping from the glass first, before honoring the spirits.

            Of the three deceased artists, I’m more familiar with the amiable Raphaël Denis who died in Brooklyn in July. Some friends and I who wanted to preserve the memory of an older generation of artists had actually done a video interview with him a few years back. I kept in touch with him once in a while, even phoning at times on New Year’s Day to greet him. A painter as well as a journeyman bookbinder, he had rebound for me Haiti et ses Peintres, my two much used tomes by Philippe Lerebours. Sometimes with little advance notice, I would drop by Denis’ house for some art talk in his cozy basement studio, and he along with his tenderly smiling wife Violette would ply me and other guests with appetizers, if not with some hearty joumou (yellow squash) soup.

            Denis was a painter of formally choreographed, cubist-filtered scenes of market women and the like. At one point he made a series of small abstract-expressionist-inspired works inflected with vèvè (ritual Vodou ground drawing) motifs. His art flaunts a certain psychological and aesthetic ease that matches his measured resignation and proper bearing. I have inferred that he could never quite digest my championing of the emotive, raw, and primitif-inspired art of Emmanuel Mérisier, his formerly close friend going back to the mid-fifties when they first joined the Foyer des Arts Plastiques. Nevertheless, even though I had never once seen him nor any of his visitors pour anything on the floor when we shared a drink (just as I can’t recall anyone ever seeing me do the same), Denis probably would have averred the spiritual solidarity or nationalist streak that my libation suggests.

            Nine months before Denis’ death, Paul Gardère died in September 2011, with not much notice in the Haitian world. I know his art more intimately, but I had met with him no more than two or three times. He was not the type you would find in gatherings at Denis’ meeting hub in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, not far from Carroll Gardens where Gardère lived and kept a studio. A maverick, he is the only one I know who would never disavow the Western influences on his art. Yet, he would insist that it be best apprehended through the prism of Haitian history and culture.  If he seemed to shun the Haitian milieu (even after his resettling in Haiti toward the last few years of Jean-Claude Duvalier’s velvet-glove dictatorship), he also believed himself a “poor version” of a would-be well-integrated American. Unlike Robuste and Denis, he would have parsed my exercise in ancestor affirmation, exposing some countervailing dynamics in my gesture.

            There is another dimension to my musings about the death of these men. As an artist, death has always been an important subject to me. For years, I’ve drawn, painted, and sculpted a number of works depicting coffins and executions. In a five-year stretch, I attempted to represent as a god a dead uncle named Pedro, known years ago mostly for his big, well-patronized griot (fried pork) restaurant in Haiti’s Carrefour district. I tend to take my artistic concerns with death as my own connection with Vodou, particularly how the religion manifests itself in Haiti’s social history and visual culture. So I fancy this latest wave of death as being tied to the larger struggle for Haitian liberation, regardless of the fallen artists’ relative contribution to the cause.

            Of course, a large number of other deceased artists who may or may not be alive in our memory have taken part in this imagined struggle. Among the vanguard, one would certainly find Carlo Jean-Jacques, who until his death in 1990 faithfully represented local life in a sympathetic yet distinctly unsentimental realism. But even Gelsy Verna,  “The Unexpected Haitian Artist”  (the title of an art statement of hers), made this quest. Her art evokes lyrically, in pared-down, intuitively rendered paintings, sketches, or collages, a very loose, yet purposeful, sense of cultural identity. An art professor at the University of Wisconsin, she died suddenly in her home in 2008. Her five-year-old daughter, then all alone with her, lived with the death for a few days before it was finally discovered.

            And if, say, Dieudonné Cédor, who died on September 2010, showed a keen urge to deepen his artistic consciousness from the very start of his primitif period, it was also all in the name of freedom and self-liberation. In his drawings and paintings, he seemed bent on liberating the body, sublimating it and later suffusing it, for better or worse, in a shimmering atmosphere of precious light. The muted preciosity of his “sophistiqué” period  (starting in about 1950, the year of the famous Centre d’Art schism that led to the formation of the Foyer) is at the root of Haiti’s School of Beauty.

            Of Cédor’s generation, the self-made Spencer Dépas also fits the profile of a combatant. An erstwhile fire-eater and dancer who used to entertain Haiti’s tourists before joining the Centre d’Art as a carpenter in 1947,  he was a quick study in his early days there, soon able to express himself comfortably in recognizable modernist idioms. In the last few years of his career, I would drop by his brownstone in Fort Green, Brooklyn, and find him smoking filter-less cigarettes and quietly sipping his ti piké (as he referred to his scotch on the rocks). A professed “internationalist” in the periphery of would-be more desirable or exclusionary art venues, he once mused about showing his work in the grander upper floors of the Brooklyn Museum, instead of the cafeteria-abutting and sequestered  “Community Gallery” where, due in part to his initiative,  sophistiqués  and primitifs alike were at times exhibited. He would bring out his biggest audience with his death in 1990.

            I can still see him at an opening years ago at Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Plaza, in an ankle-length overcoat draped over his tiny frame, belting out “La Dessalinienne.” With his grizzled, rakishly twisted Vandyke, he along with a large group of fellow artists and supporters had seized the moment, it seemed, the swelling veins of his throat punctuating the feverish conviction etched in his momentary scowl. (I, as club advisor to some Haitian students in my charge, also had once proudly led them in singing the same national anthem before a folkloric performance in a Brooklyn high school.) It’s this nationalist mythos that inflects almost all “Haitian art” that telegraphs itself as such since the U.S. occupation of Haiti (1915-1934).

            In this light, the wake of the painter Jacques Mérisier is notable.  (Unbeknownst to me until after his death in March 1998, close ties between his family and mine go back over 50 years in Haiti.)  He had never attained the reputation of Dépas or of other hard drinking, ballyhooed sophistiqué painters such as Luckner Lazard (who died in 1998), or even of Bernard Wah (who died in 1981) – although Wah’s surreal, stylized cubism resonates in Mérisier’s paintings. At his wake in Brooklyn (as at Denis’ funeral service in July 2012), his coffin at one point drew a phalanx of artists toward it. As part of Mérisier’s entourage, I took hold of an aspergillum that was passed on to me, and, as others had already done, I saw myself solemnly sprinkling holy water on his frozen body.

            I must confess that not long ago the death of even those I hardly knew had sometimes overly weighed on me. (If tears, and not just keening wails, were required of hired criers, I would have earned my keep years ago at some Haitian funerals.) I tend to link undue human suffering in general, which is a sort of prefigured death, with the evil aspects of capitalism and with (Haiti’s) anti-imperialist struggles. This feeling of empathy for the suffering and struggles of others (dating from when I first learned about colonialism and slavery) would stew in my mind for a long time before I realized that the reflection of Vodou in my work is actually a crucial implement in the intellectual and cultural toolbox with which I deal with death.

            Gardère said his own art practice was a way to relieve pain, stemming from his exile, disconnection from his new milieu, and the death of a bygone Haiti he had to relinquish as a fatherless bourgeois youth. My works are also often a way for me to compensate for the anguish of death — in truth, for the alienation in my own ruptured life as well. They attempt to project vicariously a pragmatic and people-centered sense of Vodou spirituality that could support the materialist in all of us. I’d like to believe that I have fashioned parts of my life and psyche out of my own culture-specific sense of death.

            Likewise, my writing about the passing of Haitian artists is a way of reimagining their transformed existence as a standing army of like-minded comrades struggling since 1804 in the quest for national liberation and regeneration.

            Stivenson Magloire and Burton Chenet, both of whom were dastardly assassinated in Haiti in 1994 and 2012 respectively, are now also enlisted soldiers in this idealistic, yet topical, quest. I had met them in New York and Haiti, each perhaps just a couple of times. Chenet delighted in faux-naïve pictures based on Haitian folklore and especially vèvè-like images dappled at times with distinct brushwork. He struck me as being pleasant and full of heart, without the swagger or guardedness that’s at times reserved for dyaspora artists like me who venture, one would think, into the domain of the local Haitian art establishment.

            The meteoric and prolific Magloire, on the other hand, seemed more coiled in himself. He was known for his twig-like images of beings gadding about in darkish worlds pulsing with symbolic life. At the Oloffson Hotel years ago, he appeared both restless and dazed. Then, at an opening featuring his paintings at Kenkeleba Gallery in lower Manhattan, he sat at one point by himself on a flight of stairs, quietly removed from the crowd. There, looking downward with hands partly shielding his face, tears welled in his eyes. Did he then feel somehow that sense of death or suffering in the trajectory of his life or country? I don’t recall anyone getting Magloire to say a word about what he felt at the opening. But the need to bring more light to bear on the life, work, and death of our artists is paramount, if not to support of the ever-unfinished national struggle then for the foregrounding of the mirror from which we create our own individual sense of self and liberation — which is all dynamically integrated. Indeed, for any of us who consider ourselves not just artists but Haitian artists as well, the conceptualization of self is inseparable from that of nation.

            Author Philippe Thoby-Marcelin writes, for instance, of the great, academically trained sculptor Normil Charles who died in 1938 in a “condition next to shame” and of the few works that have survived him — particularly  “Dans le Rêve” (Dreaming), which supposedly exists only in the form of it’s plaster mold. We’re told that the actual work was a “patriotically inspired” figurative sculpture, a “sort of Sleeping Beauty that represented innocently… Haiti asleep during the American occupation.” A rare, unpublished sepia-toned photograph of Charles proudly posing next to “Le Réveil” (The Awakening), his over-life-size plaster masterwork, suggests a bolder narrative. It shows a reclining, somewhat down-to-earth black nude with head cocked and eyes fixated, propping herself up as if to gauge a distant, yet (with her knowing frown) familiar reality.

            Contextually, this sculpture speaks of the Haitian nation not just shaking off the yoke of the U.S. occupation but guarding against its potential return. A seminal figure who has yet to be given his due in the development of modernism in Haiti before the Centre d’Art juggernaut, I envision more clearly now Charles’ abiding support to the army of the Haitian imaginary.

            Gardère’s final works before his death (after his wife Marcia’s passing a mere month earlier) reveal that his would-be dispassionate critical take on Haitian history, culture, and colonialism has morphed into an embrace of the necessary romance of national (or self-) liberation and culture. To complete his last few works, which are unusually somber, solemn, and de-intellectualized, he must have finally conflated self and Vodou. He might have poured a libation as well — at least to his wife. For these final works are an affirmation of Vodou. In at least one of them, symbols of Èzili and Gédé, juxtaposed with the boldly inscribed words lanmou (love) and lanmò (death), touchingly demonstrate that death (or undue suffering) is the mirror that also reflects a world of coherence and love.

            So the bright vision of our liberation in this seemingly endless night is still strong. I now empty down the drain my unfinished drink on this new morning.


Frank Robuste produced voguish, stylized cubism similar to modernist Cuban shows in mid-forties Haiti.

Raphaël Denis was a painter of formally choreographed, cubist-filtered scenes of market women and the like.

A detail from Paul Gardère’s “Brothers Apart”, 2006.

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