Of all the islands in the Caribbean, Haiti is the one with perhaps the closest connection to Africa--from the practise of its indigenous religion, to its revolution against colonisation and its struggles for post-colonial political stability.
But perhaps Haiti's greatest contribution to the world is its visual arts that form a bridge between the new world and the old. The island's best recognised contemporary artist is Franz Lamonthe, a painter whose work combines the traditions, colour and vibrancy of Caribbean life placed alongside America's hard edge, hip-hop urban culture. In London recently for his latest exhibition at the October Gallery, Lamonthe talked about both his work and his turbulent life. "I don't really remember that much about Haiti as a child. We left when I was so young that I can't say it played a huge part in my life," he says.
His parents left the island after his father, a Haitian army officer, was involved in an abortive coup to depose the country's dictator, Francois 'Papa Doc' Duvalier. "What did affect me [in America]," Lamonthe says, "was the sense of dislocation and being at some place where I couldn't speak the language. That was why I started to paint, it became my way of communicating with other kids, a way I suppose of making friends."
He was part of a generation of acclaimed graffiti artists who in some cases risked their lives to "tag"--a New York label for painting on the subway trains. "I never thought at the time that I was part of an artistic movement, if anything I wondered whether I would survive my childhood without going to prison first, because it seemed to me that I was always being arrested for tagging. But it was like I felt a compulsion to do it. Any white surface I could find I just had to paint it." Lamonthe left home at 16 and moved from the more family-orientated district of Brooklyn to the artistic hotbed of Manhattan where he slept in Washington Square. There he met his fellow Haitian artist, the legendary Jean Michel Basquait. "When I met him, we were both sleeping rough in Washington Square. We became friends and started hanging out together and going to places like the Mud Club. He was at that time one of my closest friends. We shared so much, coming from Haiti and also our love of art, it was great."
When the art world caught on to the commercial potential of graffiti art, Basquait experienced a meteoric rise and for a brief time became one of the most acclaimed young artists in the world. His success though came at a very high price. "We went from sleeping in the park to driving around in limos and hanging out with Andy Warhol in literally one year," Lamonthe remembers. "I think for Jean it was just too much. …