Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Castles in the Air; Haiti's Painters of High Spirits

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Castles in the Air; Haiti's Painters of High Spirits

Article excerpt

It all began one April day in 1943. The English teacher during our final year at the Lycee Petion was a North American of Dutch origin, DeWitt Peters. He was mild-mannered, genial, competent. Every now and then a cloud of sadness and nostalgia would suddenly pass across his mocking eyes. He would stop teaching and talk to us about his dreams. The last time he did so he announced to his young pupils and friends that he was going to give up teaching and devote all his energies to painting. Had he taken leave of his senses? He was tired of being a Sunday painter, and a full-time painter was taking possession of his hands like a loa (a supernatural being--a god or demon, spirit or genie) in the head of an adept of voodoo. Those of us who liked him were saddened by his departure, and found it hard to get down to our English studies again.

A year later, in May 1944, the Centre d'Art Haitien at Port-au-Prince, directed by the same DeWitt Peters, held its first exhibition. One of the most exuberant movements in twentieth-century art was beginning to grow.

To the unknowns who came to his studio, Peters offered a working space, canvas or paper, brushes and tubes of colour. In addition to these tools and materials he also gave technical advice: academic notions of drawing, and the application of the seven "souls" of the rainbow.

The men who came to Peters tended to be cobblers, barbers, taxi-drivers, fishing-boat builders, house-painters, tailors, voodoo priests, servants, hawkers. Those who had already handled a paintbrush (like the housepainter Hector Hyppolite, one of the first masters of the movement) had done so to decorate doors, trunks, windows, trucks, domestic objects and objects used in voodoo ritual.

These men who had come straight from the itinerant mysteries of Haitian reality would in the next few years hurl a dazzling system of pictorial forms at the face of the world. Loa took over painting as such gods as Baron Samedi, Dambalah Ouedo, Agoue, Ogou Badagris, Shango and Erzuli Freda-Dahomin, a thousand leagues away from the Italian Renaissance, Cezanne and Picasso, gave the popular surrealism of the Haitians the chance to express itself.

The imaginations of Hector Hyppolite, Philome Obin, Rigaud Benoit, Wilson Bigaud, Castera Bazile, Prefete Duffaut, Louverture Poisson, Jasmin Joseph, Micius Stephane and a dozen more began to transform into painting the dream-world in which Haiti is rooted. …

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