The modern movement in Haitian art, often referred to as the Haitian Renaissance, arose in the 1940’s. More precisely it can be dated to May 14th, 1944 (sixty years to the day at this writing), when DeWitt Peters, an American painter then teaching in Haiti opened an art center, Le Centre d’Art, in an old house in the center of Port-au-Prince. The Centre provided exhibition space and art instruction for the full range of Haitian artists - from completely untrained peasant artists to educated artists of the Haitian elite. The first exhibition was of twenty-five trained artists, but increasingly the center drew artists who were completely self-taught and worked in the 'naive' style for which Haitian art was to become known.
The first of the ‘naive’ Haitian artists to bring his work to the Centre was Philomé Obin, who had actually been painting images of Haitian history and life in his home town of Cap Haitien since 1908! Certainly the most celebrated of Haitian artists was the hougan (vodou priest) Hector Hyppolite. He attracted Peters' notice in 1943 for the intriguing paintings on the doors of a roadside bar prophetically named "Ici la Renaissance" in the seaside village of Montrouis. Other notable early members were Rigaud Benoit, Wilson Bigaud, Prefete Duffaut, Micius Stephane, Montas Antoine and Castera Bazile. The Centre d’Art was an immediate critical, if not financial, success. It has weathered the many storms of Haiti’s politics and history and continues to show challenging and original work to this day. A number of the paintings in this exhibit, and many of the artists were first shown at the Centre d’Art.
Without pretending to a comprehensive synopsis of modern Haitian art history, some other landmark events in modern Haitian art history are as follows:
1945 - The visits to Haiti by French surrealist Andre Breton with Cuban painter Wilfredo Lam, each of whom bought several paintings by Hector Hyppolite. While somewhat self-servingly claiming the Haitian artists as fellow surrealists, Breton did a geat deal to legitimize and promote Haitian art in Europe and Latin America. That same year the Pan American Union hosted the first museum show of Haitian art in the United States.
1947 - The first purchase of a work by a Haitian naive' painter by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Museum president René d'Harnoncourt had first taken notice of the Haitian work in 1944.
1948-1949 - The painting of the magnificent murals at Port-au-Prince’s Episcopal cathedral of Sainte Trinité by Wilson Bigaud, Philome Obin, Gabriel Leveque, Castera Bazile and others, directed by Peters and the late American artist/poet/critic Selden Rodman.
The early 1950's saw the emergence of the uniquely Haitian art form of steel drum sculpture. A blacksmith named George Liautaud hammered out wrought-iron grave crosses for a living until Peters and others encouraged him to try his hand at figurative sculpture. His students and followers, including today's masters, Serge Jolimeau and Gabriel Bien-Aimé, further refined the art of hammering sculpture out of recycled oil drums.
1957 - The accession to power of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier. For the next decade he and his tonton macoutes terrorized Haiti. Most tourists and buyers of Haitian art stayed away. In spite of this several fresh artists emerged, including André Pierre, Gerard Valcin and Salnave Philippe-Auguste.
1972 - The opening of the Musée d’Art Haitien in Port-au-Prince, the first museum devoted to Haitian Art. It was dedicated tthe memory of Dewitt Peters, who had died in 1966. The death of Papa Doc Duvalier and the succession of his marginally less repressive son "Baby Doc" encouraged a new era of tourism to Haiti and greater exposure for Haitian artists.
1975 - The visit of French writer, critic and Minister of Culture, André Malraux, to the mystical artists’ community of Saint-Soleil. He became a champion of this group which included Prosper Pierre-Louis, Dieuseul Paul and Louisiane St. Fleurant. Another artist who began to work in this period was the ever-playful pastry chef turned painter, Gerard Fortuné.
The 1980's brought the wider recognition of the art of the sequinned "voodoo flag" or vodou banner (dwapo in Kreyol). Previously regarded as a relatively obscure liturgical art it came into its own with such innovative artists as the late Antoine Oleyant and Josef Oldof Pierre. These and more traditional artists such as Clotaire Bazile, Sylva Joseph, and Yves Telemac were celebrated in the seminal 1995 touring exhibition The Sacred Arts of Haitan Vodou organized by UCLA's Fowler Museum of Cultural History. In the last decade the innovation has been led by woman sequin artists as Myrlande Constant and the late Amina Simeon.
1986 - The departure from Haiti of the dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc" Duvalier which unleashed forces in Haitian art as well as society which have yet to settle down.
The 1990's brought the inspiring rise of slum priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the presidency in Haiti's first free election in 1991, followed by his overthrow by a military junta. His reinstallation by the US and the UN in 1994, and his recent ignominious fall are the latest chapters in this period of turmoil. The recent floods in Haiti and the Dominican Republic are only compounding the misery of many of the Haitian people.