Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 3, 2015
Lindsay J. Twa Visualizing Haiti in U.S. Culture: 1910–1950 Burlington: Ashgate, 2014. 322 pp.; 16 color ills.; 54 b/w ills. Cloth $119.95 (9781409446729)

Lindsay J. Twa’s Visualizing Haiti in U.S. Culture, 1910–1950 offers the most thorough examination yet written of Haiti’s representation in visual media that circulated in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century. Twa’s monograph dexterously spans many disciplines to survey cultural production as diverse as Aaron Douglas’s illustration and painting, Katherine Dunham’s choreography and dance, Alexander King’s photojournalism and illustration, Paul Robeson’s acting, Maya Deren’s filmmaking, and William Edouard Scott’s painting (to name only a few of the central subjects here). Indeed Visualizing Haiti blends approaches inspired by work in the field of Postcolonial Cultural Studies and texts in Caribbean and Haitian Studies that explore issues of representation (see for example Edward Said, Christopher Miller, Mimi Sheller, and Mary Renda). Enabled by these interdisciplinary perspectives, Twa’s ambitious study examines how Haiti allowed U.S. audiences to reflect on issues as diverse as American Imperialism and foreign policy, primitivism and performance, Pan-Africanist ideologies and collective memory, anthropological study, consumption and marketing of the Caribbean, and, perhaps above all, race and representation.

Though Visualizing Haiti reaches far beyond a strict focus on visual materials, Twa’s sharpest critical insights often spring from close-focused, art-historical analysis of individual artworks. Exemplary of this is her short but compelling reading of Edwin White’s Thoughts of Liberia: Emancipation (1861). Highlighted as symbolically significant is an often overlooked poster bearing the word “Hayti” that hangs in the otherwise sparsely furnished home of the African American man—“a potential emigrationist” to Haiti—who sits quietly at the center of White’s canvas. Providing an apt opening to a study exploring representations of Haiti based on both imagination and experience, Twa explains that this man’s notion of the country is poised between vivid images formed at a distance and the opportunity for direct encounter that “may shatter all . . . he has imagined” (xviii).

Following a roughly chronological approach, the book’s first three chapters explore “how images assisted in developing, reifying and propagating visions of Haiti in the social imagination of the United States” between 1915 and 1930 (xxii). Textual and historical research, underpinned by extensive archival work, feature strongly as driving forces in this first half of the study. Chapter 1, for example, extends the work of Mary Renda in Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915–1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001) to explore Haiti’s visualization within National Geographic magazine during the early years of the U.S. Marine Corp’s occupation (1915–34). Touching on a comparative Latin American framework, which could be productively expanded, Twa skillfully examines the ways in which various photographs taken to represent aspects of Haitian society were incongruously explained by accompanying articles to reify familiar tropes of colonial discourse. Shifting away from visual analysis, the final section of chapter 1 explores the impacts that African American intellectuals’ published responses to the U.S occupation had in U.S. society. In doing so Twa introduces a concern that is threaded throughout the rest of the book: how racial identity affected U.S. citizens’ visions and representations of Haiti. Further, in referencing the contrasting perspectives of such notable figures as Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, and James Weldon Johnson, Twa reveals a sensitivity to nuance in these accounts that reaches far beyond a racialized binary of contrasting white and black American responses.

The book’s second and third chapters explore Haiti’s place within two cultural movements of the 1920s: the vogue for primitivism in U.S. culture and the New Negro Movement. Each chapter juxtaposes a series of Haiti-related images produced by Euro-American illustrator Alexander King with parallel depictions created by the famed African American artist Aaron Douglas. Chapter 2 compares images each produced at the outset of the decade, inspired by Eugene O’Neill’s play The Emperor Jones (1920). The following chapter then examines illustrations by King and Douglas, which were created to support the highly fictionalized and popular travelogues The Magic Island (1929) by William Seabrook and Magie noire (1928) by Paul Morand. Twa argues that the highly sexualized and overtly racist images King produced to accompany publications of both Seabrook’s and O’Neill’s texts presented American audiences with an “unprecedented vision of voodoo,” which traded on “blatant shock value” (78). These lurid images seem worlds away from the sophisticated aesthetics of Douglas’s modernist vision. However Twa demonstrates that both artists knowingly referenced, reinforced, and gave visual expression to already familiar tropes that have continued to govern sensationalist notions of Haiti and Vodou in U.S. culture, such as throbbing drum beats, cannibalism, a night-time forest gathering, and an outsider’s observation of strange rituals.

Twa persuasively draws such images out in the work of Douglas through a close examination of the earliest published version of his monochromatic Emperor Jones series (ca. 1926) and a lesser-known painting in misty purples and grays titled The Black Tsar (ca. 1928), beautifully reproduced here as a full-color plate. Adding depth to her argument, Twa combines this visual analysis with reference to rich archival materials. Drawing attention to Douglas’s reflections on the guidance he was given by key figures in the New Negro Movement, such as Alain Locke, Twa demonstrates that the artist was aware of catering to prevalent tastes for primitivism among contemporary critics. This leads Twa to be drawn into a more general discussion of how African American performers—such as Robeson—negotiated pressures to embody primitivism for U.S. audiences. Yet overall her selection of contextual material for these two chapters is discerningly judged to reveal how sensationalist visions of Haiti circulating in the occupation era gratified wider appetites among U.S. audiences for cultural forms perceived to be primitive, exotic, and atavistic.

The remaining three chapters of Twa’s monograph are somewhat longer and explore “how many . . . African-American artists, vigorously responded” (xxiii) to fantastical portrayals of Haiti circulating in the United States between 1930 and 1950. Twa’s fourth chapter presents an insightful analysis of the “creative ethnographers” who translated anthropological perspectives into visual-arts production by working in “a documentary mode” in Haiti in the 1930s (102). As with earlier sections, Twa chooses to open up the key concerns of this chapter by first presenting an overview of some of the more well-known textual examples of ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Haiti in this period, foremost among these being Melville Herskovits’s Life in a Haitian Valley (1937). Twa also makes her first notable references, if brief, to the role of Haitians in shaping U.S. visualizations of Haiti. She does this by noting the influence that Jean Price-Mars’s much-cited work Ainsi parla l’oncle: essais d’ethnographie (1928) had on Herskovits and others. Then, with more originality, through detailing anecdotal instances in which Haitian women and men resisted or responded to being the subject of ethnographic photographs.

Yet the most effective and insightful explorations in this chapter are of the portrait and landscape paintings that William Edouard Scott and Douglas produced amid a post-occupation upsurge in U.S. desires to study Haiti and Haitians scientifically. Both artists successfully applied for funding to embark on research trips to Haiti during which they promised to record “Haitian types”—such as market women or men about the wharves—by conducting artistic-ethnographic studies. Scott produced carefully observed, individualized portraits of Haitian people. According to Twa, it was through paintings such as 1931’s Night Turtle Fishing in Haiti (reproduced as the book’s front cover) that Scott introduced images of industrious Haitian men into U.S. culture, figures that had, until then, been absent. The results of Douglas’s trip, in contrast, were a handful of landscapes that notably lacked people; and, in deep contrast to the stark modernism of his Emperor Jones series, these paintings were produced in a realist-impressionist style. Through this latter development of Douglas’s work in particular, Twa (extending the work of Krista A. Thompson’s “Preoccupied with Haiti: The Dream of Diaspora in African American Art, 1915–1942” American Art 21, no. 3 [Fall 2007]: 74–97) demonstrates that for many African American artists proximity seems to have made untenable a stark and symbolic envisioning of Haiti that was sustained at a distance.

In her penultimate chapter Twa reverts to more familiar terrain by exploring a renewed imaging and popularization of the Haitian revolutionary narrative in 1930s U.S. culture, “with African-American artists again leading the way” (150). Notable are the range of theatrical productions by both white and black Americans, which Twa draws attention to in quick succession. These include Orson Welles’s tropical transplanting of Shakespeare to create the “hit production” known as “Voodoo Macbeth” (1936); Drums of Haiti (1937), a “singing play” by Langston Hughes; and Haiti (1938) by “white southerner” William DuBois, “the most successful staging of Haiti’s history produced in the United States” (171). Yet the body of this chapter focuses on an archive-based interpretation of Jacob Lawrence’s The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture series (1938). Highlighting Lawrence’s “careful orchestration of captions and images” and visual quotation of historical sources from the Schomburg Collection at the New York Public Library, Twa argues that Lawrence moved far beyond “spectacle, achieving the most monumental account of the Haitian Revolution in [the] era” (190).

The book’s final chapter provides the most sustained demonstration of Haitian agency through Twa’s focus on the shaping of tourist-friendly visions of Haiti, from the late 1940s and into the 1950s, for audiences in the United States. Reference is made to Haitian-led endeavors such as the staging of major international events by successive Heads of State in the postwar era, most notably Dumarsais Estimé’s Bicentenaire de Port-au-Prince (1949–50) and Paul Magloire’s Sesquicentennial of Haitian Independence (1954). However, Twa most effectively investigates the Haitian government’s attempts to “harness the creative talents of U.S. artists and media promoters in unprecedented numbers to reshape its image” in the 1950s (194). Recounted at some length is the way in which Haiti was promoted to fit “a growing standard pan-Caribbean place-image” under the influence of Poppy Cannon White, wife of Walter White, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (206). Twa persuasively argues that Cannon White was a “major voice shaping Haiti’s image” in this period, through her role as the Haitian government’s public relations consultant (206).

Analysis elsewhere in this chapter, as with earlier sections of the book, shifts between examination of individual images, discussion of broader historical contexts, and the surveying of notable artists’ engagements with the subject of Haiti. Of significance are Twa’s passing but insightful references to the “sudden ascendency” of Haitian “primitive” art (228) and the development of a market around such production in the United States, although this is a subject that warrants more extended critical analysis. There is also a somewhat scattered approach to mention of individual artists’ invitations to work in Haiti in this period, including Richmond Barthé, Richard Dempsey, and Lois Mailou Jones, while the chapter concludes with a fleeting gesture toward perceptions of Haiti in the United States since 1950.

Visualizing Haiti successfully explores, “how the idea of Haiti became a floating signifier in the creative and popular imagination” (xxiii) of audiences in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century. Though a strict focus on visual source materials is not always observed, the array of surrounding materials amassed and consulted adds a richness of depth and insight, offering art historians across the discipline with an interdisciplinary introduction to the innumerable cultural connections between the United States and Haiti from 1915 to 1950, with an emphasis on race, representation, and visual culture.

Wendy Asquith
Research Associate, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Liverpool