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Ever since the American artist DeWitt Peters started the Centre d’Art of Port-au-Prince in 1944, Haitian art has attracted major European and American artists and collectors. Decades after Haitian art admirer André Breton called the landscape of the tropics the landscape of Surrealism, generous art donors and collectors with connections to the Midwest have raised the commercial value of Haitian art while establishing three major regional collections—at Iowa’s Waterloo Center for the Arts and the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, and the Milwaukee Art Museum. Organized by the Ramapo College of New Jersey, the exhibition Odilon Pierre: Atis d’Ayiti allowed the Waterloo Center to show off its impressive and expansive permanent collection of Haitian paintings, beaded and sequined Vodou flags, metal sculptures, and other art pieces alongside the work of an artist who during his life remained distant from the Haitian art market and created a dynamic, rough-textured, and forlorn body of work.
Odilon Pierre (c. 1945–98), an untrained Haitian artist, was first encountered by the American director Jonathan Demme during a visit to Port-au-Prince’s vibrant Iron Market. In the bustle of the market, Demme noticed a locked, dilapidated stall filled with paintings and woodcarvings. Demme stopped by several times, but the artist was never there—Pierre refused to sell his works for the low prices typical of the Iron Market, and thus he rarely manned his stall. Demme eventually tracked down Pierre and bought several works.
Demme amassed a significant collection of Pierre’s artwork, which steers away from the colorful palette typical of the master Haitian artists celebrated throughout Europe and the United States. The pieces in the exhibition Odilon Pierre: Atis d’Ayiti, mostly from Demme’s private collection, show Pierre’s preference for earthy, simply applied colors and for his solemn portrayal of everyday Haitian life. Pierre displays an astute awareness both of Haiti’s sad history and of art’s inability to effect change. In an interview with the Haitian-born novelist Edwidge Danticat included in the exhibition catalogue, Pierre asks: “How can I fix things that are wrong with the country? I can’t. I just can’t. So I work. I put down many of my impressions of the country so I can leave them behind. I find this helps a lot so I don’t forget the history of the country. I look at the country’s history and I turn it around in my paintings” (15). The reclusive Pierre used his art to liberate himself from the impoverished reality of his nation, even though he found his artistic production to be politically futile.
The personal significance and deep awareness of this futility is evoked in his mud-colored painting Clenched Fists, painted before 1986. Three pairs of brown fists powerfully rise to recall an image of pride, unity, and social reform common to the U.S. Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Pierre’s image, however, implies struggle and pain within the upward push of defiant fists, with swabs of dark brown, red, and beige emphasizing a disillusioned call for social change. The color red, a symbol of aggression and evil in Haitian art, dominates Red Radiant Hand #1 (before 1986) and Red Radiant Hand #2 (before 1986), which reflect pain in a more direct manner. Pierre’s use of vibrant colors alongside muddy ones complicates the hopelessness conveyed in his art with a sense of urgency. Likewise, the amorphous form in shades of pink at the top center of Woman with Raised Arms (before 1986) highlights the grainy texture less apparent in the brown and tan hues of the background.
Pierre’s more colorful paintings express a greater diversity of emotions and ideas. Birds and Flowers (before 1986) depicts fallen birds amid flowers and green leaves. The movement and color of the flora are juxtaposed with lifeless birds, producing a topical tension in addition to the formal one in the paintings cited above. On the other hand, Pierre’s Crowd Scene (before 1986) seems celebratory of Haitian gatherings, using a myriad of colors to represent a crowd of stylized figures who hold out their arms as they move upward and outward across the canvas. Pierre is able to evoke a diversity of aspects of Haitian life beyond his painting, boasting a fascinating portfolio of naturalistic wood carvings that Kristen Coyne describes in a catalogue essay as seeming as if “they grow rather than were carved, revealing the integral nature of the wood” (62).
The Waterloo Center’s exhibition of Pierre’s work complemented its stunning collection of Haitian art, the largest public collection in the United States. Adjacent to the Pierre exhibition was a photography exhibition titled Island of the Spirits, featuring beautiful photographs of religious practices in Haiti by Frank Polyak alongside descriptive wall labels that provided the viewer with a greater understanding of Haitian culture and rituals. Another exhibition space held portraits from the Waterloo Center’s permanent collection, which displays works of African American midwestern artists alongside Haitian and Caribbean art. During the Pierre show, the museum also screened Demme’s film The Agronomist, a moving documentary of Haitian radio journalist and human-rights activist Jean Dominique.
The Waterloo Center used the Pierre exhibition to celebrate its large collection of Haitian art. The museum hung Haitian paintings and sequined Vodou flags from the collection throughout its hallways, public spaces, and multipurpose performance spaces. Curator Kent Shankle notes that the museum’s predominantly midwestern audience often approaches the Haitian paintings with stereotypes formed by the extreme color and Vodou subject matter, and that the sequined flags served as a means to cross that prejudicial barrier. One particularly vivid, welcoming banner that dominated the museum’s open West Gallery space was Simeon Constant’s Voodoo Ceremony, which colorfully depicts Haitian festivities in a white sanctuary room and around a ceremonial peristyle (a central column within the sacred room). The piece successfully introduces the viewer to the most sacred of spaces in the Vodou religion while depicting a celebration of music and dance that any viewer can appreciate. The museum’s collection of flat iron sculptures by artists such as Gabriel Bienaime and Joseph Louis Juste is also breathtaking. Many of these beautiful works are in fact made from discarded oil barrels.
The city of Waterloo has a large African American population, and the museum regularly offers symposia, classes for children, and tours. In 2006 the museum will open its new Youth Pavilion, an interactive wing for children, which will include a Haitian-themed room. The somber, potent images of Odilon Pierre contribute strongly toward the museum’s collection and programming. The works offer a rough, muddy sentiment that reflects the struggles and hardships of Haitian life, and that is often absent in the fantastic paintings and sequined flags of the Waterloo collection. As such, the content, color, and style of Pierre’s work provide the viewer a glimpse of the contradictions of Haitian life today.
Assistant Professor of Art History, Grinnell College
Image: Exhibition view. Odilon Pierre: Atis d’Ayiti. Waterloo Center for the Arts. Waterloo, Iowa.
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