Haitian art: rising from the ruins

Priceless works of art were among the casualties of last year’s terrible earthquake in Haiti. But there’s hope that at least one can be restored

  • The remains of the mural. Photograph courtesy of Rosa Lowinger & Associates, Conservation of Art & Architecture
  • The remains of the mural. Photograph courtesy of Rosa Lowinger & Associates, Conservation of Art & Architecture
  • The mural is carefully removed for conservation. Photo courtesy of Rosa Lowinger & Associates, Conservation of Art & Architecture
  • Philomé Obin in his studio in 1983. Photo used under Creative Commons License from Wikipedia.com

One of the most harrowing images to have emerged from the January 2010 earthquake which shattered the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, with appalling loss of life, was the ruined Holy Trinity Cathedral, reduced to a vast pile of rubble. It was not the first time that this great landmark building, originally constructed by the Episcopal Diocese in 1863, had been destroyed – in fact it had been levelled to the ground six times already, mostly by fire, but also by a previous earthquake in the 1920s. But on this occasion the devastation was all the more distressing, as the cathedral contained on its walls some of the greatest examples of Haitian art.

Arguably most important among these were two vast murals painted by Philomé Obin, considered one of the most important Haitian artists of the twentieth century, who died 25 years ago, in August 1986. The loss of these works would be incalculable, but there may, it seems, be grounds for cautious optimism.

Obin was born on July 20, 1892, near the northern Haitian city of Cap-Haïtien, a place to which he remained fiercely attached all his long life. Despite an almost non-existent formal education he quickly discovered an aptitude for painting and combined various jobs with creating tableaux of Haitian history and scenes from Cap-Haïtien. Many of his works from the 1920s and 1930s, painted on cardboard or masonite – a sort of cheap mass-produced hardboard – have subsequently been lost, and in any case Obin found few buyers for his early work. He decorated shops with murals, and also Protestant chapels, since as a devout Baptist he wanted nothing to do with Vodou – the faith most commonly associated with Haitian art.

The self-taught Obin might have remained in obscurity but for the opening in 1944 of the Centre d’Art in far-off Port-au-Prince. This institution was the brainchild of Dewitt Peters, an unorthodox American conscientious objector and amateur painter who came to teach English in Haiti. He soon realised during his travels around the capital and countryside that the country was full of talented artists such as Obin. With some of his own money, and then with help from the Haitian and US governments, Peters opened the centre in downtown Port-au-Prince, providing studio space, tuition, and materials for painters and sculptors. A grainy black-and-white video from 1950, produced by the United States Information Service (and viewable on YouTube), shows Peters supervising a group of painters at work in the centre’s large garden.

This being Haiti, there is naturally a controversy – and one that I don’t intend to take sides in. The traditional view is that Peters “discovered” a generation of artists and therefore ushered in a “Haitian Renaissance” that otherwise would not have happened. Critics complain that this is a distortion of the reality, that Haitian art needed no such discovery, and that it is typical of patronising foreign attitudes towards Haiti to suggest that its artists needed outside help.
What is undeniable, however, is that the Centre d’Art changed perceptions of – and the market for – Haitian art. By 1947 New York’s Museum of Modern Art had purchased its first Haitian work.

Obin heard about the Centre d’Art and sent Peters a painting – “The Apotheosis of FD Roosevelt” – a striking depiction of the American president rising from his grave attended by two angels in gratitude for his role in ending the American occupation of Haiti in 1934. This was classic Obin, mixing scenes from Haiti’s rich history with religious symbolism, and all in a style that has been described as “naïve” (more controversy lurks here) or perhaps “instinctive”. Peters loved it, and sent Obin US$5, the largest amount he had ever received for a painting.

A relationship between Obin and Peters soon developed, and Obin dispatched a series of paintings to Port-au-Prince, received money and materials in return, and gradually established a reputation among collectors and other enthusiasts who appreciated the distinctive vibrancy of Haitian painting. Others were enjoying success at the same time, most notably the Vodou priest Hector Hyppolite (Dewitt Peters had first spotted his work on a bar door in Montrouis), but Obin remained at the forefront of suddenly fashionable Haitian art. Even better, he was then paid to open an annex to the Centre d’Art in Cap-Haïtien, where under his tutelage a large group of local artists – many bearing the name Obin (he had various love interests and an extended family) – developed their skills.

His greatest work captures key moments and personalities in Haitian history: Toussaint Louverture, Dessalines and the bloody war of independence from France, the execution and martyrdom of the guerrilla leader Charlemagne Péralte by occupying American troops. There are also scenes of everyday life in northern Haiti: Cap-Haïtien gentry in a horse-drawn cart, the arrival of a mail steamer, people conversing in the street. Simple, with muted colours, these are wonderful vignettes of a long-lost Haiti.

In 1948 Obin’s career took a new direction as the Episcopal Diocese invited him and other artists – Rigaud Benoît, Wilson Bigaud and Castera Bazile – to decorate the walls of the cathedral. Somehow he managed to overcome his aversion to the noisy, smelly capital city and spent several months on a scaffold painting one part of a large three-section mural above the cathedral’s altar and another mural that stretched around three walls. Each day he would pray before starting. Eventually the works, “The Crucifixion of Christ” and “The Last Supper”, were completed.

“The Last Supper” depicted a group of disciples, ranging from black to white but all unmistakably Haitian, seated at table, while “The Crucifixion” showed a light-skinned Jesus nailed to a cross in a Cap-Haïtien street with Haitian mountains behind. He is surrounded by black ladies who seem to be in their Sunday best. “Thank God, they painted Haitians,” a relieved Episcopal Bishop Voegli is reported to have remarked as he viewed the four artists’ work. The murals were not at first universally popular, but as Obin’s and the other artists’ reputations soared (Obin commanded US$75,000 per painting in the 1970s), they were recognised as masterpieces of sacred art, direct and culturally rooted, and sought out by visitors.

Then, almost 25 years after Obin’s death, came the disastrous earthquake. Little was left standing of the cathedral.

But all may not be lost. Although “The Crucifixion” was smashed to pieces, efforts are under way to remove “The Last Supper” for conservation and perhaps eventual restoration. Small consolation perhaps, but also a minor miracle that would have delighted Philomé Obin.