“Deye mon, gen mon,” a Haitian proverb, is Creole for “beyond the mountains, more mountains.”
Impossibly poor, surviving on less than $2 a day, most Haitians have made it their life’s work to climb over, under and around obstacles, be they killer hurricanes, food riots, endemic diseases, corrupt governments or the ghastly violence that appears whenever there is political upheaval. One victim of these all too frequent calamities has been Haitian culture: even before the earthquake, this French- and Creole-speaking Caribbean island nation of nearly ten million people did not have a publicly owned art museum or even a single movie theater.
Still, Haitian artists have proved astonishingly resilient, continuing to create, sell and survive through crisis after crisis. “The artists here have a different temperament,” Georges Nader Jr. told me in his fortress-like gallery in Pétionville, the once-affluent, hillside Port-au-Prince suburb. “When something bad happens, their imagination just seems to get better.” Nader’s family has been selling Haitian art since the 1960s.
The notion of making a living by creating and selling art first came to Haiti in the 1940s, when an American watercolorist named DeWitt Peters moved to Port-au-Prince. Peters, a conscientious objector to the world war then underway, took a job teaching English and was struck by the raw artistic expression he found at every turn—even on the local buses known as tap-taps.
He founded Centre d’Art in 1944 to organize and promote untrained artists, and within a few years, word had gone out that something special was happening in Haiti. During a visit to the center in 1945, André Breton, the French writer, poet and a leader of the cultural movement known as Surrealism, swooned over the work of a self-described houngan (voodoo priest) and womanizer named Hector Hyppolite, who often painted with chicken feathers. Hyppolite’s creations, on subjects ranging from still lifes to voodoo spirits to scantily clad women (presumed to be his mistresses), sold for a few dollars each. But, Breton wrote, “all carried the stamp of total authenticity.” Hyppolite died of a heart attack in 1948, three years after joining Centre d’Art and one year after his work was displayed at a triumphant (for Haiti as well as for him) United Nations-sponsored exhibition in Paris.
In the years that followed, the Haitian art market relied largely on the tourists who ventured to this Maryland-size nation, 700 or so miles from Miami, to savor its heady mélange of naive art, Creole food, smooth dark rum, hypnotic (though, at times, staged) voodoo ceremonies, high-energy carnivals and riotously colored bougainvillea. (Is it any wonder Haitian artists never lacked for inspiration?)
Though tourists largely shied away from Haiti in the 1960s, when self-declared president-for-life François “Papa Doc” Duvalier ruled through terror enforced by his personal army of Tonton Macoutes, they returned after his death in 1971, when his playboy son, Jean-Claude (known as “Baby Doc”), took charge.
I got my first glimpse of Haitian art when I interviewed Baby Doc in 1977. (His reign as president-for-life ended abruptly when he fled the country in 1986 for France, where he lives today at age 59 in Paris.) I was hooked the moment I bought my first painting, a $10 market scene done on a flour sack. And I was delighted that every painting, iron sculpture and sequined voodoo flag I carried home on subsequent trips gave me further insight into a culture that is a blend of West African, European, native Taíno and other homegrown influences.
Although some nicely done Haitian paintings could be bought for a few hundred dollars, the best works by early masters such as Hyppolite and Philomé Obin (a devout Protestant who painted scenes from Haitian history, the Bible and his family’s life) eventually commanded tens of thousands of dollars. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C. added Haitian primitives to their collections. And Haiti’s reputation as a tourist destination was reinforced by the eclectic parade of notables—from Barry Goldwater to Mick Jagger—who checked into the Hotel Oloffson, the creaky gingerbread retreat that is the model for the hotel in The Comedians, Graham Greene’s 1966 novel about Haiti.
Much of this exuberance faded in the early 1980s amid political strife and the dawn of the AIDS pandemic. U.S. officials classified Haitians as being among the four groups at highest risk for HIV infection. (The others were homosexuals, hemophiliacs and heroin addicts.) Some Haitian doctors called this designation unwarranted, even racist, but the perception stuck that a Haitian holiday was not worth the risk.