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Haitian Art
Joseph with Club Creole of Yale University New Haven Connecticut USAFefruary 2004
 
 

                                                    -------------Haitian Art and History-------------

......Speech given by Joseph Cantave at Yale University in Feb 2004 in celebration of over 200 years of independance...................................................................................


   The openness and the spirits of modern times have made it possible for the creations of untrained artists in the European academic traditions, peole they called folk artists, outsiders ect.. to attain full maturity and be appriciated and collected around the world. Eventhou Haitian art historians may disagree I beleive credits and thanks are due to Picasso and the cubist movement that bloomed at the start of the 20th century and that have challanged the old laws set down bythe European renaissance of old Leonardo Da Vinci and Micheal Angello. So in a way I think Picasso have pave the way for Haitian art to arrived.
     Haitian art have arrived in a big way. Today Haitian art hold a very important place in the culctural consciensness of the world. It is a real phenomenon, a social and intellectual phenomenon. Museums from New York city to Amsterdam have it in their collections. Art critics from Pasaneda California to Paris France have writes seriously about it. Individuals from hollywood figures like Denzel Washington, Wellesley Snipes to Heads of States Francois Miterand of France and the Senegal president Abounde collected it. Many many books have written on the subject, one came out last December and I was happyly supprised to see myself in it. But One question remained unanswered or underanswered from all the research done on the subject. And the question is where does it come from? What is the source? Because before the 1940's Haitian art was unheard of. But today it is in a dominating position inspiring all kind of artists from all races and background. What the world witnessed in mid of 20th century was unheard of in the history of art. Never before had a so much creative artistic energy activities come from not just a group or a class of people but a whole nation, in a collective way having one spirit and that spirit is the spirit of Haiti in full splendor, the visual art surfaced. The world was enchanted and remained enchanted for the movement is a continiuos one. It was really something like a big bang. And from that each generation picking up from the old, having its own stars with fresh ideas and visions. Already a 5th generation is making itself felt. Young artists in their teens are rising up to be reknown and take their rightfull places as stars.

It must be noted that in the new world or in the Americas there exist only two artistic movements  that are highly authentic that are truly native with very little to do with outside influence from European tradions or American for that matter. One is Mexico and the other is Haiti.  Many find Haiti's more fascinating and richer with a more broad appeal.  The Haitian folk art movement is considered greater not just  because of the ratio of artists compare to the number in the population and or because its beauty its purity, authenticity, diveristy,originality, the honesty and innocence of these artists for those really surpass that of Mexico. More valuable because of what it gives to the world. It opened a window .  For the first time a clear insight is given into the mistery of Haiti, a mystery reveal. Haiti was always considered a question mark, dark inpenetrated place. With spooky Voodoo and all. Now many voodooo priests became artists. As a matter of fact these preists have had the major impact on the direction the art would take. Hector Hyppolites a voodoo preist who died in 1948 remain a beacon of light in Haitian art. To buy an original these days you would need a small fortune.
We all know some aspect of the misticsm of that country the name Haiti itself speak volumes. This name had come full circle. From Hispanola ect.. many foreigners have sacked it ect ect ect..
Back to Haiti. The history in uncomparable glorious dramatic epic tragic ect.....
Voodoo, Sorcelery, cannibalism negativity Hollywood and the international press had done a job on the country. The honesty, simplicity of the haitian artists having for
subject matter their religions beleifs and a vast History of colorful events have shown the world an unexpected view. They reveal that a fraternal beautiful matured spirit lives in Haiti and sends out a message of peace and love and dignity to the world.

I Joseph Cantave, since I'm a Haitian artist, maybe a little star spinning from that big bang belongs to the third generation. So it is natural for me to think I know the origin of it all.
So i will try to expose that source to you all and you can judge wheter or not I found the source.
  So  the asnswer as to where the phenomenon comes from.

 

After the Haiti declared its indepandence in 1804. Haiti was almost completely isolated. Do you see how now when the former states from the Soviet blocks declare their indepandance, America and other powers rush to set up diplomatic ties open up embassies and start tradind in goods and cultural exchanges. None of that good stuff happened to Haiti. Every one stayed far back. The question was loud and clear, how dare us TO BE FREE when our whole race was under chains? Haiti responded "you have seen nothing yet". To seal our fate the first clause in our first constitution wrote " No white men shall enter Haiti with title of master or any kind of titles". Small little Haiti was to the new world what the Soviet Union was to Europe after the second world war. A real danger, slavery and colonisation was the fuel that runs the period's economy. Haiti broke away from both. The Caribbean islands were so afraid that the revolution would spread that they spread rumours that the harbors of Haiti were choked with filth and could be smelled 7 miles out at sea and all the Haitians were canibals. The real story was all the major powers of the times suffered major, heavy losses comfronting the ex-slaves of Haiti and they all accepted defeat. England lossed more than 40.000 men in their invasion of 1794, General Thomas Maintland came to investigate and ordered evacuation to save the remaining troops.  Napoleon Bonaparte alone loss more than 50,000 men including 22 generals, not counting thousands of civilians and what the French Directory loss previous to Napoleon. In some France had loss its richest colony ever. The Spanish side suffered many invasions and that left them in a state of constant fear.Finally they were overwhelmed, taking over and occupy by Haiti. The Dominican Republic gain their independance not from Spain but from Haiti in 1844. They, the Dominicans bitterly deplore and regrets that part of their unerasable history.  These were the true facts behind the paranoia over Haiti.  In 1804 The country was lead by the terrible of terribles, Jean Jacques Dessaline1 the emperor of Haiti. He was the complete opposite to Toussaint Louverture. Dessalines did not know how to read or write but he wanted to undo even the landing of Columbus. He proposed to rename everything back to their original names, that is how we have the name of Haiti today.  The actions of this man cannot be mention by me for reasons of decency and respect...Nonetheless he is a giant in the history of the new world. Many distinguished generals who had fought side by side with Napoleon Bonaparte and who's names are inscribed in the Arch of Triumph in Paris were executed by this ex slave after they had their large armies wipe away right under their feet also after they were trialed, judged and they were found guilty of crimes against humanity by bringing their large armies to install slavery on a free people that had already paid in full for that freedom in the 1791 bloody slave revolution.  Poor French soldiers, heroes of the French revolution, they were misled into invading Haiti for this impossible mission. They had no ideas of characters like Dessalines existed and were secretly waiting for them to invade and then to suprise them. After the great war Dessalines declared himself the only noble in Haiti. Legend stories to Haitian children at night have it that Dessalines wasn't human at all and he drank warm fresh white blood everyday.  It also should be noted that the Haitian emperor just after two years in his high office was swept up by a fresh, potent Haitian revolutionary tornado. (literally). When he landed his very person or body and imperial costume was discarded in more than a thousand peices.  Today Dessalines had pass into the realm of myth, he had resurfaced, he is now well entrenched in the Voodoo pantheon in the Ogoun family of gods, warrior and thunder gods.

It should also be noted that Haiti is the only country in the new world to have royalty in its past independance history.

   ........To continue on, The world stayed away.  It wasn't  until the civil war in the 1860's that theUs finally recognized Haitian independance. The Vatican too. Rome did also in the 1860's when the Concordat was signed. And the first Catholic priests or missionaries were send on a large scale. And it took them a very long time to convert the Haitians. A whole generation had to be bypassed to have an impact, regardless of the many violent anti superstition campaigns that were more like terror campaings where fire was set to Voodoo temples and preists executed.There is a saying now that 10% of the population is devoted to satisfy the missionaries from all corners of the globe. 90%  are Catotlic,  and Haiti remains 100% voodoo. And the Voodoo preists says that the whole world is Voodoo but just don't know it yet.
To continue,Haitia was isolated for two generations.  In  this isolation eventhou haiti was hurt in the way of no developpment but also that was when the country identity was formed. So you have almost two genrations of Haitian living on their own doing their own thing. So it was second nature, Voodoo was practiced to the hilt. It had settled in, in the rivers in trees in the sky, the sun, moon and stars. It had awaken the dead Arawak spirit and renewed it. That is why it is so difficult to root out now. After a few generations alone. Haitians have embraced themselves and the land. The land and the peole became one.  And that have become part of the Haitian identity, loneliness.  The haitians no longer look at Africa where a place they came from but looked at the old continent as a mythical place and a mythical time.  Many stories and legends were developped. And all including have shaped that identity is very unique and authentic and distinctive. The language, customs and beleifs of Haitians are very rich and they are connected to even Pre columbian times.
Now let me explainthru a different angle.


      
  When one travels over the carribean over Jamaica Cuba dominican Republic ect... Haiti is the only
country where you will not see that the coastal line dotted with high rise hotels with volley ball tennis courts, golf courtsect...and the coast littered with yatches ect..inland criss crossed by multy lane highways. All of that the result of privatisation in fullswing. Where foreigers and bid companies with big money come and buy your country and everything on it outright. Haiti is visually different from its neibhors. Eventhou the big corporations don't invest and built those big hotels, giant touristic city resorts ect.. I don't think the Haitians have too much problems with that. The Haitian people are very selfish in a way. I myself would like to see an aspect of Haiti stay intact. When I look at the Dominican Republic next door. I don't feel jaleous. Because I'm friends with some Dominicans and they told me they don't feel like they have a country anymore. Foreigners have more right then them and they have no recourse. They experience racism in their own country, feel like second class citizens in their own country. All those hotels you see around the caribean are not for the people or enjoyed by the poeple. America tried to change Haiti into that direction in the invasion of 1915 but the Haitians forced them out in 1934. Poor they found Haiti poorer they left Haiti.
So in Haiti, so called named the poorest in the Hemisphere is unique people and a unique land. Almost all mountains, misterious mountains, full with secrets. The land have its way of revealing secrets.
       Jacques Cousteau the great French sea explorer of the 1960s and 1970s was mapping the Carribean Bassin. He passes under Peutro Rico every thing fine, Jamaica fine. Got permission from Castro.... did his job fine. But when he arrived at the nothern shores of Haiti by Mole St Nicholas he was chocked, alarmed and chaken, for what he has found. All around the island there were thousands upon thousands of human bones laying peacefully under mud caused by landslide from deforestation, it is as if a big natural disaster have happen in that country and continue to happen, he investigated into the source of those bones and was swept away into Haitian History. Mole St Nicholas, a name given to that coastal outpost by Christopher Columbus himself. There is an under current there that lead all to this place. (Even today when the Haitian boat people live the southeren shore of Jeremie for their destination to the US, many times the current leads them and they land there at Mole St. Nicholas. It is only afer they go inland to their great supprise and dissapointment to find out that they are not in a foreign country but still in Haiti their land of misery).Chritopher Columbus landed there first on his first voyage, as a matter of fact the leading flag ship named Santa Maria sunk there at Mole St Nicholas and Columbus was forced to stay...ect.. ect...full full...history...Please go and read the history....  So Haiti (that was the native name before Columbus named it Hispanola) the craddle of the new world was born in a sea of blood and suffering from the begining. As if that was a high price paid to set it in a different course. All the world have its course in history but Haiti have set its own. Haitians now what I mean. Haiti have never really known peace. Maybe peace of the spirit. For blood have never cease to flow since the first conquistador set foot on it. Please don't be alarmed by any news of revolt or coup d'edat in Haiti. If some was to write a book about coup d'etat Haiti would probably almost fill the whole book. Haiti have been a difficult place to govern since 1492. Christopher Columbus suffered the first coup d'etat. The great consquistador Nicholas Ovando the executioner of the fable book queen Anacaona of Xaragua ( now Jacmel  and the south penensula)  came and place Christopher Columbus under arrest in 1502 for mismanagement of the colony and deported him back to Spain where the poor Columbus was stripped of all his powers,tittles and treasures by the Catholic king Ferdinand. And if it wasn't for queen Isabella he would of spend the rest of his life in jail. Christopher Columbus was forbade to get onboard any ship to go anywhere. He evantually went mentally illed and died illed. In 1503  slaves were already comming to Haiti but the real trade became heavy in 1517. Nicholas Ovando was finishing was Chistopher Columbus started, he was wiping away the Arawak race clean of Hispagnola. The island densely populated and had well over a million living Awarwaks but there were less then a 60,000 left by 1510.

 A catholic priest name Bartholmy de las casa who had forsighted extinction of the natives and  was so overlhelmed by what he winessed. He made a report to Royal Court in Spain and to the Pope, soon the slave trade was in full gear so save the poor Awarwaks from total extinction. As Spain was getting rich. Other European royals join in the grabbing. Whisky treaty in 1697 between France and Spain....History history and more history.........then came 1791 and the rise of Toussaint. Toussaint Louverture himself was a great manifacturer of coups. He has given more than a dozen in less than 10 years. He deported heads of states and commissioners and special agents from left to right back to France Spain and England. He bitterly fought their large armies and won.  Twice he resigned his position of head of state to dudge or avoid revolutions only to rise again at the head of counter revolutions in thus crushing all oppositions and all those that filled the vaccum of his absence.  1801 He took over the Spanish half of the Island under pretext of a deal made between Spain and France. A coup in disguise, the whole island was under his control. Alarm was raised among the establihed powers of the time. Jamaica, Puerto Roco, Cuba and all the Caribbean Islands were vulnerable with Toussaint around. The decision was made that Toussaint had to go. He in turn was set up in a coup d'etat and deported to France . He was known in those days of glory as "The First Of The Black Race". The danger to the new world died with Toussaint for no other Haitian posseses his grandeur or his vision. (It must be noted Toussaint, a light to the world for all times, learned how to read and write at 40 years old).

You all know the rest of the story story.(perpetual revolution).
   Now.....As a matter of fact if one is writting or searching about coup d'etats, Haiti is a good place to start. All imagining ways coup d'etats succeeded as if a great theatrical plays were constripted with all the usual players. . .From complotting, poisonings, public executions, assassinations, deportations, on several occasions the angry populace invaded, stormed, rushed in the white house and took care of the president, one time they found him hidding under the bed, also on two occasions the white house was blown away with president and all the living creatures with him. Such is the history of that little unknown country.

        Times never stand still. Everything get older. So are nations or people ect..  Some people after many generations in servitude or in slavery stilll have a slave mentality even if they are set free. If after many generations you are arrogant and think yourself superior you will continue to beleive that. But Haiti after the great war of independance and times in isolations revolution afer revolutions. Have also matured in a way. But the blood and suffering have never stopped.Including today. Just take the boat people phenomenon and what ever many crisis that poor coountry is under now.

  A poeple that have matured in so much pain and misery will developped a  spiritual self and a degree of humbleness, it is a spiritual law. And all that suffering then have to have an outlet or the people will become suicidal and violent and hopeless. The great spirit of Haiti would not let that happened.  If you ever visited Haiti even in the midst of the misery or a native revolution (change of president or coup d'etat), you cannot fail to come face to face with  that spirit, and be humble by it. And if you pay close attention to details in your daily activities in Haiti you will surely stumble on a mystical unforgattable experience. This place which is the poorest of the poor is a spiritual hub a gateway or intersection into the spiritual world. As for myself upon my arrival in Port au Prince airport it hits me for I know for sure I'm here temporarily and my journey will continue on in the beyond and Haiti have a hidden door into that beyound. All Haitian art points in that direction.   

        Haitian art in sum is a reflection of a very old but ageless spirit  reflecting upon itself. When comming face to face with itself. It forgot all its pains of the centuries milleniums and started to smile and giggle and suddenly burst out laughing harder and harder sendind echoes to the outer limits of the universe........ in conclusion Haitian art in all its splendor with all its colors, forms and mysticism are but and echo of that spiritual laughter in his continious journey to paradise that awaits him, and with many Haitian artists as servants and helpers, he send out messages to the world of his presence and remindind humanity of the superiority of the spiritual over the material. So no matter the degree of suffering, the spirits must rejoice, and wherever life is hope is there as well.  

Wesleyan University Bloomington Illinois April2003

 

 


Party in honor of Joseph Cantave. Illinois USA April2003

 

 

With Internatinal Relation Class. Weslean University 2003.