Art in Haiti: the Social and Political Voice of the People

HIGH in the hills above P'etionville, 20 kilometers from Port-au-Prince, is the home of the Cinq Soleils (Five Suns) artists' cooperative. The road to the gallery is steep and rocky - impassable in the short rainy season, but treacherous year-round. Only small white markers, emblazoned with a smiling sun, assure travelers that they are on the road to Cinq Soleils. The road symbolizes Cinq Soleils's attempt to reverse the traditional relationship between Haitian artist and buyer. ``Normally, Haitian painters have to sell themselves, leading to a tremendous history of exploitation,'' says G'enevi`eve B'ecoulet, a French artist living in Haiti who has volunteered some of her time to help the Cinq Soleils artists. ``But with Cinq Soleils, buyers come to them. The artists set their prices and work against exploitation by sticking together.''

Art is everywhere in Haiti. From bus fa,cades to gingerbread-style houses to murals marking city streets, bright colors offset bleak conditions of poverty. Over the years, painting, sculpture, music, poetry, and dance have evolved as respected expressions of social and political conditions.

During the earlier part of the 20th century, Haiti was better known for its poverty and political struggles than for its folk art. A remarkable transformation in the 1940s changed the outside world's view of this seemingly desperate island nation. A burgeoning tourist industry, fueled by liberalized trade relations with the United States, and coupled with an emergence of art dealers, opened up US and French markets for Haitian artwork.

In a unique contribution to the renaissance of Haitian art, the directors of the Centre d'Art Gallery, Dewitt Peters and Selden Rodman, embarked on an ambitious project in 1949 to teach mural painting to H'ector Hyppolite, Rigaud Benoit Philom'e Obin, and other popular artists. A Port-au-Prince church offered its walls as a showcase for religious murals. Despite the controversy over the artists' depictions of biblical scenes populated with black Haitians, international support for the murals poured in. Time magazine featured color photos of the church apse, and suddenly Haiti was thrust into the center of the ethnic art world.

But scant profits from tourism and art sales trickled into Haitian hands. Artists were easily exploited by dealers who bought low and sold high, and often found themselves in competition with one another. To add to the confusion, hundreds of ``impostors'' emerged in storefronts, on beaches, and at other tourist shops selling fake Hyppolites and Obins, complete with their stylistic signatures. The Centre d'Art itself was accused of selling paintings being held in storage, awaiting the completion of the Mus'ee d'Art Haitienne, where they could have been enjoyed by future generations.

The dealings in Haitian art are one snapshot of a society that allows 1 percent of the population to manage 50 percent of the country's wealth. ``There are three levels of people who profit from Haitian art,'' Valcin II, a second-generation painter, charged during an interview. ``On the bottom level is the artist, who sells his work for whatever he can. Next comes the agent or gallery that sells artists' work to people who can afford to pay their prices. On the top level are the very wealthy, who buy and sell art to realize their own profits. The fact is that 95 percent of all artists live in poverty and relative obscurity, while gallery owners and collectors have grown rich and famous.''

WHILE most artists continue to work alone, Cinq Soleils creatively organized to offset an otherwise precarious existence. In the early '70s, Denis Smith, a painter, had a vision of building a gallery and keeping the group's work together in one place, where buyers would come to them. He also felt that, as a group, they might have a better chance of earning international recognition.

Mr. Smith's idea was realized in an organization named Fleur Soleil (Sunflower) in 1972. Fleur Soleil won national and international acclaim for its detailed and vibrant interpretations of Vodun gods. Black-and-white and color images adorned both ceremonial banners and gallery walls throughout Haiti. In recognition of their kinship to the artist Robert Saint Brice, who painted similar images 30 years earlier, Andr'e Malreaux, the French writer and cultural ambassador, took the liberty of proclaiming the community ``Saint-Soleil'' during a 1975 visit. The name stuck. Malreaux later wrote, ``The community of Saint-Soleil is liberty proclaiming itself. It is one of the most startling experiences of our century: It is magic through painting.''

But it soon became apparent that one painter - Tiga - wanted to control the group. ``He treated the other artists like children, and made decisions on his own,'' according to G'enevi`eve B'ecoulet. By 1979, after a handful of breakups and name changes, the group fell apart, unable to escape the mistrust and exploitation it had set out to conquer.

In 1984, however, five of the original Saint-Soleil artists reunited to discuss ways they might better put theory into practice. In 1986, they registered under a new name, Cinq Soleils, hoping to recoup as much name recognition as they could without inheriting the legacy of their first attempts.

The Cinq Soleils artists are as prolific and fresh as they once were. Exhibitions of their work have traveled throughout Haiti, Europe, and North America. A loan from a French nongovernmental agency provided them with the cash to build a gallery, big enough on the inside for the next generation of painters. The artists established three savings funds: one to buy the land under their gallery, another to purchase materials, and the third to provide economic support to any artists in the group who was not selling enough to make ends meet. They help one another build their homes, farm the land they rent near the gallery, and take what's left over to market in Port-au-Prince.

``We're starting to teach our children to paint,'' says Cinq Soleils artist Prosp`ere Pierre Louis. ``We also want to decorate some textiles with our designs, for pillows and sheets and other items to sell.''

Other plans for the future? ``We are in no hurry,'' he says with a smile. This time around, Cinq Soleils will handle success at its own pace.

``Everything they do is completely their idea,'' says Ms. B'ecoulet. ``They have tremendous artistic and moral discipline, which is what makes Cinq Soleils a rare find. Their past has taught them not to trust people, yet they trust each other.''

The ground outside the gallery offers a magnificent view of the valley. The city of Port-au-Prince is far below, blanketed in the haze of heat and dust. Up here, life is slower. The air is clean and cool. There is room to grow. ``Yes,'' Mr. Louis says. ``It is a beautiful life.''

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