The More Things Change: Haitian Art in the Western Imaginary

Hector Hyppolite – Damballah La Flambeau, c1946 (Image source: Wikimedia)

Two troubling documents came to my desk recently and, well, they put a few more bees in my bonnet (it’s becoming a bit of a hive in there!). One was a promotional article on a concurrent suite of three “Frieze Week” exhibitions of Haitian art in London that appeared in the Telegraph; the other was an e-newsletter about what is curiously named a “Ghetto Tarot Retreat,” which is to be held in January at a beach resort in Haiti.

Combined, these two documents reminded me that when it comes to the representation of Haitian art, and the very problematic imaginaries about Haiti and Haitian culture that have surrounded this, it always seems to be “one step forward, two steps backward.” Frustratingly, it appears that any attempt at pushing the critique and at leveling the playing field (and there have been some serious and sincere efforts in recent years) is predictably followed or accompanied by efforts, witless or deliberate, to  reestablish the old, patently problematic narratives. And what bothers me about these two instances, is that they illustrate that it is first and foremost the Euro-American market of Haitian art which seems to crave and produce such narratives, and swiftly reproduces them whenever they seem to slip away. If they have every really slipped away, that is.

The Ghetto Tarot Retreat strikes me as belonging to the “witless” category, not that this is any less damaging, no matter how it is couched in glib rhetoric of healing and goodwill. When I initially heard about the Ghetto Tarot deck, which was produced in 2015 by the artist Alice Smeets and which is now marketed online, I rather naively thought it was a cool project and a witty, visually and culturally interesting photographic re-interpretation of traditional Tarot, that built on the work of the Atis Rezistans and Ghetto Biennale, two initiatives that are based in the inner cities of Port-au-Prince. Looking back, I recognize that this project was from the start very problematic, as it fetishizes notions about the “ghetto” and co-opts and trivializes the cultural and artistic practices depicted, to produce an exotic commodity for the thriving Euro-American “spiritualism industry.”

And if there was any shred of doubt left about the problematic nature of the Ghetto Tarot project, this was removed by the description in the Ghetto Tarot Retreat announcement. Alice Smeets, who is originally from Eupen, Belgium, but apparently spends significant time in Haiti, describes herself as a photographer, artist, and life coach, as well as a “psychonaut” and “status-quo challenger.” In her bio, she claims that, having moved away from producing photographs that depicted poverty and hopelessness, as this was apparently too depressing, she now uses”photography art as well as photojournalism to help transform our world, but this time [focuses] on the solutions instead of the problems.”

And apparently, the Ghetto Tarot Retreat, which is organized by Smeets and her best friend Kerrie O’Reilly from Ireland, another life coach (although more florid terms are again used),  is part of those solutions. The tagline for the event is: “palmtrees, white sand, fresh coconuts,” and the rest almost reads like satire. Candidate participants are advised that:  “The Ghetto Tarot cards were created to bring you in touch with your deepest truths. We will use the cards as a tool to discover our purpose in life, our suppressed self and the reason behind feeling lost, depressed or unhappy;” and: “To make it extra fun we will visit the artists of the Ghetto Tarot in their Ghetto Art Gallery in Port-au-Prince.” So yes, by spending time on a beach, doing Ghetto Tarot readings and such things, and by participating in a “fun” guided excursion to the actual “Ghetto,” participants will be tapping into their “deepest truths,” recover their happiness and overcome depression. I don’t know if I should laugh or cry but, then again, I just read today about Melanie Trump wearing a pith helmet on her official visit to Kenya, so cultural insensitivity is apparently the order of the day. And of course, I was immediately reminded of the tarot-reading virgin psychic Solitaire in James Bond’s Live and Let Die (1973), which is not coincidentally set in the fictional Caribbean island of San Monique and presents a filmic narrative that is riddled with lurid allusions to Haiti and Vodou.

I have not contacted Alice Smeets (she is welcome to comment, though) and only have sketchy, third party information about the business arrangements involved, but I have to question if and how the “ghetto” community has benefited from this, financially and in terms of how it reflects on the community’s own art initiatives. I have sought and received the following statement from Andre Eugene and Leah Gordon, the organizers of the Ghetto Biennale: “As the joint directors of the Ghetto Biennale we simply want to state that this set of tarot card photographs and subsequent vacation project are in no way linked with our project. Atis Rezistans are also deeply disappointed that the artist [is] glibly renaming their space ‘Ghetto Art Gallery’ thus negating their own identity and agency.”

Chung, Andrea - Come back to yourself
Andrea Chung – Come Back to Yourself, c2012 (Photo courtesy of the Artist, all rights reserved)

Had Ms Smeets and Ms O’Reilly organized a spiritual self-discovery retreat like this in the picturesque countryside around Eupen, or in Ireland, leaving Haiti out of it entirely, or had she even just left the “ghetto” designation (or is it a justification?) out of what is basically a luxury retreat in Haiti, it would perhaps just have warranted a few amused eye-rolls. As it stands, however, the Ghetto Tarot Retreat illustrates the very problematic way in which places such as Haiti are constructed and mobilized as sites for self-discovery and -redemption and for what can, in this case, only be described as  narcissistic self-indulgence. The newsletter came to my attention when it was posted to the Critical.Caribbean.Art Facebook group by the artist Andrea Chung, who is based in California and who has her family roots in Jamaica and Trinidad. Chung’s own work, among other things, questions the narratives that are constructed around race, culture and society in Caribbean tourism. I have illustrated above an Andrea Chung collage from 2012 in which she powerfully critiques exactly the sort of perceptions and constructs that inform the Ghetto Tarot Retreat concept and juxtaposes them pointedly to the socio-political contradictions of the postcolonial Caribbean.

The Telegraph article, which tellingly appeared under the joint header of “luxury” and “art” and is being circulated as part of something called the Luxury Newsletter, is titled  “Treasure Island: The Long-Awaited Return of Surreal and Vibrant Haitian Art.” This title says it all, really, and signals another problematic narrative that is commonly attached to Haiti, and the field of Outsider Art, namely the positioning of certain aspects of art in Haiti as a “hidden treasure” that is open to privileged discovery and coaching by those “in the know’ and, of course, the retrieval and monetization of said treasure, which in this case involves the creation of a collectible and appreciating canon of “Haitian masters” whose work circulates in the Euro-American art market.

The article, which was written by one Colin Gleadell, starts by asking, rather indignantly:

“Whatever happened to Haitian art? An intoxicating mix of Afro-Caribbean Voodoo and Western Catholicism, it was characterised by a distinctly naive, vibrantly coloured style, and enjoyed a red-hot market from the Fifties to the Eighties.”

And it then proceeds to lament the collapse of said market, because of mass-production and fakes. But, Gleadell enthusiastically adds:

Now, the London-based  The Gallery of Everything, run by the “outsider art” enthusiast James Brett, is stepping into the breach with three exhibitions devoted to Haitian art over the next few weeks. In doing so, Brett recreates something of the sense of discovery that took place in those early years, presenting what he feels has lasting value and giving it a new context.

So basically, Mr Gleadell tells us hat the previously spoiled “discovery” can be recreated, and positioned for re-discovery, with implied reassurances that the Haitian masters will maintain and improve their long-term art market value this time around. Other than one minor, knee-jerk swipe about having to shake up the “old white collector base” (duh!), there is no questioning of the racist and primitivist premises on which these assertions are based. It appears that the re-inscription of those problematic narratives is in this case deliberate, rather than witless, and focused on re-claiming position in the potentially very lucrative international second-sales market, from which profits only rarely revert to the original artists or their heirs, even when that means dragging up and reinforcing old and very limiting stereotypes.

It is almost inconceivable that any supposedly credible and well-informed art critic, writing for what is supposedly a credible newspaper, would pontificate in such a reductive manner about Haitian art, seemingly unaware of (or indifferent to) the art that that has evolved in Haiti independent from the international market associated with the early Centre d’Art, or more recent developments in contemporary art from Haiti and its Diaspora. I was certainly not aware that Haitian art was ever “lost,” or needed to be “found.”

I am not going to devalue the work of the artists who were associated with and promoted by the Centre d’Art, some of whom are, in my view, among the most compelling to have emerged in the Caribbean–that would amount to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It must be recognized, however, that the history of art in Haiti started well before the Centre d’Art opened 1944 and is far more diverse, and less dependent on external market patronage, than has been acknowledged in those art historical narratives that privilege how Haitian art was “discovered,” coached and promoted by the Centre d’Art and the Surrealists who visited. The critiques of this narrative are well-known, and have come from Haitian art historians such as Michel Philippe Lerebours, Philippe Thoby-Marcelin, and Carlo Célius, as well as external sources (an instructive, although not unproblematic educational note from MoMA, about the Haitian works in their collection, can be read here.) In fact, the current incarnation of the Centre d’Art is itself a participant in these critiques and is advocating, through its exhibitions and programmes, for a more critical, informed and inclusive representation of Haitian art history (for the sake of disclosure, I should indicate that I sit since 2016 on the Technical and Scientific Committee of the Centre d’Art and that Carlo Célius is also a member.)

The three exhibitions under discussion in the Telegraph article are collectively titled “Art+Revolution in Haiti”–“Vodou” and “Revolution” appear to be the two supporting commodities here (compared to “Ghetto” in the Tarot Card Retreat). The press release, which can be downloaded here, also tells us that the presentation is supported by the Centre d’Art, which is surprising to me, given the recent developments there. The trio of exhibitions, we are told, consists of an exhibition of Haitian art focused around the cut metal sculptures by the Georges Liautaud, which is on view at the Gallery of Everything itself until mid November; while the two other exhibitions were at the just-concluded art fairs. One was an exhibition of paintings by Robert Saint-Brice at the 1.54 contemporary African art fair; and there was a booth at the Frieze Masters fair that included work by Hector Hyppolite, Préfète Duffaut and Philomé Obin.

I will reserve commentary on the exhibitions themselves, as I have not seen them and am not clear on how exactly how they have been framed or received, although the press release and the Telegraph’s promotional article are certainly alarming. There is an online interview with Brett which accompanied one of the exhibitions of his collection in Australia, which I found very instructive. The final paragraph reads as follows:

“When I get exposed to that much of it, I can’t help but start to connect to it. I wouldn’t say I believe in any of the things that are on display, but I believe in the belief in them. Rather than embracing the sublime, my own transcendence is through the engagement with this material, and engagement with people who have had revelation. So my own revelation is through them.”

I could not help but noting the similarities with the rhetoric around the Ghetto Tarot retreat. And this takes me to what I find one of the most irritating but revealing characteristics of the Outsider Art field: that the discourse is (almost) always as much about the patron as it is about the art or the artists, and that it is more often than not couched in redemptive, missionary, almost religious terms. Those who are familiar with the critical literature on primitivism will know that this search for personal and cultural redemption outside of the Western mainstream, in what is viewed as the authentic well-spring of human creativity and spirituality, is one of its most enduring and problematic characteristics. And the imaginaries that have been constructed about Haiti, which are premised on fantasies about a paradise that can be found, lost, and heroically recovered or restored, are ripe territory for such projections. And all the more so when potential financial gain is conveniently involved while the self is being rediscovered and redeemed.

And that is what really bothers me here, that both constructs–the problematic rhetoric that surrounds the retreat and the exhibitions alike–involve commercial, for-profit ventures, of which the retreat, troubling as it is, is the more innocent one. It is certainly instructive that the Telegraph article concludes with a discussion of the second-sale market values of the Haitian art that would be on display:

“As yet, no modern Haitian artist has reached $100,000 (£76,000) at auction. This, says Brett, is because the auctions do not reflect the private market. Among connoisseurs, masterpieces from this period have sold privately for six-figure sums, and prices in his exhibitions will range from $10,000 to $150,000.”

There is a lot more to say and unpack here but that would take more than one already overlong blog post. One thing is sure, namely that such re-inscriptions of problematic narratives about Haitian and other Caribbean culture cannot go unchallenged, especially in the current, deeply reactionary political and cultural climate in the metropolitan West and when potentially exploitative profit-making is involved, in which promoting cultural stereotypes furthermore serves as a marketing strategy. I invite my readers to contribute and respond to the discussion.

[Minor edits were done on October 21, 2018 but there were no changes to the substance of the argument.]

2 thoughts on “The More Things Change: Haitian Art in the Western Imaginary

Add yours

  1. Thanks for the post Dr. Poupeye. This is a very old problem that one can trace back to Paul Gauguin’s search for “self discovery” amidst “savages”. But I wonder what happens when a nation’s very own people play into the external expectations of the other? Aren’t these people ,at least in some way, partially responsible for their own imaging? How many Jamaican movies, books, art…etc are made by people who has never experienced those lives play into the international expectations (unflattering as it can be at times) of “brand Jamaica”? Exploitation between races are much easier to see and criticize but what happens when it’s exploitation between the classes? A far subtler problem, given the fact that classism in Jamaica is far more undetectable to the untrained external eye…

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks, Phillip. You are absolutely correct. And Haiti’s classism is perhaps not so subtle, but it is hardly spoken about, even in the alternative narratives about Haitian art.


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