This article was first published, in two parts, by the Jamaica Monitor on September 19 and 26, 2021. It is posted here with some minor modifications.
Le Centre d’Art is among the oldest surviving cultural organizations in the Caribbean and serves as a gallery and museum, an art school, and a site for art events and a meeting place for Haitian artists. It was established in 1944 by the American watercolorist DeWitt Peters, who served as its first director, and a group of Haitian intellectuals and artists that included the Indigenist writer Philippe Thoby-Marcelin and the architect and artist Albert Mangonès (who created the famous statue of The Unknown Maroon, 1967, in Port-au-Prince). Le Centre d’Art was in 1947 recognized as an “institution of public utility” by the Haitian state and the artists who have been associated with the Centre over the years include such well-known Haitian artists as Hector Hyppolite, Philomé Obin, Jasmin Joseph, Rigaud Benoit, Wilson Bigaud, Préfète Duffaut, and, more recently, Edouard Duval-Carrié, Lionel St Eloi, Mario Benjamin, and Tessa Mars.
In its early years, Le Centre d’Art was a cosmopolitan meeting ground for artists, critics, curators, and collectors from Haiti and elsewhere in the Caribbean, Europe, and North America, and served as a place where seminal ideas about modernism, popular culture, and Caribbean art were being explored and articulated. It is important to recognize this, since modernism is often misrepresented as an artistic movement with which places like the Caribbean had only a secondary, derivative relationship, while the region played a far more active role.
The Cuban art critic and curator José Gomez Sicre, who later became the director of the OAS’ Art Museum of the Americas, visited in 1945. The French Surrealist André Breton and Cuban painter Wifredo Lam also came to Haiti during that year and Lam had an exhibition at Le Centre d’Art in 1946. Le Centre d’Art also had an active working relationship with Alfred Barr and René d’Harnoncourt, the early directors of the Museum of Modern Art who were also advised by Gomez Sicre, and from 1944 onwards, several major Haitian works were acquired through Le Centre d’Art for the MoMA collection (whose early acquisition programme also include work from Mexico, Cuba, and elsewhere in the Caribbean and Latin America).
DeWitt Peters and the American critic, poet, and collector Selden Rodman, who became involved in the late 1940s, very enthusiastically engaged in talent-scouting, especially of popular, self-taught artists. They were, however, as some of the critics have argued, perhaps too actively coached to pursue a particular aesthetic and subject matter, as could be seen in the murals of the Holy Trinity Cathedral, which was a project instigated by Le Centre d’Art. Peters and Rodman have been credited with the “discovery” of artists such as Hyppolite and Obin, and there is no doubt that they were instrumental in placing these artists on the international art world map, but several of their “discoveries” were already active before they joined Le Centre d’Art.
Seldon Rodman’s widely circulated 1948 book Renaissance in Haiti: Popular Painters in the Black Republic not only supported the international breakthrough of the so-called Haitian School but promoted the idea that this school was a cultural miracle, a sudden spark that somehow emerged spontaneously from the substrata of popular creativity, fueled by Vodou culture. Even more problematically, it introduced the notion that the only true and legitimate Haitian art was the so-called Primitive or Naïve art, which was a stereotypical representation of black, Caribbean art with which many in the Haitian art world and intelligentsia were deeply uncomfortable, more so because it was championed by two white, American expatriates. The history of Haitian art is a much longer and complex story which should at least go back to the Haitian Revolution, and arguably earlier, and which includes popular as well as academic expressions. It was inevitable that this reductive narrative would be challenged.
The first major challenge came in 1950, when a group of mainstream artists who felt side-lined by the focus on the popular, self-taught artists, left Le Centre d’Art in 1950 to establish Le Foyer des Art Plastiques. The narrative that was created by Peters and, especially, Rodman, and the notion that Le Centre d’Art was the “cradle” of Haitian art continues to hold sway today, as does the critical debate that surrounds it. The Haitian anthropologist and cultural critic Michel-Rolph Trouillot, for instance, rightly argued that: “[t]he story that Haitians had to wait for Mr Peters to discover their hidden talent is just one more story of arrogance.” There is no doubt, however, that Le Centre d’Art has had a significant impact on the development and the international visibility of Haitian art and has helped to produce and promote extraordinary works of art such as the murals of the Holy Trinity Cathedral and the paintings Hector Hyppolite produced between his “discovery” and his untimely death in 1948. It has also helped to provide a local and international market and a much-needed source of income for many artists. Not recognizing the immense worth of what was achieved in the early years of Le Centre d’Art would amount to “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”
Its building, a Gingerbread-style mansion which dated from 1912, collapsed in the catastrophic 2010 Port-au-Prince earthquake and had to be demolished. Significant damage was also incurred to the collection, which consists of about 5,000 works of art, along with important archival material, and programs also had to be halted. What could have been the end of Le Centre d’Art however became the beginning of an exciting new phase in its history. The revival of Le Centre d’Art has been supported by committed individuals and organizations such as the Daniel and Nina Carasso Foundation, a French philanthropy, and FOKAL, a major Haitian NGO which offers grants and programs in the fields of education, community development, heritage, and the arts, and which supports several cultural organizations in Haiti. FOKAL is a part of the Open Society Foundations network. Le Centre d’Art reopened in November 2014, as part of the organization’s 70th anniversary celebrations, in temporary facilities that consist of semi-open wooden pavilions and, for the collections and archives, air-conditioned container structures. (For the sake of disclosure, I am a member of the Technical and Scientific Committee of Le Centre d’Art.)
As its website states, Le Centre d’Art “remains faithful to its original mission and continues to improve it in order to adapt to contemporary issues”, by offering training and mentoring, as well as fostering the local and international exposure of Haitian art. The programs include: an ambitious conservation and collections management project, aided by the Smithsonian and the Louvre; a active and diverse program of courses and workshops for adult and young audiences; artist’s residency programs; research facilities and publications; and various art events and exhibitions (which include sales exhibitions).
Le Centre d’Art has recently taken custody of the collection of the Musée d’Art Haitien du College St Pierre, which had been in jeopardy since the 2010 earthquake. Le Centre d’Art’s had played an important role in the establishment of this museum, which opened its doors in 1972 and included some of the most iconic works from the early Le Centre d’Art collection. This collection has now been included in Le Centre d’Art’s conservation programme. The programme has also, and again, become more engaged with the broader Caribbean. This includes a UNESCO funded exchange residency for female artists, whereby Haitian artist go to the Dominican Republic, Barbados, Trinidad and Jamaica, and artists from those countries visit Le Centre d’art, with a collective exhibition at the end. Le Centre d’Art presently also serves as the incubator for the Caribbean Culture Fund, that will provide arts funding throughout the region.
Since reopening, Le Centre d’Art has staged several memorable exhibitions, such as Jasmin Joseph exhibition in 2016, which featured the work of one of the earlier members; the Tessa Mars Manman Zile solo exhibition in 2019 which featured one of the most exciting young Caribbean artists of the moment; and the Rèl group exhibition of work earlier in 2021, in which self-taught and formally trained contemporary artists exhibited together seamlessly to give a very energetic and innovative voice to the troubled present moment, but without held back by the old, contested hierarchies in Haitian art. Most of these exhibitions have been held, and were exemplarily designed and installed, at the nearby Maison Dufort, a Gingerbread mansion from 1910 which was restored by FOKAL. The Maison Dufort offers beautiful, well-appointed spaces for exhibitions and cultural events, and it is a well-utilized asset to the Haitian cultural community. The preservation of Haiti’s Gingerbread architecture, of which the storied Oloffson Hotel (the setting of Graham Greene’s 1966 novel The Comedians) is another well-known example, is a story well worth telling and will be the subject of a future column.
I must admit that I am rather fond of the current pavilion architecture of Le Centre d’Art. It integrates the green space of the large garden with the studio, classroom, work, technical, and event areas, and its openness signals an inclusive, environmentally sustainable, and non-hierarchical creative environment in which all types of art, artists and audiences are made to feel welcome – there are lessons to be learnt there about the importance of architectural symbolism and I hope that these will be applied in the renovation of the new premises. The current location and facilities are not sustainable in the long run, however, and much too small, and Le Centre d’Art is slated to move to the Maison Larsen, which sustained relatively minor, repairable damage in the 2010 earthquake.
Also in the Gingerbread style, the stately Larsen mansion is larger than the original Centre d’Art building and located on a hillside. With two major floors, a large basement, expansive indoor spaces, multiple terraces, lush gardens, and stunning views of Port-au-Prince, the building has tremendous potential to support Le Centre d’Art’s current path of growth and will, among other things, allow for the permanent display of sections of the permanent collection. Work towards the rehabilitation of the building, which involves an architectural competition, has been somewhat delayed by the political unrest in Haiti and the pandemic but is now again moving forward and, all being well, Le Centre d’Art should be able to relocate to its new home in 2022. While there is no doubt that the Haitian art world will always be couched in Haiti’s fractured social hierarchies, the old artistic hierarchies, labels, and politics of patronage and representation no longer seem to matter as much as they did in the late 1940s. The work of the renewed Le Centre d’Art, which is exemplarily receptive to the different directions in Haitian art, is representative of that shift. Other initiatives, such as the Atis Resistanz collective that organizes the already famous Ghetto Biennial, are also crucial parts of Haiti’s unique and dynamic contemporary art scene which illustrates that art and creativity can, and indeed must flourish under challenging circumstances, whether these be natural or political disasters, and in ways that are socially empowering and transformative.
By the time I first visited, sometime in the mid-1990s, Le Centre d’Art was a somewhat sleepy place, with none of the energy that characterized its early years, but it was a place of recognized art-historical importance and a must-stop for any visitor to Haiti who wanted to buy a piece of Haitian art. Disaster struck on January 12, 2010, however, when the Gingerbread mansion that had housed Le Centre d’Art was damaged beyond repair in the Port-au-Prince earthquake. Francine Murat, who had been the Centre d’Art director since 1965, died shortly after. There was also significant damage to the art collection and other art holdings (which comprises more than 5,000 works of art, or more than twice the size of the National Gallery of Jamaica collection, as well as significant archival holdings), and all programmes had to be suspended. The earthquake, in addition to the unimaginable human losses and widespread damage to buildings and infrastructure in Port-au-Prince, had a devastating effect on the Haitian art sector, with significant damage to the Holy Trinity Cathedral and its murals, to the collection of the Musée d’Art Haitien (which had been established at the College de St Pierre in Port-au-Prince, in association with Le Centre d’Art), and to various commercial galleries and private collections in the city. As often happens, however, what started out as a disaster became an unexpected catalyst for new developments and Le Centre d’Art has since re-emerged as a reinvigorated, reimagined and aesthetically inclusive artistic centre, that plays an active role in the critical debates about the representation of Haitian art.