Synopsis of Haitian Art

Donald Obin, Untitled, Oil on canvas, 24” × 36” Donald Obin, Untitled, Oil on canvas, 24” × 36”

Synopsis of Art by Artists of Haitian Descent in the Diaspora –– Part II

By Marcel Duret and Fred Thomas

One of Haiti’s greatest exports to the world is its beautiful art. To illustrate the four major trends of the Haitian diaspora as outlined in the 2013 Summer Issue of the Tokyo Journal, Haitian art experts Marcel Duret and Fred Thomas cast a closer look on the works of a few selected artists.

When looking at a naive painting a most striking element is the raw quality and directness of the composition and design. Everything is kept simple. What you see is what it is about. Lines and colors are combined to convey a clear image where each element appears necessary for the edification and justification of the whole. As few ornaments as possible are used, making the bluntness of expression look even more evident. The lack of artifice and hid- den meanings maximizes the connection between the picture and observers, many of who lose no time trying to decipher some cryptic iconography or unclear symbols that require initiation rites or specific knowledge. This simplicity can baffle onlookers who try so hard to complicate things based on their own bias or collective pool of references, instead of opening up their minds and let- ting themselves become impregnated by the unique visual and emotional experience that a primitive painting can achieve when it is made by someone genuinely awestricken by an inner vision or a natural phenomenon.

This simplicity sometimes appears in the flatness of shapes. It is as if the artists use some type of magnifying glass that enables them to bring forth every element of a scene as though each one is of equal importance. This way nothing is left behind for the benefit of the observer who can see the relevance of every item as it is conceived in the artist’s mind.The idea is not to judge but rather to take everything indiscriminately at face value.

The flatness supposes a lack of perspective. Sometimes this is done voluntarily for emphasis: what is important appears bigger no matter its order in the composition. Even when perspective is used, the artist may decide, consciously or not, to take liberty in assigning size, intensity of color or degree of importance. That is related to the handling of proportion, which can be so whimsical at times that a baby can appear as big as the nurturing mother or a goat bigger than a horse on the same plane. This brings to mind the case of an art critic who, in her zeal to explain the picture of an imaginary Haitian village scene, confuses common lizards, which are ubiquitous in every Haitian courtyard, with alligators because of the size of the critters when compared with the houses around them. This mishap, although unimportant, illustrates the possibility that misinterpretations can occur when someone who is not too familiar with all the subtleties of a particular culture poses as an expert of its arts and crafts.

DONALD OBIN As an illustration of the naïve genre let us look at one of Donald Obin’s paintings. His work is characterized by immoderation, a child-like rendition of subjects and an overt disregard for proportions, anatomical correctness and perspective. His figures appear as if they suffer from atrophy while their faces seem rather grotesquely monstrous. Apparently, figuration and the depiction of nature are for Donald the mere illustration of an idea or a story whose essence and content are more important than its depiction. Each element is considered for its symbolic value.

Donald, like his famous grandfather, does not practice art for art’s sake. He strives to record daily life, express his religious faith or interpret social and historical events. His mission, as seen from this prospect, is similar to that of the West African griots (troubadour-historians) who go village to village orally transmiting history for future generations. While the griots’ genius proves to be a benefit for their people, most of the artistic output of the Haitian naïve painters usually ends up in foreign lands or belonging to institutions, many of them shortsighted collectors and individuals who greedily keep the art for themselves. On the whole, these paintings are not readily available to the Haitian masses as they are too busy striving to survive. tj

The complete article is available in Issue #273. Click here to order from Amazon

Written By:

Marcel Duret


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