Candice Russell’s love affair with Haitian art began in a small, poorly lit restaurant in Washington, D.C.
“It had a low ceiling, dark wood-paneled walls and kind of a dingy atmosphere,” says the author of Masterpieces of Haitian Art (Schiffer, $50), who talks about her work Saturday at Books & Books in Coral Gables. “But I felt uplifted and happy in the space. I was trying to account for it. I looked around and saw paintings, seascapes, landscapes, people working in the fields. The colors were very bright. I asked the owner what they were, and he said, ‘These are all from Haiti.’ ”
This brief but memorable introduction led Russell to a new and vibrant world. She made visits to the island, built friendships with artists and dealers and began collecting art and curating exhibits (including Allegories of Haitian Life from the Collection of Jonathan Demme at the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach). Masterpieces, a detailed overview of the past 25 years of Haitian art, is culmination of sorts and a true labor of love.
With forewords by novelist Edwidge Danticat and Arts of Haiti Research Project director LeGrace Benson, the book is packed with stunning reproductions of paintings, Vodou flags, sculpture and mixed-media works. Each photo is accompanied by a brief but insightful description from Russell, which lends the book a conversational and yet still scholarly air. It is, as Benson writes, a “museum in the oldest, best sense of the term — a place where inspiring muses dwell.”
It is, says Eveline Pierre, executive director and founder of the Haitian Heritage Museum in Miami, a “signature” book, “a must-have for readers and collectors and people who want to know about Haitian culture.”
Russell, an editor at The Parklander magazine who was a film and theater critic at the Sun Sentinel, says the time was ripe for a new book on Haitian art. The last major work on the subject, Where Art is Joy: Haitian Art, The First Forty Years by Selden Rodman, a leading authority on Haitian art and friend and mentor to Russell, was published in 1988. Rodman and Russell co-curated a show based on the book at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale in 1989.
There have been no major overviews since Rodman’s death in 2002, Russell says. And in the wake of 2010’s devastating earthquake, which killed hundreds of thousands of people, she felt a new book was necessary.
“So many art lovers and collectors were killed,” she says. “So much visual heritage was lost. it was time to write something that showed the world this is what the Haitians produced.”
Among the artistic casualties of the disaster: 10,000 works from the George S. Nader Museum and 11 of the famous murals at Holy Trinity Cathedral, both in Port-au-Prince. Earlier this year architects unveiled plans for a new cathedral, which will include the three surviving murals, according to the Episcopal News Service.
“We definitely felt the loss of our brothers and sisters most, but we also thought, ‘Oh my God, what about the art,’ ” says Pierre. “The murals got international recognition. People all over the world went to Haiti to view this piece, and it was lost in the earthquake. ... For you to create your future you have to understand your past, and the book is important because it gives you such a large overview.”
Masterpieces of Haitian Art, Russell hopes, goes a way toward refreshing our collective artistic memory. One of her favorite pieces in the book is a painting she owns, Ceremony, an acrylic on masonite by La Fortune Felix, which depicts a complex Vodou ritual.
“I bought it after three months of agonizing over what I thought was the exorbitant price of $300,” she says. “I was haunted by the image of this man on a theatrical platform. He was nude. ... I didn’t understand the imagery then. But I hung it in my living room, and my sister-in-law at the time came to my house and railed to my husband against it. She was so offended. I thought, ‘Hey, I’m onto something if I can offend someone with a painting and still have no idea what it means.’ ”
Russell — who now understands Ceremony as a piece in which “[s]pirits come alive and humans risk death in this cosmic dance” — surrounds herself with all sorts of Haitian works.
“I get so much pleasure from them,” she says. “These paintings and artworks have so much spirit, so much liveliness. The stories behind them are fascinating. The conditions under which they are made are amazing. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and yet look at the visual output. ...
“Here we have Art Basel, and that’s extremely important, but this is art from a third-world country. First-world country art gets the lion’s share of attention. This was created in a country not sitting at political conferences.”
Designer Susan Karten of Boca Raton, a collector of Haitian art who owns seven of the pieces in Russell’s book, lived in Haiti for 15 years and believes Masterpieces of Modern Art is important in many ways.
“Haiti has such resiliency to disaster and hardship, and the art is indicative of that,” Karten says. The book, she believes, “could be a great introduction to Haitian art.” But it also serves another purpose: “The future of Haiti depends upon the young, and the book covers many young and relatively unknown artists. The future of the country includes putting the country in a different light. Everyone perceives it in such a negative light. But it’s a very special, magical place.”
Russell concurs: “Haiti has been the adventure of my life.”