After Haiti's revolt, his art exhibit was put on hold. Now it's showing in Miami.

Haitian artist Jean-Claude Legagneur is photographed inside MOCA with North Miami Mayor Dr. Smith Joseph, right, as he installs his one-man show, "Faces of Freedom," as part of Black History Month celebration.
Haitian artist Jean-Claude Legagneur is photographed inside MOCA with North Miami Mayor Dr. Smith Joseph, right, as he installs his one-man show, "Faces of Freedom," as part of Black History Month celebration. cjuste@miamiherald.com

The “Faces of Freedom” were first painted more than a dozen years ago.

Jean-Claude Legagneur, the renowned Haitian artist whose 65-foot mural adorns a wall inside John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, painted the portraits to document 200 years of Haitian independence.

Haitian artist Jean-Claude Legagneur is the featured artist at MOCA as the City of North Miami celebrates Black History Month with Legagneur's one man show entitled "Faces of Freedom."

Then came a violent revolt. The country’s democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was forced into exile, and again, Haiti found itself mired in turbulent times. The paintings were shelved.

“They were never shown,” said Legagneur, who moved the 2004 collection from Port-au-Prince to New York for safekeeping, and then eventually back to Haiti.

Beginning on Tuesday, art lovers and followers of Legagneur’s work will get to see the 27 portraits when they make their debut at North Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). It is Legagneur’s first solo showing at a public museum, and the museum’s first solo exhibit by a Haitian artist.

“I never wanted them to be shown at a gallery,” he said of the paintings marking the journey from Africa to the Americas by people of African descent. “I always wanted them to be at a museum.”

The artist, who is revered for his mastery of figurative paintings that focus on the gazes of his subjects, said “a gallery is where you sell paintings. A museum is where you show them. A museum is for everybody and a gallery is only for the people they invite.”

Still, Legagneur’s acrylic on canvas paintings have been exhibited at art shows and galleries around the world. Among them: the Florence Biennale, Village Gallery in Winston-Salem, Art Fusion Galleries in Miami, Arader Gallery in New York, Harlem Fine Arts in Martha’s Vineyard and Gallery Nader of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

And his artwork adorns the homes of celebrities such as Danny Glover, as well as presidents and presidential candidates in his homeland.

He focuses on faces, Legagneur said, because they tell the story of a person’s life experiences, their triumphs and tragedies.

“The eyes,” he said, “are the light to the soul.”

In Miami, where the competition for contemporary art among museums is fierce, North Miami is trying to find a way to position itself amid a crowded field. That field includes the Pérez Art Museum Miami and the Institute of Contemporary Art.

MOCA has had some rocky times in recent years. In 2014, it lost several board members to the Institute of Contemporary Art, which later sued North Miami over mismanagement of the museum. Both sides eventually settled the lawsuit and split the museum’s collection. Then in late 2015, the museum fired director Babacar M’Bow after sexual harassment allegations. The museum is still searching for a permanent director.

The museum is also trying to overcome past criticisms that it doesn’t showcase enough diverse or local artists despite being in a city with a majority black and Hispanic population.

“Part of the goal is to not only create cutting edge contemporary art exhibits for art lovers but to create cutting edge contemporary art exhibits for a new audience,” MOCA interim director Natasha Colebrook-Williams said. “Our last four exhibits have been extremely powerful and we intend on continuing in that direction.”

Jorge Luis Gutierrez, the show’s curator, said it’s always a challenge for contemporary art museums to move away from the western tradition of art, but it’s important “to try and understand the look of others.”

“The show is an opportunity to see a different perspective of contemporary art,” Gutierrez said. “So the museum becomes an experimental space to look at a different perspective. He’s not pretending to follow western schools. He’s a Caribbean artist, a Haitian artist, showing the way through which they see the world.”

The exhibit, which is commemorating February’s Black History Month, focuses on Caribbean and black art.

Legagneur’s exhibit, which also features about 50 mixed media drawings and 10 papier-mâché masks, speaks to the history of black culture that is “heavily marked by the issue of slavery, which was a central issue in colonial America,” Gutierrez said. “The people have an expression in their eyes, their look, the texture of their face, marked by the weight of what slavery meant to the African Americans. It doesn’t matter whether you are in America, Latin America, Brazil. It’s the same story.”

Miami Herald Staff Writer Lance Dixon contributed to this report.

North Miami MOCA exhibit

The “Faces of Freedom” exhibit runs through March 5 at North Miami’s MOCA, 770 NE 125th St. The museum is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, 1 to 9 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Mondays and major holidays.

Admission to MOCA is $5, free for MOCA members and North Miami residents.