Art museum’s Haitian collection explores spirituality, history, daily life

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A report by Sarah Hauer for the Milwakee Journal Sentinel.

Amid works of Haitian art, pillars creating a lakou stand in the middle of the gallery in the Milwaukee Art Museum.

A lakou, which translates into English as a courtyard, serves as space for people to gather for purposes as varied as sacred space to a place to clean and sort rice. This lakou is surrounded by work in three styles of Haitian art – Port-au-Prince, Capashen and Croix-des-Bouquets – on the museum’s mezzanine level.

Most of it was donated to the museum by collectors Richard and Erna Flagg. The couple left the Germany during the rise of the Nazi regime and Richard Flagg became a successful tanner in Milwaukee. Kantara Souffrant, manager of the museum’s schools and teachers program, related the story of Richard Flagg walking through the streets of New York City one day in 1973 and seeing a work of art unlike anything he had seen before.

“He trusted that it was good because he had cultivated an eye as a collector,” Souffrant said.

He bought it and thus what would become one of the best Haitian art collections in the world. That collection was gifted to MAM in 1991.

Sorted by style, the work addresses spiritual traditions, everyday life and history of Haiti. Most of the artwork in the collection was created in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

The northwestern section is filled with paintings in the Port-au-Prince style, defined by Hector Hyppolite, a painter and Vodou priest whose paintings often include references to spirits and Vodou. At the time Hyppolite worked, the Catholic Church and the Haitian government were discouraging Vodou and black nationalism was on the rise. His paintings like “Saint Francis and the Christ Child” show figures like the patron saint of animals as dark-skinned rather than white.

His use of Vodou spirits “becomes a way of him saying actually I am here I refuse to deny this part of my cultural tradition,” Souffrant said. Vodou, Souffrant said, “sees every single thing in this world as having spirit and being divine. From water, earth, trees to you and I.”

Shown on the eastern wall is art in the visually flatter Capashen style, which focuses on architecture history. These works are brought to life through an audio station that allows visitors to hear what the scene in the painting, if real, would sound like through spoken word and music.

The Capashen grouping here walks visitors through important moments in Haiti’s history. “The Crucifixion of Charlemagne Péralte for Freedom” by Philomé Obin shows how Haitian history is intertwined with the United States. From 1915 until 1934, U.S. Marines occupied the country. Péralte was a leader in the Haitian nationalist opposition to occupation. He was betrayed by one of his own men and shot dead by a U.S. Marine. Péralte was tied to a door and a flag was draped over him. The Marines took a picture of his body and spread it around the country. Obin’s painting, completed 50 years after Péralte’s death, is based on that image.

Grand sculptures made from oil drums from the Croix-des-Bouquets fill the southern wall. The steel forming “Circular Compositions (Kompozisyon Anwon)” (1972) by Sérésier Louisjuste shows human manifestations of the spirits and animals. In a hands-on station, visitors can feel how the thick steel from the oil drums is flattened and cut into the sculptures.

In February, visitors can also enjoy related Saturday afternoon performances in the Haitian area. Ko-Thi Dance Company will perform at 1 p.m. Feb. 18. Jahmes Finlayson and Friends will play African-rooted music in the Haitian area at 1 p.m. Feb. 25.

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