Visions of Haiti

 

During the U.S. occupation of Haiti beginning in 1915 and ending in 1934, African Americans sought pan-Africanist identification with Haitians. During this period in Haiti, African Americans saw that there were similarities between how white, US occupants treated Haitians, and how white Americans treated African Americans. Racial tensions in the United States made African Americans capable of empathizing with Haitians, while also rejecting what was a racially influenced occupancy. There are many differences in the depiction of Haiti from African American artists like Lois Mailou Jones or James Porter who travelled to the country, with for example, Jacob Lawrence who had never been to Haiti. One central difference is the emphasis on setting and the depiction of the figures.

In Jacob Lawrence’s (1917-2000) piece, General Toussaint L’Ouverture (Figure 1), he depicts a key figure in the Haitian Revolution dressed in the uniform of perhaps a general. The outfit in the portrait, with its intricate gold designs and white accents presents a well-respected leader. The confidence and alert stature of the general depicts a sort of reverence for Haitian leaders that African Americans had from at home in the United States. Another paining (Figure 2) in this same series shows a similar depiction of Haitian men and women running with weapons in hand as if they were in war.

When we move to artists like Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998) especially in her painting Peasant Girl, Haiti (Figure 4) the same tropical gold is paired with the brown skin of the figure, however, the figure seems to have been captured in its natural state with no emphasis on her strength. Even for James A. Porter’s (1905-1970) Market Women, the viewer’s focus is drawn to the detail of the landscape as well as the activities of the women in the pictures. The strength and warrior-like depiction of Haiti we get from artists like Jacob Lawrence seems to contrast with the softness of a traveler’s perspective on Haiti.

Each of the three artists portrayed the setting of their figures using similar tropical blues and golds however the focus of Porter’s and Jones’ work is on the props near the women. In both paintings, the props draw in on the natural poses of the women as if the painting was done while they were engaging in daily routines. Different from Lawrence’s pieces, the figures are not portrayed as soldiers or people working in the revolution. In To Preserve Their Freedom for example, the pointed lines, the direction off their noses and chins, and, the solid color of the dark sky and terrain emphasize speed, and draw the viewer’s attention to where they were going as opposed to where they were in that moment.

 

Artists who had not traveled to Haiti based their perceptions of the country on the relationship it had with the militant US occupants, however artists who did travel to the country were able to experience aspects of the country that had little to do with race or the Haitian Revolution. For example, in Market Women, more emphasis was put on the trees, hills, and dirt in the landscape, as well as the props on the ground. Because they could view, taste, smell, and touch Haiti, they could represent the country with for example, the country’s landscape as opposed to its racial history. Their figures also exerted a more natural and relatable humanity by showing what everyday activities looked like through the baskets and food on the ground. African American artists who had not travelled to Haiti had seen the country more so through the perspective of the Negro identity that they shared. Emphasis is taken off Negro identity for artists like James Porter, because of the recognition of how different African Americans are from Haitians despite similar racial pasts and a shared Negro identity. They found a new sense of pride for being a Negro American through travelling to the country because of their artistic acknowledgement of how different each Afro-diasporic culture is around the world.

 

Bibliography

  • FINLEY, C. Lo’1’s Mailou Jones: Impressions of the South.
  • Laduke, B. (1987). Lois Mailou Jones: The Grande Dame of African-American Art. Woman’s Art Journal8(2), 28-32.
  • Thompson, K. A. (2007). Preoccupied with Haiti. American Art21(3), 74-97.

Song: A Piece of Ground by Miriam Makeba