This month, an exhibition
dedicated to Haitian artists working between the 1940s and 1960s, “Art + Revolution in Haiti,” will be on view at various locations in London. The Gallery of Everything
—an idiosyncratic dealer mounting concurrent presentations at Frieze Masters
, the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, and its permanent gallery space in Marylebone—attempts a fresh look at Haitian painting, which has, until recently, been patronizingly dismissed in mainstream art-world discourse as “primitive” or “naïve.” James Brett, the gallery’s founder, is on a one-man mission to salvage the reputation of Haitian artists, including
, and—possibly the most important of all—
, a Vodou mystic widely regarded as the father of modern Haitian art.
As Brett points out, there are few certainties when it comes to Hyppolite’s biography. “He told many contradictory stories about himself,” he said, “and those stories then became myth.” What we do know is that this visionary was born in 1894 into a family of houngan
, or Vodou priests. He most likely taught himself to paint, beginning his artistic career decorating houses. Nonetheless, there was nothing remotely unworldly about him: Hyppolite was a smart dresser; an intellectual who saw himself as both a “ladies’ man” (Brett’s words) and a conduit for the spirits—what the adherents of
might have referred to as “the unconscious.” Nevertheless, it was only in the 1940s—when American artist DeWitt Peters established the Centre d’Art, a school for painting in Haiti—that Hyppolite came to international recognition.
Peters was instrumental in galvanizing Haitian painting’s success. He invited Hyppolite to join his art school—“as a participant, rather than a pupil,” Brett insisted. Hyppolite’s mediumistic works are extraordinary. Steeped in the culture of Vodou, they depict spiritual ceremonies, deities, and myths. In addition to brushes and, on occasion, his hands, he used rooster feathers as a painting tool—an eccentric decision made not, as is sometimes assumed, on necessity, but as a symbolic choice: In Vodou ritual, the rooster is an animal of great significance.