New Orleans has a secret history that is hidden in plain sight: we are half Haitian. It's true. After Haiti's poorly armed rebels shockingly destroyed Napoleon's army--which spooked him into selling Louisiana--Haitian refugees, including thousands of Free People of Color, literally doubled the size of the city by 1810. It was the biggest gens de couleur libres community in America and helped turn New Orleans into one of the biggest and richest antebellum American cities. Entrepreneurial and savvy, they built much of Marigny, Treme and Bywater, and remained a bastion of African-American progress until segregation began leveling their exemplary legacy in the 1890s. Although this big expo of Haitian paintings is split between the McKenna Museum of African American Art and Le Musee de FPC, and while both are great, the latter is a little known gem that provides a unique context for viewing this visually lush collection assembled by the late Dr. Jean Chenier Brierre.
Haitian art can be fascinating for the way the rich colors and forms found in 20th century French painting seem to arise spontaneously from the magical blend of African, French and Native American traditions that comprise Haitian culture and its indigenous religion, voodoo. Indeed, voodoo-inspired painting comprises the native surrealism seen in works like Edward Brierre's Four Moments of the Sun, top left, a painterly evocation of Papa Legba, the spirit of the crossroads. G.P. Hector's Transaction at Sea Shore, above, suggests a folk art rendering of Haiti's ubiquitous street vendors and small boats, but look closely and it's hard to avoid the impression of a homegrown Raoul Dufy. Eric Girault's Fais dodo titite invokes the original meaning of the phrase --"lullaby"-- while recalling Picasso's blue period. Local Haitian painter Ulrick Jean-Pierre's work explores the mythos that unites local and Haitian culture, but what the best of these works share is a surreality that bypasses theory in favor of a direct channel to the soulful psyche of the Haitian people. ~Bookhardt / The Spirit of Haitian Culture: Art from the Collection of Dr. Jean Chenier Brierre, Through July 17, Le Musee de FPC , 2336 Esplanade Ave., 914-5401
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