As part of its ongoing investigations into alternative art-makers of the 20th century, The Gallery of Everything invites you to experience Art + Revolution in Haiti.
This immersive, three-venue exhibition will recall the moment in 1945 when Surrealism descended on a former slave colony - and rewrote not just history, but art history.
To illustrate the story, The Gallery of Everything will display rarely-seen period material by artists from le Centre d’Art d’Haïti, alongside original pieces from the personal collection of André Breton, the founder of Surrealism.
Art + Revolution in Haiti will be the first time such an in-depth overview of the movement has ever been held in a commercial context.
Art + Revolution in Haiti will open with an ensemble of period drawings, paintings, sculptures and films at The Gallery of Everything on Chiltern Street. Highlights include an assembly of early cut-outs by the sculptor and metal-worker, Georges Liautaud.
As Frieze Week commences, the project will expand with a solo presentation of large-scale, figurative abstractions by the visionary painter, Robert Saint-Brice. Hosted by the 1-54 African Art Fair in Somerset House, the installation will coincide with a talk on Friday 5th of October on the impact of the movement, the role of Vodou and the legacy of Surrealism on Haiti.
The project will culminate at Frieze Masters with a survey of rare masterpieces by key influencers in the Haitian narrative. Foremost among them, the exceptional Hector Hyppolite - whose visualisations of Vodou spirits were championed by Breton, and who inspired Breton’s infamous collaboration with Marcel Duchamp: Surréalisme en 1947.
On the island of Hispaniola in 1791, a revolution began during a Vodou ceremony. An enslaved people conspired to overthrow their masters. By 1804, Haiti had become the world’s first Black Republic - and the first colony to liberate itself from the terrors of slavery.
In December 1945, the Parisian writer and thinker, André Breton, landed in Haiti for an exhibition by Cuban painter, Wifredo Lam. The founder of Surrealism had been invited to give a series of lectures, which would in turn incite the student intelligentsia to revolution.
He was a welcome invader. Post-Negritude writers in the region looked to Surrealism for inspiration. For literary figures like Aimé Césaire and René Depestre, Breton’s anti-imperialist stance was critical to the conceptualisation of the emerging cultural identity.
Keen to explore the role of myth in society, Breton’s primary interest was to attend Vodou ceremonies on the island. When fellow surrealist and French cultural attaché, Pierre Mabille, encouraged him to visit le Centre d’Art d’Haïti, his position changed dramatically. For here he encountered a dynamic collective of self-taught artists, with practices spread across the country. The work was astonishing, it spoke of a new aesthetic. Best of all, it was fresh.
At its helm, Hector Hyppolite, the painter whose mythological canvases were executed with chicken feathers and spirit guidance. Supporting him were others, no less revelatory: Wilson Bigaud, the diarist of daily life; Castera Bazile, the instinctive devotional portraitist; Préfète Duffaut, the interpreter of sacred dreams; and Philomé Obin, the precise pictorial historian.
It was a visual revolution and its source: le Centre d’Art d’Haïti, the studio-gallery founded by American educator, DeWitt Peters, with local poets and writers. The encounter would prove critical for both trajectories. For Breton it was a new form of Black Surrealism. He acquired five works by Hyppolite and toured them across Europe.
As the movement caught a wave, exhibitions by the unschooled artists sprung up in Paris, Amsterdam, Vienna and Basel, in New York, Los Angeles and Washington DC. Advocates included Cuban critic José Gómez-Sicre and American writer Selden Rodman. Others included writer Truman Capote, existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, filmmaker Maya Deren and curator René d’Harnoncourt - who had already acquired material for the Museum of Modern Art.
As the work entered private and public collections in museums across America and Europe, some saw it as an important African diaspora aesthetic. Others as so-called Popular Art. For a few it was indeed a Black Surrealism; and the connection with Breton seemed to concur.
Yet if the myth of a Black Surrealism is true, then it was born in Haiti long before Breton arrived; for it was located deep within the Vodou imaginary, in that profound and adaptable belief system which had succeeded in breaking the chains of slavery for an entire people.