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DeWitt Peters

Born, 1901. Died, 1966

At different times during the 20th century, in various parts of Africa and the African Diaspora, white people have claimed, or been given, credit for sponsoring, initiating or cultivating local or native forms of art practice and art appreciation. Within Haitian art, it is white American artist and English teacher DeWitt Peters who has been thus identified. Peters had come to Haiti during the Second World War as one of a number of English teachers recruited by the US government to teach within this predominantly French and Creole-speaking nation. A few years later, having founded in Port-au-Prince (the Haitian capital), the Centre d’Art, Peters recollected asking himself (and presumably others) the question: “why in a country of such hypnotic beauty, with a climate as lucent as Southern Italy’s and a people favored with leisure, is the art of painting particularly moribund? Why, in this haunting city of 150,000, rich in history, literally shimmering with color, is there no single art gallery, no art shop, not even a nook where a painting can be hung for people to see?” If we allow ourselves to pass over the problematic and troubling reference to “a people favored with leisure”, we can detect within this quote clear parallels to Edna Manley’s self-aggrandising assessment of art in the Jamaica she first encountered in the 1920s.

Peters was said to, or claimed to, have discovered famous Haitian artist Hector Hyppolite in 1944, at which time the houngan was apparently eking out a living as a painter of houses and occasionally, furniture (though he was apparently too poor to even afford paint brushes, using instead an improvised brush made of chicken feathers). Having relocated to Port-au-Prince, under the patronage of Peters, Hyppolite established himself as a popular artist and from then until his death just a few years later of a heart attack), enjoyed relative success, fame and fortune.

There are competing claims as to the discovery of Hyppolite. According to Jane Turner’s Encyclopedia of Latin American and Caribbean Art. Macmillan Reference Limited, 2000, pp. 354–355, Hyppolite’s talent as an artist was noticed by another white man, Philippe Thoby-Marcelin, who brought him to Port-au-Prince in 1945. Another white artist, American sculptor Jason Seley is credited (within the Artists of the Western Hemisphere | Art of Haiti and Jamaica catalogue of 1968) with having discovered Haitian painter Jasmin Joseph, in 1948. The same publication also cites Peters as the discoverer of yet another Haitain artist, Georges Liautaud, and cites American painter Alex John as being responsible for starting the practice of Haitian artist Robert St. Brice. Elsewhere in the Caribbean, A man named Bill Ilsen, working for the US Peace Corps, is credited (within the Artists of the Western Hemisphere | Art of Haiti and Jamaica catalogue of 1968) with starting the career of Jamaican artist Benjamin E. Campbell.

DeWitt Peters died in 1966. Two years later, one of his texts appeared in the small unpaginated catalogue for Artists of the Western Hemisphere | Art of Haiti and Jamaica, a group exhibition held at  the Art Gallery, Center for Inter-American Relations, 600 Park Avenue, New York, N.Y., October 10 - 27, 1968, which featured the following Haitian artists: Castera Bazile, Rigaud Benoit, Charlemagne Bien-Aime, Wilson Bigaud. Murat Brierre, Préfète DuffautEnguerrand Jean Gourgue, Hector Hyppolite, Jasmin Joseph, Peterson Laurent, Georges Liautaud, Philomé Obin, Sénèque Obin, Salnave Philippe Auguste, André Pierre, Louverture Poisson, Robert St. Brice, and Micius Stephane. This group of eighteen Haitian artists was supplemented with three Jamaican artists: Benjamin E Campbell, Wilfred Francis, and Kapo (Mallica Reynolds).

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Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1968

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»  Center for Inter-American Relations

New York, United States of America