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Hector Hyppolite

Born, 1894 in Port-au-Prince. Died, 1948

Within the visual arts of the Caribbean, the art of Haiti has achieved a particular importance and is celebrated accordingly. And within the annals of Haitian art, the work of painter Hector Hyppolite has achieved a certain pre-eminence. Richard Powell summarises Hyppolite as follows: “House painter, Vodun priest, and internationally acclaimed, self-taught Haitian painter. In the late 1940s his interpretations of the Vodun pantheon intrigued Surrealist artists and theorists.”

Hyppolite is said to have been born in 1894. Like his father and grandfather before him, Hyppolite was a Houngan, a male priest in the vodun religion of Haiti.  Houngans occupy a special place within vodun, as it is they who are charged with preserving and safeguarding vodun’s religious practices, rituals and other forms of worship. One sympathetic commentator on Haiti and admirer of Hyppolite’s painting described vodun as a “poetic union of Catholic ritual and African animism which is the gentle, pervasive religion of the Haitian peasant.”

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 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, enjoyed relative success, fame and fortune. (1)

The omens for his celebrity were particularly good, as shortly after Hyppolite took up painting, several of his earliest efforts were acquired by illustrious figures. “Wifredo Lam, the Cuban painter, then passing through Port-au-Prince on a tour of the Caribbean with André Breton, high priest of surrealism, bought two. Breton… bought five… to take to Paris.” Powell quotes Breton as describing “Hyppolite’s artistic integrity as “entirely unalloyed, ringing as clearly as virgin metal,” and Hyppolite as the guardian of a universal, all-important secret.” “

For the most part, Hyppolite is discussed firmly within the context of being an exceptional painter within the vein of the self-taught, the primitive, the naïve, the visionary, the folk artist, and so on and so forth.  However, closer inspection of Hyppolite’s work reveals a pronounced and astonishing ability and accomplishment in the wider realms of composition, subject matter, use of materials, colour, and execution. Hyppolite may well have “intrigued Surrealist artists and theorists” such as Breton, but their appreciation was, arguably, of a stilted and limited nature. As Powell argued: “For Hyppolite and the other artists who were neither academy-trained nor a part of the art scene proper, [their] representations of a fantastic world and their innermost visions were more intellectually tangible and functional than Breton and the Surrealists could have ever imagined.”

Brady Roberts’ entry on Hyppolite in the St. James Guide to Black Artists (St James Press/Schomburg Center, 1997) asserted that “… at his best Hyppolite’s bold, simplified forms, embellished with complex decorative patterns and high-keyed yet harmonious color combinations, formed works of powerful and direct spirituality.” Hyppolite was a prolific painter, though he has been somewhat caricatured as a painter of Vodou scenes. Deeper reflection or more stringent research does however reveal a far wider oeuvre, taking in portraiture, still life paintings, scenes of everyday Haitian life, historical narratives, and so on. Within some of these works, clues to Hyppolite’s identity as a Houngan are clearly discernible, but his label as a voodoo painter is a both limited and limiting. Roberts points to the expansive nature of Hyppolite’s work, but quickly draws the reader back to preoccupations with “voodoo imagery”: “The subject matter of Hyppollite’s mature paintings ranges from Christian themes based on chromolithographs to genre scenes, still life paintings, and more overtly recognizable voodoo imagery.”

Despite these formidable obstacles to wider readings and appreciations of Hyppolite’s work, as Selden Rodman noted just before the artist’s death, “Hyppolite today shares with [Philomé] Obin the distinction of being the most celebrated painter in his country’s history.” Writing some half a century later, Roberts concurred. “Hypollite’s spiritual and aesthetically complex yet intuitive paintings have made him a figure of almost legendary stature in Haitian art. he has influenced virtually every subsequent generation of Haitian artists, including important contemporary artists like Edouard Duval-Carrié, as well as contemporary non-Haitian artists such as Alison Saar.”

Setting to one side its occasionally patronising tone, by far the most useful and valuable material on Hyppolite is contained in Rodman’s publication Renaissance in Haiti: Popular Painters in the Black Republic, Pellegrini & Cudahy, New York, 1948. It is from that book that the quotes within this entry are taken, with the exception of the Richard Powell quotes, which come from his Black Art: A Cultural History, Thames & Hudson, 2002 (A reprint of Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century, Thames & Hudson, 1997, and the Brady Roberts quotes, which come from St. James Guide to Black Artists (St James Press/Schomburg Center, 1997)

The following biographical note appeared in the catalogue Artists of the Western Hemisphere | Art of Haiti and Jamaica, Art Gallery, Center for Inter-American Relations, 600 Park Avenue, New York, N.Y., October 10 - 27, 1968

“His fantastic career was cut short when he died of a heart attack in 1948.”

(1) 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 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.

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New York, United States of America