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Tourism and Connoisseurship in the Collection Histories of Haitian Art in the United States

Summary and Keywords

The Midwestern United States is home to several major public museum collections of Haitian art. These collections were established within a short period between the late 1960s and early 1970s. Similarities between the contents of these collections and their formations point to particular dynamics of visual-art production in Haiti and cross-cultural interactions in which works of Haitian art were collected abroad. This examination of particular collection histories of two Midwestern U.S. museums, both in Iowa, demonstrates shifting cultural narratives that have contributed to generalized definitions of “Haitian Art.” Considering the dearth of Haitian-American communities in the state and its far-flung geography, the fact that so many works by Haitian artists reside in the Midwest may appear to be a curious occurrence. However, these collections arose from individual bequests from local collectors who began acquiring Haitian art during the second “Golden Age” of Haitian tourism in the 1960s and 1970s. North American travelers who visited Haiti at this time sustained a market for Haiti’s artists and helped maintain international interest in Haitian visual culture. The common characteristics of these two collections—in the cities of Davenport and Waterloo—and the history of their development speak volumes about cultural intersections between Haiti and the United States, especially in relation to the effects of tourism and international travel on the production, circulation, and reception of Haitian art. More broadly, these histories exemplify wide-ranging shifts in North–South relations in the late 20th century.

In the United States, Iowa is home to two of the largest public collections of Haitian art in the country, one in Davenport at the Figge Museum of Art and the other about 130 miles away in Waterloo at the Waterloo Center for the Arts. Considering both distance and regional context, the Midwest’s relationship to Haitian art may seem incongruous. Almost 2,000 miles separate Haiti from the region, and the largest enclaves of the Haitian diaspora reside in major urban centers like Miami, New York, Boston, Montreal, and Chicago. Additionally, stereotypes of the region as provincial and culturally unsophisticated accompany the Midwest’s reputation and add to the intrigue surrounding the seemingly uncharacteristic presence of Haitian art in regional museums. In order to better understand such seemingly random cultural linkages between Haiti and Iowa, we must examine the routes and circuits through which art objects in these collections have traveled, the individuals who facilitated such movements, and the distances, both physical and conceptual, between artists’ studios in Haiti and museum context in the American Midwest.

For audiences in the United States, the word “Haiti” often accompanies news headlines focusing on one of the country’s many crises: political instability, mass migration, natural disaster, poverty. The focus on Haiti’s many challenges of the past decades obscures the fact that in several key periods in the 20th century the country attracted a steady stream of “First World” visitors. With Haiti only a short plane ride away from the United States, travelers were drawn not only to Haiti’s tropical climate and the many upscale hotel accommodations of the time, but also to the country’s cultural offerings, which included a thriving environment of visual art production. A cottage industry producing paintings, sculptures, and handicrafts greeted tourists, journalists, academics, researchers, and other visitors. Some of these souvenir-ready items could be easily dismissed as cheap, mass-produced “tourist art,” but a great many of them reflected an originality and creative quality that emerged within the supportive context of the “Haitian Renaissance.” Haitian visual arts struck many of these art-buying travelers to such a degree that they would make many return visits to Haiti, amassing enough work that would eventually make up collections of art back in the United States. The cross-cultural interactions of these traveling collectors can be framed through a study of the art objects they collected and their interactions with Haitian artists and arts institutions. Focusing on individual case studies reveals broader trends in the international reception of Haitian art and how collections in Iowa and elsewhere were established.

Beginning in Davenport, whose Figge Museum of Art is the earliest established public and permanent collection of Haitian art in the United States, this examination of collection histories will shed light on how global, regional, and individual contexts and circumstances contributed to Haitian art’s presence in Iowa and its reception abroad. In addition, these collection histories highlight connections among collectors, artists, and other active participants in the circulation of Haitian in the period of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The second example considers the origins and development of the Waterloo Center for the Arts’ Haitian collection and demonstrates one institution’s efforts to connect Haitian art objects with local audiences. Both case studies also underscore histories of engagement between the United States and Haiti, as well as issues that museums have grappled with concerning their Haitian art collections and the shifting circumstances of art production in Haiti.

Keywords: Haiti, Haitian art, Haitian history, museum studies, tourism studies, Kreyòl Art

Le Centre d’Art and the Development of the Haitian Art Market

The opening of Le Centre d’Art (Art Center) in 1944 in downtown Port-au-Prince filled the void of local arts institutions in Haiti and also sparked the beginning of what became known as the “Haitian Renaissance.” The center served as artists’ studio, exhibition space, and gallery. Artists from all social strata mingled and learned from one another while taking classes taught by the U.S. American founding member and director, DeWitt Peters, and other visiting artists. It also acted as a gallery where visiting clientele could purchase works by affiliated artists. The institution was founded by a group of Haitian intellectuals, including artists and writers, under the leadership of DeWitt Peters, a primary motivating force in realizing the project. Peters receives the bulk of the credit in the Centre d’Art’s establishment, but it was a collaborative effort that included Gerald Bloncourt, Maurice Borno, Raymond Coupeau, Albert Mangones, James Petersen, and Geo Remponeau—Haitian cognoscenti active in an emerging cultural movement centered around articulating a Haitian national and cultural discourse in the wake of the U.S. occupation in the earlier part of the century.1 Peters, a watercolorist by training, first came to Haiti in 1943 as part of a Good Neighbor program, working as a teacher at a local lycée. He soon withdrew in order to fully devote himself to opening a local arts center after observing the dearth of arts institutions in the country.2 The U.S. State Department, seeing Peters’s cultural efforts align with the broader diplomatic mission of Good Neighbor Policy, gave its blessing to the Centre d’Art and, alongside contributions from the Haitian government, helped fund the institution in its early years.3 Within the history of Haitian visual culture, the Centre d’Art’s most important contribution may have been the establishment of an art market in Haiti, one that specialized in promoting and circulating specifically “Haitian” styles of art. Such a designation implies a homogeneous national expression in which certain works of art fit within its parameters while others were excluded. “Haitian Art” remains a contested term for a variety of political, social, and cultural reasons, but for international collectors, it signified certain characteristics: brightly painted colors, themes related to Vodou and other religious traditions, and techniques that invited the use of other problematic terms, such as “untrained,” and “spontaneous.” Not only were foreign collectors drawn to this particular style of art, but their roles as consumers in the marketplace helped codify what constituted “Haitian Art.”

During its first decade and a half, many artists associated with the Centre d’Art experienced a rapid rise in fame, especially those whose work was often labeled “primitive,” “popular,” or “naïve”—contested labels that suggest an artist’s level of familiarity and experience working with dominant aesthetic modes and, crucially, their economic status as members of Haiti’s “peasant majority.” Furthermore, those labels established a wedge between “naïve” artists and those who were academically trained and familiar with contemporary, international art trends (the latter group often hailed from middle and upper class social contexts). The term “Kreyól,” while not a perfect alternative, is a more accurate descriptor of this group of artists’ work. “Kreyòl” avoids more negative connotations regarding class, social status, economics, and education levels as suggested by those other terms by grouping such artists according to their primary language, Haitian Kreyòl.4

Often, Kreyòl painters and sculptors were praised for work that seemed to the eyes of fascinated European and American audiences as “untainted” by the culture of industrial capitalism. Promoters of Haitian artists viewed the prevailing aesthetic trends in Europe and the United States (ones that moved away from academic modes of naturalistic representation toward abstraction and a focus on materials) as cold and joyless, lacking a certain humanistic element.5 The work of Kreyòl artists provided a vivid antidote to this conception. The artists made famous through the Centre d’Art were known for bright, unmixed colors that employed subject matter spanning pastoral, tropical landscapes to quotidian genre scenes, to pictures that included the image vocabularies and motifs of Vodou, the syncretic religious system practiced in Haiti that combines and intertwines visual source material from Africa, Catholicism, global pop culture, and a range of other sources. According to certain assessments, such art reflected a certain untainted “joy,” an alloyed expression of an artist’s inner creative impulses.6

Not every artist affiliated with the Centre d’Art worked in this mode, but foreign critics and collectors favored the work of Kreyòl artists. Initially, DeWitt Peters preferred to work with academically trained artists, or those with some level of familiarity with Western aesthetic traditions. Encouraged by visiting Cuban curator Jose Gómez-Sicre, however, Peters soon turned his focus to the increasing numbers of autodidactic painters and sculptors drawn to the Centre d’Art.7 The “discovery” of these artists and the attention their work was receiving from visiting clientele led to a split in which academic artists left in protest of what they perceived as exploitation of the Kreyòl artists. According to writer and early Centre d’Art collaborator Philippe Thoby-Marcellin, the splinter group perceived the center’s directors as wishing to keep the Kreyòl artists “primitive,” isolated from contemporary international art trends.8 When DeWitt Peters stated that he wanted artists to “paint like themselves,” many interpreted that as a statement confirming Thoby-Marcellin’s assertion, and that the Centre d’Art’s leadership viewed outside influences as potentially corruptive.9 Whatever the case, Kreyòl artists make up the bulk of most collections outside of Haiti, including those in Iowa—a testament to this group’s popularity and enduring appeal among foreign collectors.

Two of the most celebrated and successful contemporary Haitian artists, Philomé Obin and Hector Hyppolite, belong to the Centre d’Art’s group of Kreyòl artists. Although these two are lumped together in conversations, their approaches to painting are strikingly different. Obin was one of the first Kreyòl artists to work with the Centre d’Art, and it was his work that spurred Gòmez-Sicre’s advocacy for non–academically trained Haitian artists.10 Among his repertoire of subject matter, Obin painted genre scenes set in and around the northern Haitian city of Cap Haïtien—carnival celebrations, funerals, family portraits, and the like. He also depicted particular events in Haitian history that draw the viewer into an exact time and place, fastidiously articulated by his orderly brushwork and delicately arranged composition. Obin’s paintings almost feel like dioramas through his equal devotion to detailing a place and the characters within it. Obin accounts for all necessary narrative elements in his paintings, making deliberately readable scenes for his viewers. As he stated to Peters in a letter, he wished to be Haiti’s visual historian.11

In Obin’s iconic U.S. Marines Versus the Guerillas (1954), now in the Figge’s collection, the artist depicts a pitched battle set in the early years of the U.S. occupation of Haiti (1915–1934). Obin himself was from Cap Haitïen, the largest city in the northern region, a geographical nexus for Haitian national pride stretching back to the uprisings of enslaved peoples that sparked the revolution. In U.S. Marines, he includes the Citadel La Ferriere, built in the northern mountains after independence to repel invading forces, in the far distance of the painting. Despite its tiny size within the picture plane, the artist’s inclusion of the fortress serves a dual purpose for the narrative: it locates the scene and serves as a metaphor for the history of Haitian resistance against foreign subjugation. The Haitian guerillas, called cacos, suffered eventual defeat at the hands of the marines, but the rebels and their leaders achieved posthumous status as folk heroes, included in a long lineage of characters who died fighting for Haitian sovereignty, according to national lore. The occupation years provided subject matter for some of Obin’s most well-known works, and he likely witnessed many of them as a young man. The version of the painting seen in the Figge’s collection is one of three made over a seven- or eight-year period, with versions commissioned at the request of individual collectors. The scene’s multiplicity indicates the popularity of both the painter and this particular work, and its inclusion in the Figge’s collection is testament to the strength of that museum’s collection. While the market for Haitian art has largely dropped off from its peak in the early 1980s, auction prices for Obin’s work remain consistently high.

Philome Obin lived to be an old man. He died in 1986 having produced a large body of work and with a host of family members who followed his example as a painter. Hector Hyppolite, Obin’s contemporary, had a much shorter career and life, which has reinforced the pervasive mythos behind this artist. Hyppolite employed a more expressive, painterly technique than Obin’s, without the same attention to (or perhaps regard for) pictorial depth or compositional clarity. Before joining the ranks of the Centre d’Art, Hyppolite found sporadic work as a journeyman decorative painter, adorning houses and signs. He was also a practitioner of Vodou and an oungan, or priest.12 Once the Centre d’Art opened, creating opportunity for artists like him, Hyppolite began to make his paintings on two-dimensional media and, as a consequence of sales, was able to live solely off his work as an artist for the first time.

Visitors to the Centre d’Art during his life were drawn to his depictions of historical figures and Vodou lwa, or spirits. He quickly became the most famous artist to come out of Haiti in this period, and his work retains a paramount reputation. Hyppolite’s most prominent early proponent was Andre Breton, the poet and leading figure in French surrealism, who visited Port-au-Prince in late 1945 on a visit with the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam. In his book, Surrealism and Painting, Breton recalled first seeing Hyppolite’s work at the Centre d’Art: “The picture which brought me to a halt as I was walking past pervaded through me as though it were the first exhilarating breath of spring. Even before I had become conscious of its subject matter it struck me immediately as possessing the pure gift of happiness.”13 Breton left Haiti with five of Hyppolite’s paintings, underscoring his interest in the work.14 He also organized a UNESCO exhibition in Paris that brought the work of Hyppolite and other Haitian artists to the attention of European audiences. With that exhibition, and Breton’s endorsement, Haitian art was introduced to global viewers and the international art market, thus cementing the term “Haitian Art” as a category.

Breton’s history with Haiti serves as the model for how those who came after him engaged with Haitian art and culture. He played variety of roles. Through his writings as a critic, he argued the validity of Haitian artists by discussing their work within the framework of surrealism. As a curator, he brought the work of Haitian artists into a familiar context of exhibition and display for European audiences. And, finally, as a collector, his acquisition of works of Haitian art likely elevated its status for many outside of Haiti. This is not to suggest that later collectors conscientiously imitated Breton and his actions, but that subsequent enthusiasts of Haitian art also had multivalent engagements with Haitian art, and used similarly effusive and doting language in describing their feelings for it.

In his book, Where Art Is Joy—Haitian Art: The First Forty Years, Selden Rodman, a one-time codirector of the Centre d’Art and widely published author on the subject of Haitian art, offers an especially resonant anecdote of a collector whose praise of Haitian artists reflects Breton’s.15 In 1973, Rodman had been taking Richard and Erna Flagg around Haiti to build their collection of Haitian art (which they would later donate to the Milwaukee Art Museum—another interesting example of the Midwest–Haiti connection, which is beyond the scope of this presentation but deserves further discussion itself). On the porch of the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince, Rodman recounts,

An American tourist came up to our table and asked Flagg how he could be happy in a country where so many people were so miserable. Flagg was outraged. “Miserable?” he exclaimed. “I find people in the richest country in the world truly miserable – unhappy to find no satisfaction at all in the material things money can buy; hating themselves and even their country; aimless and bored. Here in Haiti, by contrast, I find even the poorest citizen happy with the little he has, capable of laughing at the foibles of the rich and at himself, filled with joie de vivre as we in the West no longer are. And all of this is reflected triumphantly in their art.”16

Un-coincidentally, for Flagg, the joie de vivre he perceives in the Haitian people manifests itself in the work of Kreyòl artists. The experience of visiting Haiti was inextricably linked to the positive feelings collectors developed regarding Haitian art. Much of this goodwill, for which Flagg’s statement is representative, stems from Haiti’s status as the consummate “other”—the diametric opposite of capitalist, industrial culture in the United States. This state of opposition helped fuel international tourist travel to Haiti.

The Figge Art Museum

The Figge Art Museum, which resides on the banks of the Mississippi River in downtown Davenport, opened as the Davenport Municipal Art Gallery in 1925. In 1987, it changed its name to the Davenport Art Museum, and, finally, in 2005, after receiving a multi-million-dollar gift for an expansive new building designed by David Chipperfield, it became known as the Figge Art Museum, named after a local banker whose bequest helped finance the construction. In addition to its Haitian works, the museum has a Midwest collection centered on artist Grant Wood, and a collection of Mexican colonial works.

The origin of the Figge’s Haitian art collection dates back to one local man’s trip to the Caribbean. In the winter of 1961, Dr. Walter E. Neiswanger, a pathologist from Davenport, embarked on an ocean cruise. The itinerary included stops in Trinidad, Martinique, St. Thomas, and Haiti. Once the cruise liner reached Haiti, Dr. Neiswanger visited the Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince, which served as a main downtown attraction for visitors to Haiti at this time. There he met DeWitt Peters and recognized the work of Fernand Pierre, an artist whose work he had seen earlier in Martinique. Neiswanger decided to buy two of Pierre’s paintings, which marked the doctor’s first encounter with Haitian art and commenced his status as an art collector.17 By the time of Dr. Neiswanger’s visit, the Centre d’Art had been open for almost fifteen years.

The Haitian arts scene had been bustling since the success of earlier artists like Hyppolite and Obin. The streams of travelers arriving in Port-au-Prince fueled the art scene and provided the means for a livelihood for a generation of Haitian artists. Tourists like Dr. Neiswanger were crucial participants in the Haitian art market. After World War II, Haiti became a posh destination for tourists who were, in turns, sophisticated, well educated, literary minded, and self-styled as adventurous for seeking out such an exotic locale. These travelers ushered in Haiti’s first “Golden Age” of tourism, which lasted roughly between the years 1944 and 1959.18 The Centre d’Art had served as an introductory access point for tourists experiencing Haitian culture, but by the early 1960s, when Dr. Neiswanger visited the country, Haiti’s political situation was becoming increasingly tenuous. President Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier was in his fourth year of power and growing more brazen in his violent crackdowns against opposition as he consolidated his democratically elected presidency into an autocracy. As a result, tourism was starting to dwindle, although in 1961, cruise ships like Dr. Neiswanger’s still arrived in the Port-au-Prince harbor with some regularity.

It would take a few more years before Dr. Neiswanger’s trip translated to the Davenport’s collection, the first in the United States. Haiti, meanwhile, experienced the most extreme brutality of the Duvalier presidency in the late 1960s. As a consequence, the tourist numbers cratered, which had a deleterious effect on Haitian artists, galleries, and the Centre d’Art itself, which by 1967 was on the verge of bankruptcy. In Iowa in 1967, after receiving a mailed catalogue from a dealer of Haitian art in New York, Dr. Neiswanger began to stoke interest among the board members and directors of the Davenport Art Gallery to acquire Haitian art for their permanent collection. Dr. Neiswanger himself was a trustee and patron of the museum. Eventually, word reached Haiti and the Centre d’Art of the museum’s interest in expanding its collection.19 Lawrence Peabody, a wealthy American designer living in Haiti who served as the Centre d’Art’s vice president, made the journey to Davenport to give a slide presentation on available works from the center’s artists. Neiswanger subsequently bought many of the works from the presentation and gave nineteen to the Davenport Art Gallery to establish the first permanent and public collection of Haitian art in the United States.20 In January of 1969, the Davenport (later renamed the Figge Art Museum) opened its first exhibition of Haitian art, attended by the mayor of Davenport, Dr. Neiswanger, and Francine Murat, who replaced DeWitt Peters as director of the Centre d’Art after his death in 1966. This exhibition commemorated the beginning of a decades-long long collaboration between Davenport and the Centre d’Art.

In a publication released in 1985 chronicling the museum’s productive years of working in Haitian visual culture, Larry Hoffman, the museum’s then director since 1971, addressed the implications of certain terms associated with Haitian art, including “primitive,” and “popular,” which he and Francine Murat considered problematic. Instead, Hoffman settles on the term “naïve” as a descriptor, justifying such a label by writing,

Naïve art, like all art, is a reflection of a culture, a place, and a time. Unlike trained artists, most naïve artists have little interest in formal art values or the literature of art from an historical point of view. They are concerned with individual expressions that communicate their message through specific subject matter drawn from their immediate environment.21

Such expressions, in Hoffman’s assertion, are the result of an innate, spontaneous source of creativity; however, the resulting art objects are not divorced from everyday realities and conditions. While a term like “naïve” may be inadequate or disagreeable in contemporary parlance, it served as a way of categorizing the majority of Haitian art in the collections of North Americans like Dr. Neiswanger. Part of the attraction for such collectors also motivated their travels as tourists in the first place. Collecting and tourism are mutually intertwined activities that, according to theorists on the subject, involve a search for authenticity within the realm of the “other,” however constructed or invented the latter may be.22 That Haitian art seemed so defiantly removed from art historical traditions in the “West” only undergirded its appeal.

Larry Hoffman, the Davenport’s director, fostered a rich and continuing relationship with Francine Murat, the Centre d’Art’s director from 1968 until her death in 2010. A culture of exchange and mutual benefit was established where Haitian artists would accompany their work to Iowa, as part of group exhibitions. In turn, museum delegations would come to Haiti to acquire new art, visit artists’ studios, and work on long-term projects with the Centre d’Art, including assisting in the organization’s relocation to a new building after an eviction from the original site in 1979. Through its relationship with the Centre d’Art, the Figge continued to expand its collection far beyond Dr. Neiswanger’s initial gift, building a significant amount of works by major Haitian artists at various stages in their careers.

Waterloo Center for the Arts

About 130 miles separate Davenport and Waterloo, Iowa. While the Figge is the oldest public Haitian collection in the United States, the Waterloo Center for the Arts (WCA), formerly known as the Waterloo Municipal Galleries, lays claim to having the largest with over 1,100 works by Haitian artists. Like the Figge’s collection, the WCA’s began as the result of one collection. Harold Reuling, an optometrist from Waterloo, and his wife, Peg, traveled to Haiti in the early 1970s, about a decade after Dr. Neiswanger took his cruise. According to their daughter, the Reulings preferred to engage deeply with local culture as much as possible during their travels, meeting people in areas outside the curated confines of hotels and resorts. The two were no strangers to far-flung locales and, in addition to their travels to Haiti, made frequent trips to Southeast Asia and North Africa in their lifetimes. The Reulings’ approach to travel corresponds with sociologist Erik Cohen’s conception of “experiential tourists,” who are described as “fascinated by difference, like to get close to others, and like to immerse themselves in different environments.”23 These characteristics also could apply to other collectors of Haitian art, like Dr. Neiswanger, who experience Haitian culture aesthetically and are keenly aware of its “authenticity,” which is often derived through its “otherness” in comparison to the collector’s home culture.24

While the Reulings may have taken a more “adventurous” approach when traveling abroad, forsaking such conveniences as provided in a cruise package, the atmosphere encountered by tourists visiting Haiti in the early 1970s was markedly less tenuous than the one encountered by Dr. Neiswanger in 1961. Papa Doc Duvalier died in 1971 and left the presidency to his nineteen-year-old son, Jean-Claude, whom the press labeled “Baby Doc.” Despite maintaining the structure of his father’s autocracy, he sought to repair Haiti’s image abroad after the brutal political oppression and resulting diplomatic isolation of the 1960s. The bulk of this program, dubbed Jeanclaudeisme, involved marketing Haiti’s large pool of cheap labor to foreign manufacturing and light industry corporations.25 Another goal was to revive the tourism industry. Indeed, Baby Doc was relatively successful in these efforts if, however, they were largely cosmetic concerning everyday life for Haitians. Additionally, it should be noted that any economic windfalls provided by foreign industry and tourism largely went into the pockets of the Duvaliers and a handful of allies, and did not trickle down to the majority of Haitians.26 Nonetheless, Haiti’s improved reputation abroad in the 1970s attracted far greater numbers of foreign visitors than those seen in the 1940s and 1950s. For example, in 1976, four years after Baby Doc came to power, the country welcomed about 86,000 foreign visitors, a majority of whom were from the United States. In contrast, approximately 10,000 tourists came to Haiti in 1956.27 Such a dramatic increase in tourist numbers earned the 1970s the nickname “Second Golden Age” of tourism in Haiti. As a consequence, the Haitian art market peaked in this period as the number of foreign visitors correlated directly with art sales. When the Reulings arrived in the early part of the decade, the circumstances facilitated their foray into collecting Haitian art.

As their daughter Polly recalls, the Reulings fell in love with Haiti on that initial trip. To commemorate their visit, they bought their first works of Haitian art. Through frequent, subsequent visits to the Haiti, their art holdings grew, and, as a result, they began to consider how they might share their collection with the broader Waterloo community.28 The couple made their initial gift of about seventeen paintings and cut metal sculptures to what was then known as the Waterloo Municipal Galleries in 1977.29 Many of the paintings in the original gift are verdant, pastoral landscapes, featuring peasants working the fields or carrying goods on their heads. Two works, by Alexandre Gregoire and Yves Michel, represent the Garden of Eden itself. Another work typifies the style and subject matter of the School of Cap Haitien that arose in the wake of Philomé Obin’s success. The painting, by Rony Léonidas, shows a bustling market scene in which the artist carefully depicts individual details, despite the crowded composition. The most successful and recognizable artist from this original gift was George Liautaud, who became famous for his metal works made from reused materials like oil drums and railroad ties. While modest in comparison to the Davenport’s Haitian collection, which boasted the names of some of the most important Haitian artists at the time, Waterloo would build upon the Reuling’s original gift, resulting in its present, active relationship with Haitian visual art. Consequently, Waterloo, Iowa’s fifth largest city, became home to one of the country’s most significant Haitian art collections.

Waterloo is located on the Cedar River in the middle of the state. Considerably more working class than its wealthy neighbor, Cedar Falls, Waterloo is also one of the most diverse cities in the state, with African Americans composing almost 20 percent of the city’s population in 2010.30 Class and racial issues between Waterloo and Cedar Falls have resulted in a sort of rivalry between the two cities, which is also reflected in their respective major sources of employment: the John Deere Corporation factories in Waterloo, and the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. While Waterloo suffered heavily in the late 1970s and early 1980s as John Deere closed several of its plants and manufacturing began to leave the country more generally, Cedar Falls maintained relative affluence.

These disparities between the two cities were not lost on the Reulings. With their gift of Haitian art to the WCA, the couple strove for community engagement, hoping to both increase Waterloo’s cultural offerings and, more specifically, build a program that resonated with the city’s African American residents.31 In collaboration with the WCA’s then-director Clarence Alling, the Reulings recognized that the Haitian collection could appeal to the city’s disenfranchised black community through a shared cultural heritage with Haitian artists.32 The Reulings also intended for their bequest to stimulate and inspire local artists, reflecting the extent of the couple’s community engagement.

Why Iowa?

One way to interpret Iowa’s status as home to two major public collections of Haitian art is to analyze collectors like Dr. Neiswanger and the Reulings as nodes within a circuit of what sociologist Mimi Sheller calls “complex mobilities,” consisting of people, consumer goods, technologies, images, and texts that circulate within a globalized network.33 The production and circulation of Haitian art in the 20th century illustrates how this idea works. Tourists and travelers like the Reulings form an important component to these mobilities. Through their travels, they bring art objects and other cultural ephemera back home, which in turn communicates an array of messages over long distances between Haiti and Iowa. The types of messages transferred are determined through an exchange between an artist and a collector, with the latter being in a more powerful position. Thus, collections of Haitian art in Davenport and Waterloo (and any art collection, for that matter) are less expressions of a distinct “Haitian” character than manifestations of a collector’s tastes and attitudes given form in individual art objects. The path through which Iowa’s Haitian art traveled also resulted from favorable global conditions that facilitated the movement of people via tourism. As air travel increased in the 1970s, U.S. Americans more frequently engaged with foreign cultures. Travelers like the Reulings might find themselves in a country like Haiti for no other reason than its conveniently close distance and warm-weather appeal. And, as residents from smaller North American communities began to engage more with ideas and cultures from other countries, regional cultural institutions like the Figge and WCA began exploring the world outside the confines of the Midwest.

Because Haitian art was relatively affordable, and with local patrons acting as cultural ambassadors, of sorts, small municipalities with monetary limitations like Davenport and Waterloo could amass significant collections of art that did not exhaust their acquisition budgets. Yet, residing within these factors is how Haitian art appealed to collectors. Collectors often valued work by Haitian artists whose work was routinely labeled “primitive” or “naïve.” As such, their art was valued for several reasons: its difference, the artists’ perceived detachment from aesthetic movements and trends arbitrated in New York and Paris, and as evidence of the belief that creative potential could be found in every person, regardless of life circumstances, language, culture, society, skin color, and so on.


The productive, direct collaboration between the Centre d’Art and the Figge began to dwindle over time—death, leadership changes, political shifts, natural disasters, changing currents in the art world—all taxed the strength of the bonds between the two institutions.34 Dr. Neiswanger died in 2007. He was in his mid-80s and had been continuously involved in many philanthropic activities, as well as continuing his leadership role with the museum, even after its name changed to the Figge. The museum still prominently displays works of Haitian art in its galleries, but with shifts in museum practices and the overall decline of the Haitian art market, the museum is now faced with how it engages with Haitian art and what are the best practices for displaying its existing collection. One solution has been to travel their collection to venues across the United States. But whether the Figge’s new leadership will rekindle collaborations in Haiti is uncertain. Perhaps, such a relationship may remain a facet of the past.

For its part, the WCA continues its relationship with Haitian art by bringing in new works. The museum accepts gifts from private collections and acquisitions works directly. Like the Figge, the WCA has a permanent, rotating gallery of Haitian art. The WCA, however, has a more contemporary representation of work by artists today, including mixed-media sculptures and a large collection of sequined Vodou flags, or drapo.

In general terms, the market for Haitian art peaked somewhere between the late 1970s and early 1980s and has been in a slow, steady decline ever since. One reason is that tourism suffered several blows in the 1980s, first when Haitians were erroneously labeled as primary carriers of the AIDS virus, and then again with the political violence in the wake of Baby Doc’s resignation and departure, which left a power vacuum in the country.35 Additionally, the economy collapsed when foreign investment fled the country and then when the United States enforced an embargo on Haiti after the Haitian military ousted democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. News reports of Haitian “boat people” trying to reach the shores of Florida or the Bahamas in overcrowded vessels became a common occurrence. Thus, headlines that reiterated Haiti’s status as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere became ever-larger parts of the complex mobilities that informed the production, sale, and circulation of Haitian art. The continuation of crisis and the perceptions of such in the United States reshaped the touristic constituencies to Haiti. Aid workers, missionaries, and workers for non-governmental organizations replaced travelers like Neiswanger and the Reulings. With fewer devoted collectors, auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s stopped having sales of Haitian art.

Despite market changes, new generations of Haitian artists continue to make work. The Centre d’Art has recently been rebuilt and reopened. While the Figge is not as actively involved in contemporary Haitian art, they have many strong examples of mid-century works, making it one of the most important collections of Haitian art in the United States, if not the world. The WCA continues to find ways to grow their already-sizable Haitian collection, while adapting programming that resonates with Waterloo residents. The existence of these two collections and their presence in Iowa are testament to a historical moment when a confluence of factors connected Haitian culture to the U.S. interior. A study of these collection histories reveals stories beyond the surface of the objects therein and points to how people, objects, and ideas move and circulate around the world.

Discussion of the Literature

Several texts provide a historical perspective on the Centre d’Art’s early years and its contribution to the so-called Haitian Renaissance. Eleanor Ingalls Christensen’s The Art of Haiti (1975) includes many details about the circumstances that led to the foundation of the Centre d’Art, as well as information on concurrent intellectual movements and the roles of other contributors besides DeWitt Peters. Her book also briefly examines the scope of Haitian creative culture before DeWitt Peters arrived. In 1978, curator Ute Stebich organized a major retrospective of Haitian art at the Brooklyn Museum. The accompanying text, Haitian Art (1978), includes several essays by Haitian and US American contributors examining major themes and motifs in Haitian art, as well as their cultural antecedents.

Michel-Philippe Lerebours, a Haitian art historian and director of the Musée d’Art in Port-au-Prince, wrote the meticulously researched, two-volume Haiti et ses peintres: de 1804 à 1980: souffrances et espoirs d’un people (1989), which remains the most comprehensive resource on Haiti art history. The book’s relatively small print run, and the fact that it is published only in French, has limited its exposure to English-speaking scholars of Haitian art, yet his work remains a foremost resource for its scope and content. Former director of Haiti’s Musée d’Art, Gerald Alexis, published the extensive volume Peintres haitiennes (2001) in both English and French. Alexis includes a wealth of biographical information on individual painters and creative movements in Haiti, as well as numerous color reproductions. Like Lerebours, Alexis extends the scope of his research beyond just Kreyòl artists and examines the diverse range of approaches, styles, and techniques employed by Haitian painters.

Selden Rodman, the codirector of the center in the late 1940s and a major proponent of Haiti’s Kreyòl artists, wrote several prominent texts on Haitian art. The earliest, Renaissance in Haiti: Popular Painters in the Black Republic (1948), was soon followed by a travel guide, Haiti: The Black Republic (1954). The Miracle of Haitian Art (1974) was required reading for many of the collectors who traveled to Haiti during the Second Golden Age of tourism. His final work, Where Art is Joy: Haitian Art: The First Forty Years (1988), has the broadest historical outlook and is perhaps the most thorough of his writings on the subject.

Other authors have found problems with Rodman’s method and language and have offered more nuanced interpretations of Haitian art history. Karen E. Richman’s article, “Innocent Imitations? Authenticity and Mimesis in Haitian Vodou Art, Tourism, and Anthropology” (2008), offers a pointed critique on prevalent art-historical scholarship and is particularly questioning of Rodman’s writing. More recently, Luis M. Castañeda’s essay, “Island Culture Wars: Selden Rodman” (2014), provides a circumspect examination of Rodman, Peters, and the role of U.S. foreign diplomacy in the development of mid-20th-century Haitian art.

Some of the strongest work on Haitian visual culture falls outside of the discipline of art history. The Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou (1995), the publication resulting from the museum exhibition of the same name at the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, exhaustively covers the scope Haitian art through the writings of scholars across many disciplines. “Imagine Heaven,” the lead essay by Donald E. Cosentino, the volume’s editor and head curator of the exhibition, provides an extensive overview of how the spiritual/religious practice of Vodou informs the creative output of many Haitian visual artists. Numerous texts have resulted from subsequent exhibitions at the Fowler and have added to the scholarship on Haitian art, including “Saluting Vodou Spirits: Haitian Flags from the Fowler Collection” (2004), “Divine Revolution: The Art of Edouard Duval-Carrié” (2004), and “In Extremis: Death and Life in 21st Century Haiti” (2012), a follow-up to the “Sacred Arts” exhibition.


Primary Sources

The collections of Haitian art discussed in this essay can be found at the Figge Art Museum, Davenport, Iowa; and the Waterloo Center for the Arts, Waterloo, Iowa. Other major, public collections of Haitian art in the United States are in the Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; the Selden Rodman Gallery for Popular Arts at the Berrie Center for Performing and Visual Arts, Ramapo College, Mahwah, New Jersey; Fowler Museum at UCLA, Los Angeles, California.

The Centre d’Art has recently restored and reorganized its archival materials after the devastating 2010 earthquake. These resources are available to visiting scholars at Le Centre d’Art d’Haiti in Port-au-Prince. They also have an extensive collection of paintings and sculptures by artists who have worked with the institution over the years. La Musée d’Art d’Haiti in Port-au-Prince also has an important collection of paintings and sculptures, although the institution’s directors are still in the process of rebuilding the facilities and preserving the collection after the damage caused by the earthquake.

Haitian/Caribbean Art Collection Waterloo Center for the Arts, Waterloo, Iowa.

Haitian Collection Figge Art Museum, Davenport, Iowa.

The Richard and Erna Flagg Collection of Haitian Art Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Kafou: Haiti, Art, and Vodou—Director’s Tour Video of Nottingham Contemporary’s former director, Alex Farquharson, discussing major works of Haitian art included in the exhibition, Kafou: Haiti, Art, and Vodou (2012).

Further Reading

Alexis, Gérald. Peintres Haitiens. 1st ed. Paris: Éditions Cercle d’Art, 2000.Find this resource:

    Benson, LeGrace. “Kiskeya-Lan Guinee-Eden: The Utopian Vision in Haitian Painting.” Callaloo 15.3 (July 1, 1992): 726–734.Find this resource:

      Breton, André. Surrealism and Painting. 1st ed. New York: D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2002.Find this resource:

        Diederich, Bernard. Bon Papa: Haiti’s Golden Years. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2008.Find this resource:

          Castañeda, Luis M. “Island Culture Wars: Selden Rodman and Haiti.” Art Journal 73.3 (July 3, 2014): 56–69.Find this resource:

            Christensen, Eleanor Ingalls. The Art of Haiti. Philadelphia: Art Alliance Press, 1975.Find this resource:

              Cosentino, Donald J., ed. Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1995.Find this resource:

                Cosentino, Donald J. In Extremis: Death and Life in 21st-Century Haitian Art. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum at UCLA, 2012.Find this resource:

                  Hoffman, L. G., and Davenport Municipal Art Gallery. Haitian Art: The Legend and Legacy of the Naïve Tradition. Davenport, IA: Beaux Arts Fund Committee, 1985.Find this resource:

                    Lerebours, Michel-Philippe. Haïti et ses peintres: de 1804 à 1980 : souffrances et espoirs d’un people. Port-au-Prince, Haïti: Imprimeur II, 1989.Find this resource:

                      Plummer, Brenda Gayle. “The Golden Age of Haitian Tourism: U.S. Influence in Haitian Cultural and Economic Affairs, 1934–1971.” Cimarron 2 (Winter 1990): 49–63.Find this resource:

                        Polk, Patrick Arthur. Haitian Vodou Flags. Folk Art and Artists. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997.Find this resource:

                          Poupeye, Veerle. Caribbean Art. World of Art. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998.Find this resource:

                            Richman, Karen E. “Innocent Imitations? Authenticity and Mimesis in Haitian Vodou Art, Tourism, and Anthropology.” Ethnohistory 55.2 (March 20, 2008): 203–227.Find this resource:

                              Rodman, Selden. Renaissance in Haiti; Popular Painters in the Black Republic. New York: Pellegrini & Cudahy, 1948.Find this resource:

                                Rodman, Selden. The Miracle of Haitian Art. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975.Find this resource:

                                  Rodman, Selden. Haiti: The Black Republic: The Complete Story and Guide. 6th rev. ed. Old Greenwich, CT: Devin-Adair, 1984.Find this resource:

                                    Rodman, Selden. Where Art Is Joy: Haitian Art: The First Forty Years. 1st ed. New York: Ruggles deLatour, 1988.Find this resource:

                                      Rommen, Timothy, and Daniel T. Neely, eds., Sun, Sea, and Sound: Music and Tourism in the Circum-Caribbean. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

                                        Thoby-Marcelin, Philippe. Art in Latin America Today: Haiti. Trans. Eva Thoby-Marcellin. Washington, DC: Pan American Union, 1959.Find this resource:


                                          (1.) Michel-Philippe Lerebours, Haïti et ses peintres: de 1804 à 1980 : souffrances et espoirs d’un peuple (Port-au-Prince, Haïti: Imprimeur II, 1989), 220.

                                          (2.) Bernard Diederich, Bon Papa: Haiti’s Golden Years (Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2008), 18.

                                          (3.) L. G. Hoffman and Davenport Municipal Art Gallery, Haitian Art: The Legend and Legacy of the Naïve Tradition (Davenport, IA: Published for the Davenport Art Gallery by Beaux Arts Fund Committee, 1985), 65.

                                          (4.) Here I follow LeGrace Benson’s example in employing the term. LeGrace Benson, “Kiskeya-Lan Guinee-Eden: The Utopian Vision in Haitian Painting,” Callaloo 15.3 (July 1, 1992): 726–734.

                                          (5.) Selden Rodman, Where Art Is Joy: Haitian Art: The First Forty Years, 1st ed. (New York: Ruggles deLatour, 1988).

                                          (6.) Rodman, Where Art Is Joy, 7.

                                          (7.) Eleanor Ingalls Christensen, The Art of Haiti (Philadelphia: Art Alliance Press, 1975), 46.

                                          (8.) Philippe Thoby-Marcelin, Art in Latin America Today: Haiti. Trans. Eva Thoby-Marcellin. Washington DC: Pan American Union, 1959.11.

                                          (9.) Christensen, The Art of Haiti, 56.

                                          (10.) Christensen, The Art of Haiti, 46.

                                          (11.) Rodman, Where Art is Joy, 72.

                                          (12.) While much of the literature on contemporary Haitian art dwells on Hyppolite’s relationship to Vodou, Karen Richman makes a convincing argument that his level of dedication to the practice may have been exaggerated as a means of emphasizing the perception of him as a “mystical” talent. Karen E. Richman, “Innocent Imitations? Authenticity and Mimesis in Haitian Vodou Art, Tourism, and Anthropology,” Ethnohistory 55.2 (March 20, 2008): 203–227.

                                          (13.) André Breton, Surrealism and Painting, 1st ed. (New York: D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2002), 308.

                                          (14.) Jontyle Theresa Robinson, “A History of the Haitian Popular Art Movement, 1944 to 1972,” PhD diss., University of Maryland, 1983, 40.

                                          (15.) Rodman, Where Art is Joy.

                                          (16.) Rodman, Where Art is Joy, 13.

                                          (17.) Hoffman, Haitian Art, 83.

                                          (18.) Brenda Gayle Plummer, “The Golden Age of Haitian Tourism: U. S. Influence in Haitian Cultural and Economic Affairs, 1934–1971,” Cimarron 2 (Winter 1990): 49–63.

                                          (19.) Hoffman, Haitian Art, 85.

                                          (20.) Hoffman, Haitian Art.

                                          (21.) Hoffman, Haitian Art, 136.

                                          (22.) Dean MacCannell, a prominent scholar of tourism studies conceives of the act of tourism as an act of “self-discovery through a complex and sometimes arduous search for an Absolute Other”; Dean MacCannell, The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class (New York: Schocken Books, 1989), 5. For a discussion on how collecting plays out in the self/other formation, see Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects, Radical Thinkers 3 (New York: Verso, 2005).

                                          (23.) Nelson H. H. Graburn, “Secular Ritual: A General Theory of Tourism,” in Hosts and Guests: The Anthropology of Tourism, 2d ed., ed. Valene L. Smith (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989), 48.

                                          (24.) Erik Cohen, “A Phenomenology of Tourist Experiences,” Sociology 13.2 (May 1, 1979): 179–201.

                                          (25.) Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Haiti, State against Nation: The Origins and Legacy of Duvalierism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1990), 200.

                                          (26.) Alex Dupuy, Haiti in the New World Order: The Limits of the Democratic Revolution (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997), 48.

                                          (27.) A. B. Goldberg, “Commercial Folklore and Voodoo in Haiti: International Tourism and the Sale of Culture,” PhD diss., Indiana University, 1981, 175.

                                          (28.) Polly Reuling (Daughter of Dr. Harold and Peg Reuling), in discussion with the author, August 2015.

                                          (29.) Kent Shankle (director of Waterloo Center for the Arts), in discussion with the author, February 2015.

                                          (31.) Shankle interview.

                                          (32.) The history of people connecting Haiti-derived themes of self-determination with the struggles of black people in the United States goes back at least to the Harlem renaissance. See J. Michael Dash, Haiti and the United States: National Stereotypes and the Literary Imagination (Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan, 1988).

                                          (33.) Mimi Sheller, “Cruising Cultures: Post-war Tourism and the Circulation of Caribbean Musical Performances, Recordings, and Representations,” in Sun, Sea, and Sound: Music and Tourism in the Circum-Caribbean, eds. Timothy Rommen and Daniel T. Neely (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 74.

                                          (34.) The Centre d’Art’s facilities were destroyed in the 2010 earthquake, and Francine Murat died shortly thereafter. The center has recently reopened under new leadership.

                                          (35.) Paul Farmer, AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame, Comparative Studies of Health Systems and Medical Care 33 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).