Desire in a Different Climate

Maitresse Erzulie-Hector Hyppolite 1948
In 1945 on their return voyage to France, Andre Breton with his new wife Elise and the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam in tow stopped in Haiti where their friend and Surrealist contributor Pierre Mabille was culture attache. Mabille arranged for the Surrealists to observe a vodou ceremony and it was here that Breton first noticed the work of Haitian artist Hector Hyppolite. Hyppolite was a third generation vodou houngan (priest) and self taught artist who started painting late in life; lacking materials Hyppolite initially used chicken feathers and his fingers to compose his work which centred on the loa, the spirit deities of vodou.

Breton and Lam brought several pieces and Breton wrote about his work in Surrealism and Painting. Although Hyppolite paintings are more religious in nature than Surrealist, the support and recognition from Breton helped Hyppolite in particular and Haitian art in general find a wider audience. Hyppolite’s work was included at the UNESCO exhibition in Paris in 1947 and received an enthusiastic reception.

Erzulie is the loa of love  and sexuality. In the complicated syncretic spirit religion of vodou she is associated with flowers, jewelry and luxury; however in other aspects Erzulie is also identified with the Mater Dolorosa, while at the same time being the patron loa of lesbians.

As for Andre Breton, after his visit to the ceremony events in Haiti took a dramatic turn, however that is a whole other story.

15 thoughts on “Desire in a Different Climate

  1. Have you ever seen a voodoo ritual? I have never experienced one but some indigenous communities in Jamaica practice Obeah. I don’t know a lot about it, though, as it was basically taboo for Christians to even consider that. It’s unfortunate, as it is part of our indigenous culture. The rituals are similar but I would not dare visit one. I’ve heard some interesting stories and I don’t want to know if they’re true.

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    1. Unfortunately no…I hear that what the general visitor sees in Haiti is strictly a tourist show…all my limited knowledge is from books sadly. I got interested in vodou because of the part it played in the Haitian revolution, a truly momentous event that is little known and always slighted even though it was the only successful slave rebellion in all of recorded history, they then defeated the invading forces of the French, then the British and finally the Spanish. It played a large part in the British abolishing slavery as they were fearful of losing their Caribbean possessions. The Haitian revolution started at a petro ceremony in Bois Caiman, because of that event even though most of the dictators and tyrants have officially endorsed Catholicism they have to tread warily because of its importance in the founding myth of the State.

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      1. Catholicism and paganism tend to exist in the same space, in the new world. Christianity was used to erase the traditional customs originating from non European sources. I say this because even the traditional Amerindian cultures were all but wiped out. Sadly, when I was taking history courses in uni, the Haitian Revolution sections in all the books I’d read on the subject was so obviously fictional, I had to resit a mid-term exam because I refused to regurgitate that tripe. I think you may know more about it than I do.

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      2. It was one of the major revolutions that applied the principles of the French Revolution to all men, however the Haitians have been paying for their temerity ever since. The book The Black Jacobins by C.L.R James is the best historical book that I have read on the subject, The Kingdom of This World by Alejo Carpentier is an excellent novel and on vodou Maya Deren Divine Horseman

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      3. Thank you for the references. I am very happy I brought this up. I’m thinking of donating a set to that uni’s library. And you are right, the Haitians have been paying for something. It’s amazing how that power never translated to great leadership and prosperity. I suppose I’ll gain better insight after reading.

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      4. Hi sorry for the delay in replying, I am no expert by any means and like some much of my reading it is hopelessly out of date. The Black Jacobins is written from the perspective of a black Caribbean Marxist who is trying to give the Haitian its due so a certain bias has to be taken into account , however it is hugely entertaining and well written. It is particularly good on how the events radically changed the whole Caribbean system of slavery and how the abolition of slavery by the British wasn’t some victory of morality and ethics (as the British portrayed it) but was resulting from considerations of economics. It also led to a speeding up of the Industrial Revolution to compensate for the loss of revenue that the abolition had, especially Liverpool which at the start of the 19th century was the most prosperous city in Europe because of the slave trade but whose economy was destroyed with the abolition (it still hasnt recovered

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      5. The leaders of the Haitian revolution were skilled military tacticians and their feats on the battlefield are truly impressive, defeating the French, the British and the Spanish, however those skills do not necessarily translate into good leadership in civil government.Also the economic and political isolation that the Haitians have found themselves in, plus the fact that they have never really been forgiven for upsetting the prevailing order and the wholesale interference that they have faced from the states meant they have always been playing with a stacked deck. That of course doesn’t absolve the various dictators and psychopaths that have only increased the misery of the people they have subjected and tyrannized.

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      6. I understand and have heard this argument before It is interesting how the French Revolution had a similar downward spiral. The architect ended up in the same place as the aristocrats he persecuted. Statesmanship is more than just dressing up and barking orders. It is a measured, detached, anti human process that remains stable if it disproportionately rewards the human players for maintaining order. Hence, compromise in every shape and form is necessary. I’m being abstract here of course. It seems illogical for a leader to steal money from the treasury to vacation on the Riviera but that’s a human response. The anti human perspective looks at a nation’s position on a far future timeline and attempts to steer successive generations towards it. That demands a major loss of immediate gratification.

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    1. I take that as a compliment as this speaks to the quality of the paintings previously posted and the number of exceptional works by the Surrealists, as well as my good taste. Personally i make allowances for a man so driven to produce art he uses chicken feathers and fingers. I also wanted to introduce the internationalism of the surrealists and their anti-colonalism and Breton’s adventures in Haiti (to be continued) seemed like a good place to start

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