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An Overview of the Works of Philippe Dodard and their Significance to Haitian Culture

Adaeze Azie

December 8, 2008

Whether it may be through dance, music, or painting, it is undeniable how art plays a significant part in our history, interests, inspirations, aspirations, and daily life. Everyone has a story to tell; some choose to tell their story through art. Art is a documentation of a certain time period that expresses or conveys an emotion that relates to the world around us; the skill or need to create art is primary and the subject matter is secondary. Artists create stories and express their feelings through their art. A respected artist who expresses his feelings of his Haitian culture is Philippe Dodard; by using masks in his art, he proves that his Haitian culture has their own identity using themes of spirituality and history.

Eons of ages ago, before the existence of Philippe Dodard, art was created as a pastime, in which rock art showed the fundamental human activity. The early San, who went into a trance state, created rock art to express themselves and their environment. In later years, masks and masquerades became other forms of African art, which harness energy and evoke spirits causing the spiritual world and physical world to collide. This art was erroneously seen as “primitive” and “naïve” by Westerners who used a “pseudo-universalist” aesthetics which they had constructed. Ever since the creation of rock art from 30,000 to 3,000 BCE many Europeans never gave African art a second look because of their ethnocentric way of thinking; this changed in the twentieth century. Europeans failed not only to see the beauty in African art, but also failed to fully acknowledge its significance and influence in other types of art.

In the paintings of Dodard, he shows his passion and pride for his country by displaying its appeal through different aspects of culture. Born in Haiti in 1954, Dodard was first influenced by his teachers in the school of Poto-Mitan, who created the Vodun concept of Haitian contemporary art. Dodard’s interest in artistic rotation method allowed him to experiment in many mediums of art like clay, color, inks, sounds, ceramics, and poetry “in order to have a complete expression of the inner self, free from any preconceived definition of art” (Dodard lecture at Africa House, 2008).

In Parole d’Ile (Island Talk), Dodard extends traditional African art using oval-shaped masks to convey spiritual meaning and significance to the African culture. In this painting, the two masks with protruding mouths are turned toward each other, suggesting a conversation taken place in a tropical terrain (Nzegwu, 86); Dodard has drawn green leaves and the shades of blue, representing the Caribbean Sea in the backdrop of trees (Nzegwu, 86), which depict lively interactions with the proximity of different aspects of nature. The multicolored bird accompanying the red and green masks adds a fantastical element of living organisms that can interact with their living environment in an inconspicuous language. The depiction of masks and a bird in the presence of leaves and tree trunks, as if they were floating, insinuates the presence of spirits. The bird symbolizes witchcraft and the red mask represents the divinity (lwas) sorceress of Perto arm of the Vodun pantheon named Erzuli-je-rouge, whereas, the green mask represents the divinity (lwa) of vegetation named Loko (Nzegwu, 86). Dodard’s visual art inspired from African art draws a connection and an importance to spirituality, an inspiration for most artists.

Dodard’s creative mind allows him to portray his art in relation to African culture on more than just a spiritual level but also on a historical level, which can be examined in Eternité de Mes Songes (An Eternity of my Dreams). In this painting, Dodard illustrates three eyes and three bodies of a woman holding a basket; these eyes and bodies represent different perspectives and dimensions of spirits that contribute to the Haitians’ history because history is told from many different perspectives (Nzegwu, 94). Within the Eternité de Mes Songes, the women with basket of dreams recalls the history of Agontime, King Gezo’s female Monarch (Nzegwu, 94); she helps in political and religious aspects of her nation, managing divinities as well as power and authority that derives both female and male unity that exemplifies a nation (Nzegwu, 94). Through this image, one can see the strength a woman possesses with spirits on her side to protect and guide her. The painting of the woman is abstract, in which the two-dimensional figures illustrate a detachment from reality and interprets different visual and artistic language (Nzegwu, 94). Dodard uses complex shapes and transforms them to show volume, edges, angles, forms, and view points (Nzegwu, 94). By combining numerous viewpoints with a manipulation of space and form, Dodard shows an understanding of Vodun iconography of African art.

In the abstract, The Magic Wedding created in 1995, Dodard depicts a meeting for peace between the divinity of love, Erzulie, and the divinity of war Ogou, which contrasts the political realist painting in Port-au-Prince at the time (Nzegwu, 98).  The two opposing figures in the painting convey dignity as they were holding on to a flag representative of the Caribbean; however, the divinity of love is the more dominant figure, which seems to negate all hostilities around her (Nzegwu, 98). To portray the face of the divinity of love, Dodard uses a white heart-shaped Mbuya mask whereas, he uses a diminutive mask for the face of the divinity of war and his warlords encircling Erzulie (Nzegwu, 100); the presence of the evil spirits is a reflection of the obstacles African and Haitian art had to overcome. The image of Erzulie is so powerful and significant that Dodard uses her in Open the Gate, a 1995 painting where Erzulie is unhappy about the calamity in Haiti. Erzulies’s face is of the Kongo Gitenga mask to show a relation between the spirito-cultural histories and visual perception (Nzegwu, 100).

In works such as Baptême (Baptism), Dodard conveys a political nature of art criticism (M’Bow, 30), in which Haitian art is seen as used and dead; it lacks the spirit or the desire to create because it is stolen by the European aesthetic. Baptême expresses the need to regenerate creativity in Haitian art, and deter away from the usual way of imitating the style of European art. The image of Baptême relates Benin culture; on the seventh day, a Benin baby would go through series of acts for baptism to obtain his or her sense of identity (M’Bow, 30). In this painting there is a figure that has two different colored faces, a red one with large marks and a yellow one without marks; this shows an identity with the different influences of spirits.

In other works like Troubadour, a figure is seen playing an instrument as it sings to be informative rather than entertaining. This painting of a singer, with a face of a three-dimension mask, sings songs about history and societies. Also, the spirit is an oral narrator that tells about the historical alienation of countless people; it also helps re-evaluate the desires, beauties, and assets that were stolen from the Haitians’ land (M’Bow, 36). The banjo that the figure is holding symbolizes the creativity that Haitians possess to renew and enrich their culture. The musician is leaning forward which allows for an intimate connection to his audience. Dodard’s realism and creativity aim for others to produce new artistic forms. The cultural norms that were the original centers that Haitians nurtured from are the way Dodard understands Haitian identity.

Like in Troubadour, a figure is playing an instrument in Woman and the Mandolin. However, this depiction of a musician in Woman and the Mandolin is abstract. Abstraction is “a process that recomposes reality to create a new, vital reality that transcends the laws of illusion” (Nzegwu, 102). The reality in Woman and the Mandolin is inconspicuous as seen in the partly drawn and transparent body and face of the musician as if to present an illusion. Through abstract, Dodard avoids not only realism, but also emotionalism. Also, his abstract style is seen as restrained, sophisticated and intellectual. Dodard uses the same strategy that Picasso uses in his paintings to reverse three dimensional forms to his two dimensional canvas with flat and angled planes (Nzegwu, 108). The musician in Trobabour leans forward whereas the musician in the Woman and the Mandolin leans back; their disposition conjoined with the mood of the painting allows for insight on the genre of music being performed. The Trobabour, painted with blues and morose reds, suggests that the musician is playing a slow or sad tune to his audience. On the other hand, the Woman and the Mandolin, painted in light yellows, suggests that the musician is playing an upbeat tune. Through music, Dodard shows another aspect of Haitian culture, in which spirits move to or communicate through different tunes.

In conclusion, the value of Haitian art came a long way in the twentieth century. But before Haitian, there was African art that was seen as “primitive” because Africa was seen as Dark Continent and Africans were considered to have made no contributions to human civilization, let alone European art. Through the contemporary Haitian art that Dodard generated, it is obvious that creativity and aesthetics derive from African art because of his use of masks. Dodard’s incorporation of masks relates Haitian culture to the African Diaspora, in which the history and spiritual beliefs of Haitians are derivatives of African culture.

Moreover, Dodard incorporates history and the supernatural within his naturalistic brush paintings and abstractions. In Parole d’Ile, Eternité de Mes Songes, Baptême, Trobabour, and Woman and the Mandolin, spirits are present in nature and within bodies, where they communicate through language or music, and have an influence on Haitian culture and history. The Magic Wedding and Open the Gate is profound in the sense that they illustrate a juxtaposition of thought-provoking paradoxes, where the spiritual divinities conflict instead of converse; the good spirits of the land watch and protect the Haitian culture from the bad spirits. Dodard’s depiction of Haiti through his art shows that Haiti is a lively, spiritually involved tropical area, where its culture is affected by its environment; his art also shows that Haitian identity is within the beauty and history told by the Haitians themselves. Although Haitian art is derived from African art, the ideology of universalism calls for distinctions within different societies; the universalism in art should be read as an “articulation of the local, the specific of voices, of positioning, of identity, cultural traditions, histories and these are the conditions for the enunciation that allows us to speak”(M’Bow, 26).

Bibliography

"A Profile of Philippe Dodard." Africa House-Art and Decor. 05 Oct. 2008. Africa Resource Center, Inc. 08 Nov. 2008 <http://www.africaresource.com/house/a-profile-of-philippe-dodard.html >.

M'Bow, Babacar, ed. “The Maroon in Modernism: Aesthetics and Theoretical Contestations in the Work of Philippe Dodard.” The Work of Philippe Dodard: the Idea of Modernity in Contemporary Haitian Art. Haiti: Educa Vision, 2008. 1-248.

Nzegwu, Nkiru. “Dodard and Modernism: A Radical Evaluation of Haitian Contemporary Art.” in M'Bow, Babacar, ed. The Work of Philippe Dodard: the Idea of Modernity in Contemporary Haitian Art. Haiti: Educa Vision, 2008. 85-138.