If Hector Hyppolite is the best-known Haitian painter, it is largely due to his discovery by the French Surrealist André Breton, who wrote of “the thrill of pleasure” he experienced on seeing a painting of Hyppolite’s at the Centre d’art, Port-au-Prince, in December 1945. Initially unaware of the painting’s subject, despite the fact that it obviously represented the crowning of the Virgin Mary by 14 angels, Breton valued Hyppolite as the “first ever to record actual voodoo scenes and divinities.” Uninterested in religious syncretism, which he dismissed as “a polite relationship with Christianity,” he pronounced Hyppolite an outsider visionary who “was the guardian of a secret.” In so doing, Breton had invented Haitian naive painting. In 1976, following in Breton’s footsteps, the writer and former French minister of culture André Malraux met the painters of the Saint Soleil School, whom he pronounced “guardians of secrets” in the tradition of Hyppolite.
Hyppolite died three years after Breton “discovered” him, and his life remains largely a mystery. There is no evidence that he was a vodou priest, which Breton seems to have deduced from a photograph of him brandishing an acon, a sacred rattle to which only houngans normally had access. Breton believed, furthermore, that Hyppolite had undergone a secret initiation during a seven-year stay in Dahomey, which is highly unlikely.
While Hyppolite did paint religious fantasies, these were not his only subjects. The respected Haitian critic Gérald Alexis, in gently debunking Breton’s mythmaking, signals the importance of nature and female eroticism in the artist’s work, and of the decorative aspects in his paintings on the facades of buildings. Similarly, the eminent Martinican theorist Édouard Glissant paid attention to the expressive and decorative surface of the canvas and the aesthetic intelligence of the artist. His approach to Haitian painting stressed its hieroglyphic capacity to directly express the real. Haitian painting was for Glissant “a schematic version of reality; the beginning of all pictography.” He concentrated on the backgrounds of Hyppolite’s paintings, the angels, flowers, and birds that are repeated in ever multiplying movements. Ironically, it was this very profusion that overwhelmed Breton in the first place.
La Reine Congo (The Congo Queen), while not saturated with the profuse and repetitive patterns discussed by Glissant, nevertheless displays the hallmarks of Hyppolite’s work. Once more, a regal female figure dominates the canvas. The word “Congo” in the title is most likely a reference to her Haitian identity, since the Haitian people popularly call themselves “neg congo.” Hyppolite again draws on Catholic iconography: the infant the woman cradles makes her some version of the mater dolorosa, and she is accompanied by angels on either side. As Alexis and Glissant have argued, we should look at the background and at Hyppolite’s evocation of nature, which hovers between repetition and abstraction. The colors suggest that the figures are emanations of nature, and the flora seem to extend the contours of the central figures. Rather than acting as the founding father of naive Haitian art, Hyppolite employs an aesthetic that mobilizes uncertainty by juxtaposing the secular and the sacred, the magical and the everyday.
Originally published in Among Others: Blackness at MoMA, ed. Darby English and Charlotte Barat (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
J. Michael Dash, independent scholar
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