“I paint everything.”
In 1948, over a decade had passed since the end of the 19-year U.S. occupation of Haiti, and the 30-year-long father-and-son Duvalier dictatorship had not yet begun. In Cap-Haïtien, in the country’s north, emerged a group of artists, among them Philomé Obin, who first began painting by decorating houses, businesses, and churches. In his art, Obin always painted street scenes, showing dynamic interactions which remind us that “street life” has as much to do with people as with structures. A man’s suit shows that he comes from a different social class from a shirtless water-carrier, yet they all inhabit a vibrant world of houses, squares, cathedrals, blue skies, lush vegetation, and distant green mountains.
An Obin painting often indicates privileged status by placing a figure at some relative elevation, usually on a horse. Or in a uniform. Or both. Inspection of the Streets shows two types of men in uniform, one a group of street cleaners and the other their boss. The street cleaners are wearing abako (denim), typical peasant garb at the time. Later, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier would create denim-clad militias, but this had not yet happened and a Tonton Macoute was still a mythical figure who children were told could stuff them in his knapsack.
The street sweepers’ hats bear the initials SSP, indicating that they’re part of some official sanitation department or project. While the gentleman, or possibly gendarme, on horseback wears fancy shoes, the cleaners are shoeless or wear stringy sandals. The horse, which seems too disgusted to smell the garbage we do not see, takes his color from the man-made surroundings, as does his rider’s uniform, while the street cleaners’ feet nearly merge with the earth. Their hats match their tools, not the arched doorways or gabled roofs of Cap-Haïtien.
Obin often wrote a painting’s title at its bottom. He named this one Ti Coyo faisant inspection (Ti Coyo inspecting), highlighting not the inspection but the man carrying it out. Thus the painting’s central figure is the square-shouldered, feline-faced Ti Coyo. The diminutive “Ti” indicates a local legacy—there must have been an older Coyo if he is Little Coyo. This way of naming him implies some familiarity with him, and might imply that he got the job through nepotism. Ti Coyo was probably known to everyone on F Street and beyond and is perhaps being satirized or caricatured here. At the same time, he represents a snooty or cunning rather than a brutal authority, someone the populace might make fun of rather than fear. The men of SSP do not look unhappy and neither does Ti Coyo.
Generally, people coexist pretty well in Obin’s paintings of Cap-Haïtien. There is little hostility or conflict. Obin is considered one of Haiti’s greatest painters in part because he showed extraordinary range, depicting Haiti’s vibrant and complex history and multilayered spirituality while never losing sight of ordinary moments like this one, when daily life takes center stage. His paintings constitute acts of both documentation and re-creation.
Note: Opening quote is from The Art of Haiti. 1982. Directed by Mark Mamalakis. https://filmfreeway.com/179769, 14:47–14:23.
Originally published in Among Others: Blackness at MoMA, ed. Darby English and Charlotte Barat (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Edwidge Danticat, independent scholar