The painting arrived in the winter of 1996. It was small: 8 by 10 inches and was rendered in vivid colors on a slice of masonite. Tucked into a manila envelope, it made the trip from Haiti without fanfare or protective padding.
Its maker, artist Guidel Presume, sent his work as a gift to Baltimore author Madison Smartt Bell. The two men had become acquaintances months earlier when Bell was in Haiti gathering material for a series of novels set during the Haitian Revolution.
In return, Bell gave Presume one of his books, translated into French, and a friendship began.
That friendship has blossomed into a partnership of sorts. Haiti is considered the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere; only about 45 percent of its population can read. In 1997, Presume introduced Bell to a group of mostly untaught artists who were struggling to sell their work. "Things were getting worse for the artists," Bell says. Referring to the former dictator of Haiti, Jean-Claud Duvalier, he adds, "Under Duvalier, tourists came, but now, tourism dwindled."
Five years ago, Bell began importing the artists' paintings. At first, he sold the artworks to his friends, then to the friends of friends, always sending all of the money back to Haiti. Later he tried selling the art through a co-operative in the United States and on eBay. "The paintings are limited to what I can fit in my suitcase," says the author.
Works by Presume and 15 other artists from the Cap Haitien area, in the north of Haiti, now are on display at Baltimore's Paper-Rock-Scissors gallery. Titled "Madison Smartt Bell, Haitian Art and Literature," the exhibit, which runs through March 31, includes nearly 50 mostly acrylic-on-masonite paintings and a few works on canvas. To mark the occasion, Bell, author of two novels set in Haiti, All Souls' Rising, a National Book award nominee, and Master of the Crossroads, will read tomorrow from a mostly unpublished account of his experiences in Haiti.
Bell calls the work Soul in a Bottle and began it as a nonfiction narrative of his visits to Haiti that he hoped one day might become a series of magazine articles. Though a few sections of the 300-page work have appeared in journals, the bulk of the manuscript has not.
About 80 percent of the Haitian population practices Catholicism; about half also practices vaudou, or Voodoo. Bell writes: "According to the vaudou beliefs in which the country has been saturated since the time of slavery, the ocean surrounding Haiti is a mirror, whose surface divides the world of the living from the world of the dead. The division is not absolute, however, for in vaudou as in the African religions from which it springs the dead do not depart, but remain present and available for communion with the living."
He began writing accounts of Soul in a Bottle in English, separating each into chapters. But as he became steeped in Haitian culture, the language he used to convey what he saw and experienced, changed from English to French to Kreyol, or Haitian Creole, and finally to primitive sketches. Over time, what was meant to be a linear account of his experiences became a mosaic of impressions of a world in which spirits are part of everyday life.
The paintings on display also tell of a world in which spirits, friendly and evil, protective and threatening, play an integral role. Richly detailed, the paintings depict homes, town markets, cotton fields, weddings, funerals and dances. Some paintings depict darker subjects such as slavery or death. Others refer to dreams. Still others are humorous.
Nearly two dozen of the works on display are created by Presume, whom Bell describes in writing as "a man of medium height with a high-cheekboned, handsome face, and slightly oriental eyes." Trained as an electrician, Presume finds it difficult to ply his trade in a country where the state-furnished electricity is often out of service. Instead, he has worked as a chief of security at a resort and as a location manager for a French film company. He also is a masterful artist creating moody landscapes that hint of parallel, but unseen, worlds.
In one, Presume depicts a zombi, or a corpse brought back to life by a Vaudou sorcerer. The zombi then becomes the slave of the sorcerer, or can be sold to someone else. Against a dark landscape, the zombi trudges along a winding road, hastened by a man carrying a whip.
A second painting by Presume, titled Le Couple et les Loupgaroux sous l'oeuil Bondye, depicts a couple beset by frightening spirits. The man and woman, who stand in the middle of a street, are surrounded by ghostly images etched in thin white paint. But an eye, fringed with small black lashes, hovers in the red and blue sky above them; it is the eye of God.
In Les Noces, artist Gary Dorcinville paints a wedding party parading through the street. The bride, her pregnant belly visible against the white of her gown, stands next to her new husband, who seems to have slipped and fallen down. It's no wonder: a half block away, his mistress, who is also pregnant, and her three children are approaching.
An exhibit of Haitian art and literature opens tomorrow at Paper-Rock-Scissors, 1111 W. 36th St. in Hampden, with a reading by novelist Madison Smartt Bell. A reception, lecture and book signing will be held from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Paintings by Guidel Presume, Edouard Jean and Armand Fleurimonde and other artists will be on display. For more information, call 410-235-4420.