The impetus behind this poem was an exhibition of Haitian art, ‘Kafou: Haiti, Art and Voudou’, at the excellent Nottingham Contemporary gallery a little over two years ago. This was the largest exhibition of Haitian art ever held in Britain, and presented works by Hector Hippolyte, Wilson Biguad, Georges Liautard, André Pierre and Pierrot Barra, among many others. Briefly mentioned in the exhibition was André Breton’s stay in the country between December 1945 and February 1946. Breton, founder of the Surrealist movement, had spent much of the second world war in exile in New York, increasingly isolated from the Parisian intellectual and artistic scene on which he had once been such a forceful presence. His lecture tour of Haiti enabled him to recover some of that influence and revolutionary cachet: his lectures were hugely popular, and the series of café-discussions he had intended to lead was cancelled after the first (rather awkwardly for an official visitor) inadvertently inspired first a student strike and then a general strike, and arguably contributed to the fall of Elie Lescot’s government.
If Breton made an impact on politics in Haiti, Haitian art and culture also made a strong impression on Breton. He was a guest of the Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince, sadly destroyed in the earthquake of 2010, and there had his first encounter with the work of Hector Hyppolite. Hyppolite was a Voudou Houngan, or minister, whose paintings the director of the Centre d’Art had stumbled across decorating the walls of a roadside rum-shack outside the city. Breton was fascinated not only by Hyppolite’s technique, but by the spirits and ritual scenes depicted in his work, and he grew keen to witness Voudou ceremonies for himself. (This was something he had time to do during the unexpected hiatus in his lecture series.) In Voudou’s mutable, subversive imagery – its mystical veves, geometric motifs drawn fleetingly on the ground where ceremonies are held, its blending of symbolism from West African and Catholic traditions – and in its acceptance of the spiritual world’s frequent intercession into the material, Breton seems to have found a reflection of Surrealist concerns: with the pressure of the subconscious, with the fusion of interior and exterior realities, with translation between states of being.
The momentous effects of Breton’s visit to Haiti possibly resulted from certain misunderstandings on both sides, or at least from an over-eagerness on the part of both guest and audience to appropriate the preoccupations of the other. But nonetheless, a mutual influence was felt and a connection was made – one which makes for a good story. My take on it can be read here.