Metal Crafts - An Essay

An Essay by Candice Russell



The growth of one medium in Haitian art can be traced to the mind and hands of one man --Georges Liautaud, a blacksmith born in 1899 who forged cemetery crosses for the dead inCroix-des-Bouquets, Haiti. He didn‘t intend to become a world-famous artist. He was merely doing his job of honoring those who had passed on when his handiwork of elegant crosses with swirls and curlicues was noticed by De Witt Peters, the American watercolorist and co-founder of Le Centre D’Art or Center of Art in Port-au-Prince in the 1940s.

Little could Liautaud have known the artistic heights of imagination, expressing artistic interpretations of voodoo spirits and daily life, that he inspired. Unfortunately, the metal crafts have been given short shrift in light of the greater attention given to paintings from Haiti. An attempt to redress this slight was made by the late Selden Rodman, the world’s leading authority on Haitian art and the American collector and author instrumental for popularizing Haitian art in the U.S. and other countries. In his landmark coffee table book ““Where Art is Joy: Haitian Art, the First Forty Years” (Ruggles de Latour, 1988), Rodman devotes two chapters to sculptors in several media, including those whose “canvas” is recycled metal drums once used to hold oil.

Here is what Rodman had to say in the eighth chapter titled “Sculptors of Genius I:” “It was in the early 1950s that the next and most wide-ranging phase of Haitian sculpture began. (De Witt) Peters and the painter Antonio Joseph were driving one day through the villages strung out along the road that threads the Cul-de-Sac plain between the capital and the salt lakes on the Dominican border. At Croix des Bouquets they were intrigued by iron crosses protruding from many of the above-ground tombs. These crosses were embellished at their four points by curlicues unmistakably derived from vevers laid down to invoke the loas. Inquiries led the searchers back to a smithy on the road leading into the village. And there, hammering away at his anvil, was a man in middle age with features of great distinction. He introduced himself as Georges Liautaud and readily agreed to try his hand at a cross with a metal figure bound to it. (pictured in the book)

“To understand the nature of the entirely original sculpture that now began to flow from Georges Liautaud’s forge, much more is needed than art criticism. Something almost supernaturally elemental was released in the soul of this man by the idea that art could be a full-time occupation, and that its forms need have no limits except those imposed by an artist’s poverty of imagination. Liautaud’s imagination was boundless. Very quickly he tired of variations on the cross. For a while he experimented with three-dimensional figures as minimal as weathervanes. Some had perfunctory arms bolted to their sides with nuts and washers, their ears punched out of the metal skull with the flaps serving as lobes. Others had such accessories as porkpie hats and macoutes (the Haitian peasant’s straw satchel) attached to the skinny figures wherever appropriate. Then Liautaud shifted to two-dimensional figures: cripples, mermaids, lovers, equestrians; metamorphic representations of the loas, their flat androgynous bodies sometimes having double goat’s heads or serpent arms, supported in one instance by triple snake legs with lizard claws. Zobops (hairless pigs that run after truant children on starless nights) alternated with tributes to “Saint Anthony Giving His Cloak to the Poor” (illustrated in the book) and Sirenes (mermaids), one clapping cymbals, a tree of life growing out of her head and her legs-with-no-end neatly coiled to form a self-contained base. Sirenes, always Liautaud’s favorite loa, were sometimes monumental. (pictured in the book)

“Liautaud next shifted to scratching symbolic drawings on the flat pieces, or cutting tear-shaped slots in them or punched holes that doubled as point in the typical vever. In larger pieces, employing the whole side of a metal drum rolled out flat, these slots became boats, anchor chains, tables, leaves, trees, people -- becoming, in fact, the sculpture itself.”

“To say that Liautaud was an innovator in the technical sense is to say the obvious. A whole school of workers in cutout sheet metal began to cluster around his smithy in Croix des Bouquets and kept the voracious galleries of Port-au-Prince (and soon all over the Caribbean) in full supply. It was the measure of Liautaud’s sovereign discovery that many of them managed to forge styles of their own. But to interpret adequately the complex symbols of the master’s work would require an understanding of the eclectic Haitian religion comparable to Liautaud’s lifelong familiarity with it. And to ask the artist to ‘explain’ his creations would be as impertinent and futile as to have asked a Mozart what he meant by a given sonata or set of variations. The only real key to the simple profundity of Liautaud’ art lies in a humble subjugation to the spirit of Haiti itself...”

“The raw material for most of Liautaud’s sculpture is the steel drum. Cutting the sides in half he flattens it to a three-by-six-foot sheet and then transfers the patterns, which he had previously drawn on paper to the metal with a piece of chalk. He uses different sizes of chisels and dies and a large hammer, to cut and mold the designs. He smoothes out the steel’s rough edges, beats out the convex and concave shapes, and when the highly intricate sculpture is completed and thoroughly satisfying to the artist, he signs his name boldly with a small chisel in the most prominent place.”



Rodman goes on in the book to quote Liautaud’s biographer, William Grigsby: “Liautaud is above all a Haitian, and no other artist has delved deeper into the soul of black Haiti. Other artists give us the surface world, but Liautaud by looking inward, and as if by dreams and visions, gives us images of the unspoken and the unseen. His primary concern is with religion: the mixture of Catholicism and Voodoo peculiar to Haiti. His art draws upon the fears and superstitions of the Haitian peasant, upon his enormously vital joy in living, and upon his wild, lusty sense of humor...”

“The earliest examples of Liautaud’s work, crudely although elaborately made, had a rough, brutal strength that was almost frightening. Since the possibilities of elaborate modeling were limited, he tended to emphasize the contours or silhouette. He became a master in the use of negative space...”

“Working out of doors under a trellis of vines, Liautaud may be seen looking along the main road to the market where pass the men and animals which are his subjects. If he is not working at a sculpture he will be found repairing farm tools, but never too busy to hear a good story or tell one. He regards his artistic ability as a divine gift, and would rather not think of himself as an artist; he has little regard for the unstable, gamey types who pretend to be artists in Port-au-Prince, but among the real ones his close friend is Jasmin Joseph whom he considers a serious person.”



The ninth chapter of “Where Art is Joy” is called “Sculptors of Genius II.” Rodman writes: “Liautaud’s first disciple, and one with a mind of his own, was Murat Brierre. Many collectors, in fact, were at first persuaded that Brierre was a better sculptor because his range was so great and the complexity of his sophisticated designs so daring. Brierre was the first of the metal sculptors to make sunbursts with facial expressions, pregnant women with visible children in their bellies, groups of figures linked together to tell a story or enhance a symbol.

“The fact that Brierre started to work as a painter may account for the uniformly linear nature of his work. He still draws compulsively, and his subject matter (until his freewheeling imagination took over) was the city streets and schools of his native Port-au-Prince...”



Rodman goes on to write: ”Two other metal workers of outstanding talent, neighbors of Liautaud in Croix des Bouquets, were Janvier and Seresier Louisjuste. Shearing their way to fortune in the 1970s, both these artists were ambitious enough to go beyond the small cutout circles and squares the tourists loved to tie to their handbags. Sometimes they would incise drawings in their figures. In very large pieces, cut form industrial drums, they integrated birds, bats, mermaids, drummers, horsemen, and weird combinations of all five with astonishing ingenuity. The brothers are still alive and working but by the late seventies their work was overshadowed by the rising star of Croix des Bouquets, Serge Jolimeau.”



Rodman continues to write: ‘Born in the vaudou-haunted village in 1952, Jolimeau, tall, handsome and gregarious, soon attracted the attention of the Centre d’Art, where he was encouraged to cut and burnish monumental flat sculptures; some were in layers, connected by hooks and chains, one layer seen through another, with mobile appendages. The flowing grace of Jolimeau’s profiles -- cut, as always, from such industrial waste as oil drums -- reminded some of Egyuptian prototypes, in contrast to Liautaud’s blunt idiom whose spiritual ancestry seems still more archaic. But what was also new in the young sculptor’s work was a playful eroticism never before seen in Haitian art: figures part male, part female, incorporating fish and birds that sometimes seemed to be feeding on the sexual organs of their hosts.”

“Later still, in the 1980s, one more innovator in iron appeared -- in Croix des Bouquets, of course. Born there in 1951, Gabriel Bien-Aime made three-dimensional pieces either by twisting the metal or clamping additional pieces to it with strands of old toilet-chain or paper clips end to end. Bien-Aime was introduced to the art, he says, by Janvier Louisjuste, but in his work the inspirations of Liautaud and Jolimeau seem more apparent. Part of his originality stems from an uninhibited sense of humor.”




Kudos to Florida International University for offering “Lespri Endepandan: Discovering Haitian Sculpture” at its Frost Art Museum during the fall of 2004. This significant exhibition was alive with sculptures from the greatest creators in the steel drum and forged iron media, includingLiautaudBien-AimeMurat Brierre and others. There were also strong, fanciful examples using paint, corrugated metal fencing and other materials by contemporary artists includingEdouard Duval-CarrieBarbara PrezeauMario BenjaminPatrick Boucard, and Eddy Steinhauer. The mixed-media sculptures created by Lionel Saint-Eloi, including bigger-than-life-size mermaids hung high on the walls, were another outstanding feature of this landmark show. A profusely illustrated catalog from this show, featuring an essay by scholar Donald Cosentino, will soon be available on this website.



If you are visiting Haiti, have the financial resources and want name artists who create in this exclusively male medium, head for the studio of Serge Jolimeau which is easy to find off the main highway in Croix des Bouquets, around a half-mile from the town square. He is the living pre-eminent master of the medium, with numerous examples for sale, from dragon-like creatures more than seven feet tall with elongated tails to diminutive figures inspired by the folk religion of Haiti, voodoo. Mermaids and other creatures also populate this space. But expect to pay a price worthy of Jolimeau’s deserved reputation. (For true collectors, I have several works by Jolimeau for sale, including a “Head of Bossou or Bull” though not listed on this web site yet. Please This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for photos and more information).

If you can find a sculpture by the late Georges Liautaud, congratulations. I have several for sale, but not on this web site yet. But beware that there are fakes in abundance. My friend, the late Haitian art dealer and psychiatrist Dr. Carlos Jara, had a vast collection of Liautaud andJolimeau art in his house in the Debussy neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. He also had fakes, purchased as teaching tools from the fakers. He attached red neck scarves to the unreal ones to distinguish them from the others in his living room, but only a highly practiced eye could discern the difference between the originals from Liautaud’s hand and those masquerading as such.

The fact is, if it’s the unbridled joy and magnificence of recycled oil drum art that you are seeking, it is possible to build a worthy collection without spending a small fortune. Great art in this medium is widely available on the roadside, specifically on the winding mountain two-laneJohn Brown Road that travels from Port-au-Prince to the quieter suburb of Petionville. In traffic one day, with no cars going anywhere, I actually bought one of my favorite pieces of oil drum art while sitting in the passenger seat of my friend’s car! I spotted the piece, we waved over the proprietor, negotiated, and I bought a whimsical painted sculpture of a kissing man and woman, each balancing baskets of fruit on their heads. Like many of the pieces for sale in this medium, it was unsigned. But there wasn’t another one like it for sale at that small shack gallery or in any other venues I visited that year and in subsequent years.

On another visit to Haiti, my friend Dr. Carlos Jara drove me to Croix des Bouquets where he met an old pal, metal sculptor Serge Jolimeau. While the fantastical Jolimeau sculptures were out of my price range, fortune struck as we drove back to Port-au-Prince. We spotted a man on a bicycle carrying two unpainted metal sculptures. “Carlos, stop! Let’s go back and talk to that man,” I said. Carlos put the car in reverse, got out and negotiated with the man for the two wonderful sculptures -- candelabras with animals that he was taking to a gallery. After a few minutes of negotiating, Carlos gave the man my money and I returned home with two of the best pieces in my collection. Again, they were unique, not only because they required extreme skill to be made.

Whether to go for painted or unpainted steel sculptures is a question that concerns some collectors. All of the works by LiautaudJolimeauLouisjusteBien-Aime and the aforementioned esteemed sculptors are rendered in the original undecorated form, without a dot of paint. Undoubtedly, there is a seriousness about these works, as well as a respect for the material, that makes them highly collectible. But do’t discount the mastery of painted works as well. Artists like Christobal, creator of a magnificent large four-foot by four-foot fish over-painted with layers of green, red, and yellow that is a masterpiece of the medium, deserve parity with the others. What’s the difference between painting metal sculptures and painting papier-mache? Yet it seems that papier-mache artists like Michel Sinvil get more credit in the art world than painted metal artists like Christobal.

Purists seem to prefer the unpainted sculptures, whether in two or three-dimensional shape. Lovers of Haitian art period and fans of bright colors go for the painted sculptures. All-inclusive collectors like myself gravitate toward both. I appreciate the values and properties of paint to transmit the expressive quality of a sculpture in metal, whether it’s a smiling sun or cats perched on the branches of a tree. At the same time, I recognize the beauty of the unadorned metal, especially when carved with multiple cuts to indicate the specifics of a subject, like the fishy tail of a mermaid.

At any rate, painted and unpainted metal sculptures by lesser known or even anonymous artists is sold in Haiti and the U.S. for surprisingly little money considering the workmanship and sweat value that goes into making each piece. Geniuses within the medium underscore this unassailable truth -- Haitian art is the best art in the world.

-the end-