Haitian Art at Auction Courtesy of Filmmaker Jonathan Demme

By Candice Russell

On Friday, I called Material Culture Gallery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to wish curator Jose Zelaya good luck with this weekend’s massive auction of artwork from the collection of filmmaker and super-collector Jonathan Demme. I also asked Zelaya to convey my best wishes for a happy birthday to Demme, whose celebration party was then just a few hours away.

To my surprise, Zelaya put Demme on the phone. My history with Demme is professional – I met him many years ago when I was a theater and film critic at the Miami Herald newspaper and Demme had just directed the film “Handle with Care” (1977), also known as “Citizens Band.” I interviewed him for a story in the newspaper.

During the making of Demme’s “Married to the Mob” at the Fontainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach, I was invited to the set and had lunch with Demme in 1987. But we didn’t talk about the performance of Michelle Pfeiffer or much else related to the reason I was there. Excitedly, we discussed our mutual love of Haitian art. I told him about a collector in the Fort Lauderdale area selling key pieces and Demme went to his home to buy.

Then the director sent me a copy of the documentary he made called “Haiti: Dreams of Democracy” (1987) about the dechoukaj or uprooting of the Duvalier regime, after decades of dictatorship and oppression. With Demme’s permission, I hosted a paid, private showing of the film at Books & Books, an independent bookstore, in Coral Gables, Florida. I moderated the question and answer session that followed. In the audience that night was the renowned Dr. Paul Farmer, who was leaving the next day for Haiti to help the people there, so we gave him all the money collected at the door for his cause.

In another act of kindness and generosity on Demme’s part, he allowed me to take a small role in his film “Philadelphia” in 1991, the first major Hollywood film about the AIDS crisis with Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas. This was the director’s way of getting me, then a film critic at the Sun-Sentinel newspaper in Fort Lauderdale, the first interview with Demme about the film, since he had turned down other people and publications.

If you see “Philadelphia” and accidentally drop your Raisinets, you will miss me. But I’m in the film, wearing a turquoise sweater and a nurse’s uniform, in an early scene. I’m on the phone in the background in the nurses’ station. The focal point of the scene is Denzel Washington, wearing scrubs and pacing the hallway, who is also on the phone in the hospital, telling someone his wife just had a baby. The next day, I had an interview with Demme in a limousine driven to a home in the suburbs of Philadelphia for another day of shooting. This time, we discussed the film, but also Haitian art.

My friend Axelle Liautaud and I co-curated “Allegories of Haitian Life From the Jonathan Demme Collection” at the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach, Florida in 2006. It was an outstanding show memorialized in a full-color catalogue, for which I wrote a long essay.

This weekend, Demme’s substantial holdings of Haitian art, as well as intuitive, self-taught works from other places including Jamaica and the U.S., are on the auction block – 1,050 pieces total – in “Direct From the Eye: The Jonathan Demme Collection of Self-Taught Art.” In our phone conversation, Demme told me he is keeping 150 pieces.

In an interview with Michael Rubinkam of the Associated Press, he said, “If you’re falling in love with a country, falling in love with their art is a great lubricant and a great elixir. Haitian art led me to Haiti for the first time, and I discovered a great country and a great people, and the art takes on a greater meaning for me now.”

Still, he knows that, at age 70, it is time to let the bulk of the collection go. He has a larger purpose in mind. With an expectation that the auction total might exceed $1 million, Demme plans to donate a portion of that sum to the rebuilding effort of le Centre d’Art, the vaunted launching pad for so many careers, in Port-au-Prince.   

There are some real treasures in the auction up for grabs, including “Grinding Grain” (circa 1980s), a painting of charming simplicity by Peters Stephane, the son of Micius Stephane. The hard-to-find paintings of Edger Jean-Baptiste, whom Demme reveres highly, are included. Some are placid seascapes, devoid of people. Others are straightforward architectural paintings of houses and the town square in Bainet.

Other, rarely seen Haitian artists are represented in the full-color catalogue, a must for the library of any serious Haitian art aficionado (thought not every work in the auction is pictured). I’m talking about Wedner LaForest, whose “Standing Figure” (circa 1962) of a jauntily dressed man with pronounced sideburns, was estimated at $7,000 to $8,000, and the equally obscure find of the wonderful Odilon Pierre. His “Animals in Landscape” (circa 1986-1990) conveys a child-like sense of wonder as an elephant, tiger, donkey and boars feed and rest in a tropical garden of Eden.

For the most part, as in all of the Haitian art market outside of Haiti today, the prices estimated favor the buyer, rather than the seller. With a handful of high-priced exceptions, including the certainly deserving paintings of Jacques Enguerrand Gourgue and Andre Pierre and the metal sculptures of Georges Liautaud, this auction represents a field day for collectors.

Certainly under-priced are exceptional paintings by Gervais Emmanuel Ducasse, one of Haiti’s most under-appreciated artists. “Cathedral Park” (circa 1970s), an oil on masonite measuring 24 inches by 16 inches, is only estimated at $500 to $700, which is ridiculously low. Couples of means are depicted relaxing on park benches, with a yellow church in the background. It is one of the best works by Ducasse I have ever seen.

To find works for sale by any member of the large, extended Obin family isn’t easy. But there are paintings in this auction by Seneque Obin, Telemaque Obin, and Antoine Obin for more than modest prices. There’s even a painting by Wilson Bigaud, “Assassination in Forest” (circa 1949). with a high estimate of a mere $5,000.

But who can say about pricing? With the exception of superlative paintings by Hector Hyppolite, including “Birds and Flowers” with a high estimate of $35,000, perhaps the thinking behind the predominantly low pricing is to accelerate interest, widen the net for potential buyers, and generate hot bidding wars to drive up final prices.

Will the sheer number of pieces in the auction dilute this factor? Only time will tell. An auction is subject to hard-to-guess factors. How many people know about the auction? Does that number include all major Haitian art collectors? How many of them are in the position to buy more? Or are they, like Demme, more prone to donate or sell their collections for enjoyment by others?

Hope and prayers on my part rest on the expansion of the market to new collectors of younger generations who will have even half the passion of Jonathan Demme, a visionary and champion of Haiti and Haitian art.