Vodou Blacksmiths in Haiti. Story by Charles Arthur (this article originally appeared in Raw Vision magazine, October 1995)
Haiti is the Caribbean nation famous for its successful slave revolution and, more recently, for decades of dictatorship and political unrest. It has also produced an abundance of creative and imaginative artists. One of the newest art forms to emerge is metal drum sculpture inspired by the rich mythology of Vodou. In a small dusty town ten miles north-east of the capital, Port-au-Prince, over a dozen different artists are turning old metal oil drums into unique and striking relief sculptures.
The sculptures are representations of mermaids, snakes, dragons, angels, devils, and other beasts that, for the foreigner, defy description. For the artists themselves each piece has a significance or tells a story that, more often than not, is strongly influenced by Vodou.
Vodou is the religion developed in Haiti by slaves first brought from Africa in the sixteenth century. When people from Dahomey, Congo and other west African kingdoms were thrown together to work the plantations their religious beliefs and artistic customs fused to become a new religion. Forbidden to practice Vodou by their masters, and forced to convert to Catholicism by zealous French priests, the slaves incorporated images of the Catholic saints into their own pantheon of deities. In this way they could continue worshipping their own gods unbeknown to the white European authorities.
After the revolution that overthrew the slave system in 1804, Vodou remained semi-underground, subject to periodic campaigns of persecution unleashed by the Catholic hierarchy and the mulatto elite. To this day it is practised far more openly in the surrounding countryside than in the capital, and one of the recognised centres for it is Croix-des-Bouquets.
The profusion of Vodou temples, overflowing with painted religious images, carved wooden drums and sequined flags, in Croix-des-Bouquets must provide a rich source of artistic inspiration. This may be one explanation why this town is the home of Haitian metal sculpture. A more concrete answer is provided by the artistic legacy left by a local blacksmith.
The creative metalworkers now working in Croix-des-Bouquets are the second and third generations, all owing a debt of thanks to the form’s initiator, Georges Liautaud. Born in Croix-des-Bouquets in 1899, for some years Liautaud lived in the Dominican Republic working as a railway mechanic. Later he returned to Haiti and settled in his native town where he opened a blacksmith shop. He made and repaired tools, branding irons and metal crosses for graves in the local cemetery, and only began working on decorative metal sculptures in the early 1950s. Encouraged by an American teacher who established Le Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince, Liautaud brought the mythology of Vodou to life.
Liautaud’s work inspired his neighbours in Croix-des-Bouquets, in particular the Louisjuste brothers who rose to artistic prominence in the 1970s. The Louisjuste brothers took on apprentices who, in turn, passed on the skills of metal sculpture to others in the town.
Just as other Haitian artists have made use of flour sacks for canvasses, and cement bags for papier-maché, the sculptors of Croix-des-Bouquets have been forced by their poverty to salvage the medium for their art. Old metal drums, once used for transporting oil and other petro-chemical products, are purchased for a small amount in the capital near the port. They are brought by cart or on top of a taxi to the artists’ workshops.
To prepare a drum for use the artist or his apprentice first removes the ends which are used for smaller sculptures. A vertical slit is then cut along the length of the cylinder with a hammer and chisel. Next the drum is stuffed with straw and paper, and set on fire to burn off any remaining paint and chemical residue. When the drum cools down it is ready to be flattened into the shape from which a sculpture can be created. To do this the metalworker will climb onto the body of the drum and use all his weight and strength to open it up. The flattened drum becomes a rectangular sheet approximately four by six foot wide.
The whole sheet of metal is then hammered to make the metal softer and therefore easier to cut. Any excess charred oil, paint or rust is rubbed off before the artist draws his designs on the metal sheet using a piece of chalk. Then the figure is cut out with a hammer and chisel. The finished piece is signed by the artist and coated with a film of varnish.
Of the sculptors working in Croix-des-Bouquets today the two masters are Gabriel Bien-Aimé and Serge Jolimeau. Bien-Aimé, born in 1951, spent his early years working as a car mechanic. At the age of twenty he was inspired by the metal sculpture being made in his town and became an apprentice to the Louisjuste brothers.
His own artistic talent soon surfaced and his innovations have expanded the form and resulted in steel drum sculptures unlike any created by the artists who preceded him. Bien-Aimé twists parts of the metal to make the work three dimensional, giving a layered depth to the imagery. During the United Nations embargo against the military leaders of Haiti in the early 1990s, when oil drums became difficult to find, Bien-Aimé began incorporating car parts such as axles and wheels into his sculptures.
Bien-Aimé has recently moved a few kilometres away from Croix-des-Bouquets to the hamlet of Despinas. Here, in an attempt to make a “regular little salary”, he has built a bakery. He also plans to indulge his second passion – classic car renovation, and vows that the beat-up, 1950s Plymouth sedan in his yard will run again eventually.
Bien-Aimé’s contemporary, the other metal sculptor who currently enjoys an international reputation is Serge Jolimeau. He began working with Serisier Louisjuste at the age of twelve. In 1972 he started to sell his own work and has since exhibited in galleries in Mexico, Germany and the United States.
Jolimeau explains that his designs are inspired by Vodou. The mermaid depicts La Siren, the Vodou spirit or lwa with power under the sea who enchants sailors with the melodies of her trumpet. The bull is the symbolic image of Bosou, the master of agriculture, while the snake represents Dambala, the most powerful of the lwa who can bring wealth, luck and happiness. Another recurring theme are the birds, often perched on the heads of the strange figures Jolimeau produces, which he says are included purely because he loves bird-watching.
There are a number of other sculptors displaying talent and creative verve. One is John Sylvestre, aged 37, who was taught first by Janvier Louisjuste, and then by Serge Jolimeau. He started out on his own in 1975. A Catholic and a Vodouist, much of his imagery is inspired by the folklore that abounds in rural Haiti. The winged zobopbakaloupgaru (werewolves) are familiar characters from the stories Haitians learn as children. Surprisingly Sylvestre is the only sculptor to honour Ogou Feray, the spirit symbolising the strength of metal, with pieces depicting a warrior driving a sword into a beast.
Michée Rémy, who is the 25-year old stepson of Gabriel Bien-Aimé, started working about eight years ago. He says his ideas come from his dreams of birds and fishes, angels and gods. When he wakes up he hammers his dreams out of metal. He is currently working on a massive ten by six foot long piece cut from a manufactured metal sheet. It is an intricate scene based on a surreal dream about the Garden of Eden.
The four Balan brothers, Jonas, Julio, Joel, and Romel, were taught by their close neighbour, John Sylvestre. In their lakou, or shared compound, the Balans work together to produce art from the circular top and bottom metal drum pieces. Like most of the other sculptors they depict the Vodou spirits in their work. Particular favourites are Agwe, master of the sea, represented by a boat, and the Marasa, the twins associated with children and procreation.
A rising star in the world of Haitian metal art, is Gary Darius who in May took part in an exhibition alongside Jolimeau and Bien-Aimé at the French Institute in Port-au-Prince. Aware of the precariousness of relying on his art for a living, Darius is half-way through completing his studies to be an architect. He is troubled by the increasing influence on the metalworkers exerted by foreign buyers. According to Darius, he and other sculptors have been pressurised to quickly produce made-to-order pieces to the detriment of artistic expression. He also laments the fact that artists have been encouraged to mass-produce pieces and to garishly paint their works in order to satisfy a growing North American market.
Despite these perhaps inevitable commercial pressures it seems that the metalworkers of Croix-des-Bouquets will continue to conjure new and exciting art out of nothing. At 19 years old, Jose Delpé is one of the youngest artists in Croix-des-Bouquets. He is developing a unique style by welding metal pieces together to make three dimensional sculptures that are full of movement and menace. His newer pieces are getting bigger and more adventurous, and it seems he has a bright future as a metal sculptor.