New Orleans has a secret history that is hidden in plain sight: It is half Haitian. After Haiti's poorly armed rebels shockingly destroyed Napoleon's army — which prompted him to sell Louisiana — Haitian refugees, including thousands of free people of color, literally doubled the size of the New Orleans by 1810. It was the biggest gens de couleur libres community in America and helped turn antebellum New Orleans into one of the biggest and richest American cities. Highly entrepreneurial, they built much of Marigny, Treme and Bywater and remained a bastion of African-American progress until segregation began leveling their legacy in the 1890s. Although this big expo of Haitian paintings is split between the George & Leah McKenna Museum of African American Art and Le Musee de FPC, and although both are great institutions, the latter is a little-known gem that provides a uniquely stunning context for viewing this visually lush collection assembled by the late Dr. Jean Chenier Brierre.
Haitian art can be fascinating for the way the rich colors and forms found in 20th-century French painting seem to arise spontaneously from the blend of African, French and Native American traditions that comprise Haitian culture and its indigenous religion, Voodoo. Indeed, Voodoo-inspired painting comprises the native surrealism seen in works like Edgar Brierre's Four Moments of the Sun (pictured), a painterly evocation of Papa Legba, the spirit of the crossroads. G.P. Hector's Dock Worker suggests a folk art rendering of Haiti's ubiquitous laborers, goats and sailboats, but look closely and all the elements that underlie Henri Matisse's dynamic compositions are present. Eric Girault's Fais dodo titite invokes the original meaning of the phrase — "lullaby" — while recalling Picasso's blue period. Local Haitian painter Ulrick Jean-Pierre's work explores the mythos that unites local and Haitian culture, but what the best of these works share is a surreality that bypasses theory in favor of a direct channel to the psyche of the Haitian people.