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Avid Art Collector, Jonathan Demme, Curates Exhibition from his own Personal Collection
Sénèque Obin. © Jonathan Demme.

NEW YORK, NY.- The French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF), New York's premiere French cultural center, opened a special exhibit at the FIAF Gallery curated by the Academy Award-winning film director Jonathan Demme in its World Nomads 2009 series celebrating Haiti. Long-time Haitian advocate and avid art collector, Demme curated the exhibit from his own personal collection of Haitian paintings, displaying some of the most renowned artists from the Caribbean island.

“My love of Haitian art is not only because of the tremendous sensory, emotional, and inspirational impact the work has on me,” says curator Demme. “That rich sense of history, the vivid and utterly unique cultural and spiritual specificity of Haiti, the continued awareness of the ongoing and epic struggle of the Haitian people to somehow halt and reverse the many harsh realities that have been inflicted on the country by centuries of global exploitation – these giant factors all collide and collude within the work in an incredibly heady, emotionally-dense way.”

Inspiration of Haitian Art showcases fourteen self-taught artists that excel at creating personal, engaging, and unflinchingly “modern” work, both universal in theme and particularly Haitian. The FIAF exhibit celebrates the work of a broad spectrum of artists from across the island: Wesner LaForest, Peterson Laurent, Odilon Pierre, Wilson Bigaud, Sénèque Obin, Préfète Duffaut, Edgar Jean-Baptiste, André Normil, J.E. Gourgue, André Pierre, Murat Brierre, Joseph Jn Laurent, Bourmond Byron, and Jacques Hyppolite. Though each artist has a unique style of painting, their subject matter—the rich cultural landscape of daily life in Haiti—unites them and presents a detailed and poignant portrait of Haiti, a land of many faces.

Known for his films Silence of the Lambs and the recent Rachel Getting Married, Demme has been a fervent advocate for Haiti throughout the years, embracing Haiti both through his films and his collaborations with Haitian writers such as Edwidge Danticat or musicians such as RAM and Wyclef Jean. Demme is also acting as parrain of this year’s edition of World Nomads, adding his support to FIAF’s lineup of prestigious partners. Demme’s groundbreaking documentary on Haitian radio legend Jean-Dominque, The Agronomist, will also be screened as part of the cinema component of the World Nomads series.

Jonathan Demme on:

Wesner LaForest
“Typically seen as the mystery man of Haitian art, the record/legend has it that LaForest, suffering from regular bouts of epilepsy in a country ill-equipped to find assistance in dealing with this chronic condition, turned up at the Centre d'Art in the early sixties and tried his hand at reportedly around three dozen or so unique, aggressively non-formulaic paintings. Apparently his work was not encouraged, and LaForest left his paintings behind at the Center. He subsequently vanished from the scene never to be heard from again. The story has it that LaForest's tiny output lay neglected for years until one intrepid collector found the small stack of work in the basement of the Centre d'Art, and LaForest's vision began emerging over the subsequent years in ones and twos. I adore this artist's thrillingly idiosynchratic sense of proportion, composition, subject matter and color range. Certainly as much as any of the many other wildly gifted Haitian artists, the paintings of Wesner LaForest would almost seem equally at home when placed in the broader context of ‘modern art of the mid-20th century.’”

Odilon Pierre
“Odilon Pierre was a sculptor and painter whose work was seen and available at only one outlet. During the 1980s and early 1990s, he was an active artist selling from his dusty chicken-wire encased vendor's stall in the deep recesses of the fabled iron market in the heart of downtown Port-au-Prince. Many of the other vendors considered Odilon slightly mad for demanding the relatively high prices from prospective buyers that Pierre found acceptable in exchange for his life's work. A small group of Odilon Pierre enthusiasts from New York and Florida wound up purchasing the majority of his paintings and sculptures. They also managed to publish a small book devoted to Pierre's work, which he saw before his death in the mid 1990s. Few painters I know of have managed to capture the profound richness and mystery of our connection to the soil as dynamically as Odilon Pierre, in a body of work that for me will stand as a stunning example of great art being achieved under difficult circumstances, and when nobody was watching.”

Petersen Laurent
“Petersen Laurent's name is often linked warmly with the more widely-celebrated acknowledged ‘Masters of the Haitian Renaissance’ spawned to a great extent by the creation of the Centre d'Art in the 1940s, but I am still waiting for ‘the blacksmith’ (as he was often known due to his day job in the northern port city of St. Marc) to receive his due as one of the absolute ranking geniuses of that movement. I am really very happy for this chance to shed a little added light on this bold and prolific painter, who seems to have loved the sight of everything he laid his eyes on and worked to share the vibrancy of his vision with us.”

Acclaimed film director, Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, The Manchurian Candidate) first encountered Haitian art in 1986, when he wandered into the Haitian Corner, a gallery then located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. A whetted appetite became an insatiable passion. In the more than twenty years since, he has collected hundreds of works of art, many from the artists themselves, acquiring in the process an intimate contact with Haitian culture.

Demme first visited Haiti in 1986, returning in February 1987 with a camera crew to direct a documentary called Haiti: Dreams of Democracy. Since then, Demme has produced several other documentaries about the island's troubles including The Agronomist, the highly praised portrait of Jean Dominique, a Haitian radio broadcaster who was assassinated by brutal governmental forces. The New York Times lauded the piece as, “A magnificent documentary about the life of Jean Dominique, a Haitian radio broadcaster who was a brave and tireless voice for democracy and human rights in that unlucky country.”

Demme also turned activist, rallying others in the film industry to the cause of democracy and demonstrating when he believed American policy to be wrong, such as when Haitians fleeing the island's 1991 coup were classified as economic rather than political refugees. Demme continues to support Haiti through his films and his collaborations with Haitian artists.

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