My favorite image of Haitian independence is a 1999 painting by the great Haitian artist Ernst Prophète, now in the private collection of Jack Rosenthal and Holly Russell (New York City). A representative of the “naïf” style, Prophète’s great work shows Dessalines at the center of a group of generals, standing on a stone platform in the town square of Gonaïves, reading the text of his January 1 address to a throng of cheering Haitians, their hands raised triumphantly above their heads in pride and joy. To the right, Prophète depicts a group representing the free people of color of Saint-Domingue, their reaction to the announcement somewhat obscured by the leaves of the palm trees that tower above the crowd and gesture to the seascape that lies beyond.
It’s a fabulous painting, and I wish I could upload or link to a full image of the painting on this blog. (I am awaiting the appropriate permissions and will do so pronto if they are given.) I first encountered Prophète’s work in The New York Times Magazine in 1999, in a special issue on visions of the new millennium. A small section of that reproduction can be found here. A larger piece of it appears on the cover of my book The Old Regime and the Haitian Revolution, courtesy of the photographer Tequila Minsky; I dare not link to it for fear of making this blog entry seem shamelessly self-promotional. But having spent nearly a year trying to locate the artist and his painting and finally succeeding thanks to the good offices of an old acquaintance, I have been hoping for an occasion to write more about Prophète’s work, and this conference provides seems as good a chance as any, so thanks to Julia for providing the forum (not to mention for organizing this splendid scholarly gathering with Andrew).
Prophète was born near Cap Haïtien in 1950, one of ten children of Orel Prophète and Silerie Francique, natives of Terrier Rouge in the northeast department. In a wonderful 1994 interview with Edwidge Danticat, he stated that his father, a tailor and teacher, “did a little of everything to survive. Like me.” His mother was a seamstress. In 1968 or 1969, Prophète moved from Cap Haïtien to Port-au-Prince to finish his high school education; it was a time, he says of political persecutions of people in Le Cap, “even those who weren’t involved in politics.” In Port-au-Prince, at l’École Privée Grégoire Eugene, he learned to paint and has been doing so ever since. Like many Haitian artists and historians, Prophète had to take up another profession to make his family’s ends meet, and he eventually earned a degree in electricity and electronics at L’Institut Supérieur Technique d’Haiti, graduating in 1972 or 1973. In 1978, he began a very long career with Electricité d’Haïti (the Haitian Electric Company). (See Jonathan Demme and Kirsten Coyne, eds., Haiti: Three Visions: Etienne Chavannes, Edger Jean-Baptiste, Ernst Prophète (New York: Kaliko, 1994), 45-46. This catalog includes a stirring selection of Prophète’s many other representations of Haitian history and culture.)
Prophète continues to work and paint in Port-au-Prince today. The original canvas of “The Haitian Declaration of Independence” now hangs in Rosenthal’s New York City living room. (Rosenthal, a former editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine, was given the painting by The Times as a retirement present. In one of my last “hail Mary” attempts to locate the painting, I sent Jack an email a few years ago asking him if knew of the canvas’s whereabouts. The only thing that exceeded my excitement at finally finding it was hearing from Prophète himself in Port-au-Prince.) One of the happier images of the Haitian Revolution, it has for me a touch of sadness as well. Appropriately so, Prophète seems to think. In his 1994 interview with Danticat, he observed in connection with another of his paintings that “[l]ife in Haiti is all about laughter and tears. There is misery in Haiti but the people find a way – and even have the nerve – to laugh. You see people who sing and dance and cry.” There seems to be quite a lot of singing and dancing in “The Haitian Declaration of Independence,” but also, if one looks hard, not a few tears as well, if by tears we understand here something of the sacrifices that had to be made for January 1, 1804 to come about.