LAWRENCE In most museums, permanent collections are tastefully installed in well-appointed rooms, grouped according to period, region and assumed merit. Which explains why the 20/21 Gallery of modern and contemporary art at the Spencer Museum feels like a cold splash of water in the face at 4 a.m.
The installation in 20/21 is something of a mashup, with two- and three-dimensional artworks hanging salon style, floor to ceiling and close together, their unexpected juxtapositions seemingly inspired by a Dr. Seuss jigsaw puzzle. A wild variety of works shoot off sparks cohabiting the same space, causing textbook art definitions to expand and even crumble. The gallery means to challenge typical art hierarchies and their implied values.
In what may be a museum first, the Spencer has recently integrated four significant Haitian paintings from the 1970s into this heady mix. The pieces are from a collection of almost 100 Haitian paintings and sculptures recently donated to the museum by KU alumni Harry and Mary Lou Vansant Hughes.
Only a handful of institutions in the United States have major holdings of Haitian art, principally the Waterloo and Figge museums in Iowa, the Huntington in West Virginia and the Milwaukee Art Museum. The Nelson-Atkins, like most encyclopedic museums, shows no art from the Caribbean country. The 2011 edition of Phaidon Press’ “The Art Museum,” a reference book of world art advertised as the “finest art collection between two covers,” is more than 1,000 pages long and contains no image of a Haitian artwork. Nor is the word “Haiti” in its index.
At the Spencer, three genre paintings of everyday life in Haiti and one splendid portrait of a young woman hang side-by-side with major international modern and contemporary artworks. One is effectively put on notice that paintings by Wilson Bigaud and Bernard Sejourne are as aesthetically interesting as those by Georgia O’Keeffe or Robert Motherwell.
“Students told us how much they loved these paintings as soon as we put them up,” said Saralyn Reece Hardy, director of the Spencer, on the University of Kansas campus. “And at a big research university such as KU, it’s important to explore impulses and intellects that are underrepresented. This collection opens so many doors for us.”
Harry Hughes served as public affairs officer for the American Embassy in Haiti from 1972 to ’76.
“While stationed there,” said Susan Earle, the museum’s curator of European and American art, “Hughes and his wife, Mary Lou, became friends with a number of artists and bought art directly from them.
“The Hugheses met at KU,” Earle added, “and Mary Lou volunteered as a docent at the Spencer. We’ve had a longtime relationship with them.”
The Hughes collection has been exhibited in Europe and the United States, most notably in the first U.S. museum show of Haitian art, organized at the Brooklyn Museum in 1978.
Eleven pieces now at the Spencer were included in the Brooklyn exhibit, including the painting “Anger” by Salnave Philippe-Auguste, an extraordinary depiction of a fanged demon with red wings in a jungle, and Ernst Prophete’s “But I Dreamt,” a self-portrait of the artist flying to heaven between two angels.
Besides the overall quality of the individual artworks, the Hughes’ gift is important as a collective image of a specific period in Haitian art. It is tied irrevocably to that country’s heritage, which blends indigenous, West African and European traditions.
Most people know that Haiti is the only nation born of a successful slave revolt in 1804, when it then became the first black republic in the world. Little noted is that prior to that, French plantation owners, although known for their brutality, sent many of their slaves to France, where they were educated in the various arts to be of better service to their masters.
By the time the United States invaded Haiti in 1915, the country had an established, flourishing culture of literary and visual art, focused in the capital Port-au-Prince.
Many Haitians felt humiliated by the racist attitudes of their American occupiers, however, and by the time the U.S. left in 1935 there was a movement to reject Western values and return to African roots.
In 1943, American Dewitt Peters went to Port-au-Prince as a conscientious objector to serving in World War II. Sent to teach English, he was also a painter and became frustrated by a lack of exhibition space. After a year, he founded the now legendary Centre d’Art, a combination art gallery, art school and meeting place for artists.
In a short time, an art movement grew rapidly from Haiti’s so-called lower classes, individuals often living in the countryside and less “contaminated” by Western traditions. In their art these artists, who became known as the “populars,” referenced their daily lives, the turbulent politics of Haiti, and their religious beliefs, principally Vodun and Christianity.
If these works included fantastical depictions of giraffes and mardi gras bears, it was because Peters kept stacks of National Geographics as well as numerous art books at the Centre d’Art.
By 1949, European intellectuals, notably the Surrealist poet André Breton and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, championed the artists of what some called the “Haitian Renaissance.” A burgeoning art market evolved.
The Hugheses began collecting art in Haiti as a second generation of artists was flourishing. By the 1980s, forgeries of art by the most acclaimed artists began to appear, tarnishing the reputations of a number of artists and galleries.
“It’s terribly important that (the Hugheses) knew the artists personally and got the art directly from them, and it’s a relief to know the collection is in good hands,” said LeGrace Benson, assistant editor of the Journal of Haitian Studies and author of the forthcoming book “Arts and Religion of Haiti: How the Sun Illuminates Under Cover of Darkness.”
The horrendous 2010 earthquake in Haiti destroyed or damaged much of the Centre d’Art along with countless other artworks at galleries and museums. The Hughes collection thus becomes an ever more important time capsule of Haitian culture.
“Haitian art has such humanity,” Benson said. “Haitians will always make art. A new generation of artists is doing exciting video works and building a film center. New art is happening there all the time.”
The Spencer expects that a number of the works from the Hughes collection will be on rotation in the 20/21 gallery in the coming year and displayed in future exhibitions in the Museum’s Teaching Gallery. The entire collection is available for viewing online at spencerart.ku.edu.
Elisabeth Kirsch is a freelance writer and art critic who lives in Kansas City.