Paul Claude Gardère was 14 when he first left Haiti. The son of a photographer and part of a prominent French-speaking Haitian family, Gardère emigrated to New York in 1959, two years after François “Papa Doc” Duvalier was elected president of the world’s first free Black republic. A Noiriste, Duvalier viewed “mulattos” such as Gardère as embodiments of European influence, opposed to the interests of the Black majority; they were persecuted under his populist government and barred from universities. In New York, Gardère attended the Art Students League—where he studied under the influential Harlem Renaissance painter Charles Alston—and went on graduate from the Cooper Union and Hunter College. Painting presented a way for Gardère to reconcile the conditions of his exile. Displacement and diaspora are reflected in his work by “a sense of not being in a specific space or time but rather in a cultural bubble flying in a high wind”, he told curator Alejandro Anreus in a 1999 interview.
It wasn’t until Gardère returned to Haiti in 1978 that he found his artistic raison d’être. Under Duvalier’s despotic rule, a “chasm” had opened between traditional paintings of pastoral peasant life and the country’s dire political reality. “There is a cut-off point between when that culture was real and when it became artificial,” Gardère told the scholar Karen McCarthy Brown. He set out to challenge the picturesque, and his formative encounters with American social realists like Robert Gwathmey showed how he could “take elements of this whole florid culture and adapt them to the vocabulary of modernism”. For six years in Port-au-Prince, living in the house his grandfather built, he sought “to either adapt myself to Haiti or adapt it to me”.
Haitian Kreyòl culture was ripe for such adaptation. During Spanish and French colonial rule of the island of Hispaniola, enslaved people integrated various religious beliefs into a new bricolage. The practice of Vodou grew out of a blend of customs imported from West and Central Africa and Roman Catholicism. Even after Haiti won independence in 1804, its syncretic culture was constantly being reconfigured. Duvalier used Vodou for his own political ends, fashioning his image as an “immaterial being” merging Jesus Christ and Bawon Samedi, the lwa or spirit of death. “Creolization may seem bizarre, ironic, eclectic, but it is not primitive,” Gardère told Anreus. “It is selective and, in its own way, sophisticated. It requires a deep comprehension of the themes underlying the aesthetics of both cultures.”
Four ink-on-paper drawings from 1984, presented at Independent 20th Century by Soft Network in partnership with the Estate of Paul Gardère, reveal the artist’s own syncretic methodology. Characterized by dense, runic mark-making, the images contain emblematic components of vèvès (Vodou symbols for the different lwa), notably the heart and the cross; lilies and palm trees; celestial bodies; skulls; and spirits floating across mountains or arranged in crests.
An early series of acrylic-on-masonite paintings is even more assured in its quotations. These works, supported by the influential Port-au-Prince art school and gallery Le Centre d’Art, were social-realist interpretations of Haiti’s revolutionary history and spiritual traditions. Madonna (Madame Duvalier) (1983), which is now part of the Haitian art collection at the Figge Art Museum in Iowa, depicts a woman in red on a painted throne. She embodies both the Vodou mother spirit Ezili Dantò and the Virgin Mary, and holds a doll-like Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier (the son and presidential successor of “Papa Doc”), who resembles the Divine Child.
Gardère’s later images became increasingly abstract and iconic. First Letters (1987) depicts astrological signs, the Latin alphabet, and a gridded heart—recalling the vèvè for the lwa of love Ezili Freda—arrayed as if part of a constellation. A Single Stone (1987) pairs a smooth black rock with an emblem of the benevolent snake-spirit Damballa. Spare and striking, these works evoke entire metaphysical systems pared down to their most essential elements.
The modernist techniques of collage and pastiche find their parallels in the Kreyòl processes of métissage (cultural mixing) and appropriation. In this interplay between Vodou imagery and Western painting, Gardère found an iconographic language that was capacious and beautiful enough to express the nuances and paradoxes of Kreyòl identity. Gardère’s adaptive use of vèvè symbols moves beyond their immediate colonial and religious contexts to invoke a contemporary Haiti. In his cosmology, the lwa accompany the thousands of “boat people” who fled Port-au-Prince’s corruption, poverty, and overpopulation. They speak with the victims and survivors of the goudou goudou, or earthquake, that devastated Port-au-Prince in 2010. They bear witness to the vicissitudes of dictatorship and translocate Caribbean wisdom to the “cultural bubbles” of the diaspora.
Gardère left Haiti for the second time in 1984, amid growing tensions under the second Duvalier regime. In 1989, he became the first Haitian artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem, where he increasingly used earth in his paintings. Dried and cracked mud often frames anonymous composite portraits made in watercolor, such as Conflict (1990), now in the Studio Museum collection. He used rope to tie together disparate elements, an unequivocal symbol of bondage. For Gardère, “it was the soil itself that led me to examine the concepts of nature that inform Western art, and to search for an echo in Caribbean culture.”
Several years later, as an artist-in-residence at Claude Monet’s gardens in Giverny, France, he found a way of folding this framework into his own paintings. The garden was itself a form of bricolage—a fantasy, a tableaux, “a resource to be painted”, as Gardère put it. Monet’s imported lilies, bamboo, and Japanese bridge reflected a European vision of order and dominion. “Gardening,” Gardère went on to say, “is an apt metaphor for global colonialism”, and he quoted Giverny explicitly in Exotic Garden (1995), Desire (1996), and Giverny Revisited (1997), among many other paintings. In these works, “the debris of ‘superior’ cultures are recast into a new vision”.
Views of the lily pond are juxtaposed with elements of vèvès, conquistadors, scenes from the slave trade, unspoiled Caribbean landscapes, colonial architecture, prostitutes, and pornography. Soil is mixed with glitter and sequins in reference to embroidered Vodou flags (drapo). The bric-a-brac compositions recall conceptualist collage techniques prevalent in the 1980s. The works are clearly confrontations; their elements can jar, refusing to cohere. But even as they reflect a dissonant relationship, they reveal how civilizational strife is embodied and transformed by the individual—how, according to Gardère, “colonialism is a powerful engine of culture making”.
From 20th-century figures like Hector Hyppolite and Rigaud Benoit, who were championed by the Surrealist André Breton, to Gardère’s contemporaries Edouard Duval-Carrié and Frantz Zéphirin, Haitian artists have long merged the island’s magic and religion with global painting traditions as a way of articulating the country’s postcolonial environment. Paul Gardère’s confluence was unique; he found his inspiration in social realism, Impressionism, Cubism, and religious icons. From this vantage, the history that he paints extends beyond Haiti and its diaspora. It is also a vision of how even the ideologies and power mechanics that fuel colonialism can be dismantled and woven into something auspicious, something new.
Will Fenstermaker is a writer and art critic living in New York. His writing has been published by Frieze, The Nation, BOMB, Dissent, Artforum, The Paris Review Daily, Momus and T Magazine. Will has held editorial positions at Sotheby’s, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, TheGuide.art, and the Brooklyn Rail, and he is a board member of AICA-USA.