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Property from a Distinguished European Collection

Haitian Cemetery

Haitian Cemetery
acrylic and ink on canvas
122 7/8 x 105 7/8 in.(312 x 269 cm.)
Executed in 2014.
Feuer/Mesler, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2015
H. Taylor, The Only Portrait I Ever Painted of My Momma Was Stolen, New York and Los Angeles, 2018, p. 52 (illustrated).
New York, UNTITLED and Blum & Poe, Henry Taylor, March-April 2015.

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Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis Head of Department

Lot Essay

Painted in 2014, Henry Taylor’s Haitian Cemetery is an epic painting depicting both colorful spectacle and stirring emotion. This monumental canvas was the result of a trip that Taylor made to Port-au-Prince, the capital of the Caribbean island of Haiti in 2013, along with fellow artist Deana Lawson. Just a few years earlier in 2010, the country had suffered a catastrophic earthquake which resulted in the death of over a quarter of a million people. Depicting the Grand Cemetery, an extensive necropolis that harbors hundreds of raised tombs amid the downtown of the nation’s capital, Taylor’s painting captures the resilient spirit of a nation in the wake of tragedy.
Haitian Cemetery captures a moment of mourning, picturing a community gathered to honor the departed. Behind the backdrop of onlookers, brisk brushstrokes of pale blues and alabaster hues, divulge an damaged archway, and the artist’s own suggestion of the remaining architectural ruins in the Haitian city. Substantial passages of black are interspersed with shots of bright blue, vibrant read and almost pure whites as the family members on onlookers gather among the headstones to pay their respects to the recently departed. Haitian Cemetery adopts the painterly style of the artist’s acclaimed portraits, which are characterized by his candid use of color and the emotive spontaneity with which he paints. With careful attention paid to all walks of life, Taylor’s visual sense of empathy is full of respect and compassion, as he captures an intensely personal moment that takes place in the public arena.
Painted in the artist’s hallmark style of vivid blocks of color and spatial genius, the present work is equally rich in detail and religious symbolism. In a partition of burnt umber, the bereaved gather to say their final goodbyes. Before them, the gravity of Taylor’s protagonist is evident as a heavy cross is positioned behind him. Although to many viewers the crucifix is a symbol of Christianity, it is also a Vodou emblem. As Wyatt MacGaffey has explained, the cross in African and Haitian art and ritual "refers to God and man, God and the dead, and the living and the dead. The person taking an oath stands upon the cross, situating himself between life and death, and invokes the judgment of God and the dead upon himself" (W. MacGaffey, quoted in R. F. Thompson, Flash of the Spirit, New York, 1983, p. 108).
Originally from West Africa, Vodouism was brought to the Caribbean along with its thousands of enslaved believers. Though elements of Catholicism persist in Haitian Vodou, ordained morality in the afterlife is not one of them. Instead, the religion trades heaven and hell for a transitional resting period that all souls pass through. Delicately traced with brushstrokes of deep, yellow ochre on the peripheral of the ceremony, Taylor’s brush ever so slightly suggests a faint trace of human profiles: souls who have passed on and watch from above. Among the living, the artist consciously draws a symbolic heart above converging parallel lines on an alabaster altarpiece. This vèvè, a sacred design drawn to evoke a particular divine Vodouist spirit, or lua, calls upon Erzulie, the Haitian Vodouist goddess of love. A feeling, which in Taylor’s own words, was omnipresent in his trip: “The whole setup in the Voodoo temple was like being in an African village. I felt some real good love right there. And then the drumming with them dudes—it was such a good energy that it was okay to talk about all the negative shit. We tend to forget that they had a catastrophic earthquake happen—I mean, people talked about it. That one girl had lost her momma, sisters, and brothers. Being in Haiti, I think I developed a better understanding of [Gordon] Matta-Clark—I ain’t sayin’ that’s a good way—but I started to notice the destruction” (H. Taylor quoted in BOMB #133, Fall 2015). Overhead, as if he were paying her back, Taylor festively includes a delectable slice of chocolate cake, the goddess’s preferred offering.
A monumental painting of lamentation, Taylor exchanges the derogatory, often bacchanalian representations of the Haitian religion in Western pop culture for a more honest one. Here, the artist paints a culture of resilience, love, and healing. In Haiti, a country which gained independence from the only successful slave revolt in history, Vodou is a way of living and remembering African ancestors of the past. Taylor attests: “’No matter where you come from, as long as you’re a black man, you’re African.’ I just thought about those lyrics by Peter Tosh. And even when we cross the racial shit—and I’m not assuming you just mean black people—you find this commonality with, or this sense of being familiar with them” (Ibid.). With an ouevre of intimate portraits of collectors and outcasts alike, Henry Taylor’s Haitian Cemetery is a striking work grasping the true portrait and livelihood of a nation.

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