Rigaud Benoit is one of the supreme masters of Haitian art. His huge mural, The Raising of Lazarus, was one of three that rose above the high altar in the Episcopal Cathedral. (The others were by Castera Bazile and Philomé Obin.)
According to legend, Benoit was the driver of the Centre d'Art's jeep in the late 1940s. Spotting artistic talent in decorations Benoit had applied to the vehicle, DeWitt Peters urged him to paint.
In the film Krik? Krak! (see Reading), Benoit disputes that account. He says he was a taxi driver; visited the Centre d'Art on his day off; decided he could do as well as artists exhibited there; returned home; painted a bit; brought a couple of works to Peters; and was immediately enrolled as one of the Centre's resident artists.
Benoit worked slowly and carefully, a handful of pieces a year and collectors have vied for his art from the very
beginning. His better works today command five figure prices.
I tried to locate Benoit on several visits
to Haïti in the 1970s and early '80s. Gallery owners were, understandably, not helpful.
A few months before Benoit's
death the 'broker' called to say 'my' work was finished. I rushed from
San Francisco to Port-au-Prince — cashier's check in hand — to find that the painting existed only in charcoal.
While I have regretted that decision, I am far from unhappy with Wedding Reception. The 'shell' — roof, walls, floor — is like one Benoit painted many times, but I am aware of no two identical scenes within that shell.
2006 Gary Nader's gallery in Miami
was offering a
similar Benoit, also 18x24, for $35,000. That work, however,
Benoit painted both scenes of Haitian life and
religious scenes (vodou and Christian and sometimes both, mixed).
The latter generally display his imagination to greater effect and
are the more highly prized. This work was acquired from Aderson Exumé,
scion of a famous name in Haitian art and himself a major collector who
lives in the eastern U S.
The night before I finally located Benoit, I'd
gone to the casino recently installed in what had been the main restaurant
of the El Rancho Hotel.
I sent the check, mindlessly, not by registered mail. It didn't arrive and didn't arrive. I received several phone calls from the broker asking where the money was. Finally I put a trace on the letter and a stop-payment on the check.
The Rest of the
vened. Gourgue spent over two hours negotiating an agreement that awarded me the painting. It required an extortionate payoff to the Benoits, and still another flight — this one to New York City — to pick up the work. My total outlay was nearly four times Benoit's asking price. For less than I ended up spending, I could have had Benoit's fine vodou piece.
all that, I love this work and its details — the
musicians, the buffet, the intricately drawn chairs. (The individual
strands of wicker are not visible in the photo.) Bigaud's daughter,
who brought the painting from Montréal to New York, thought the musicians
especially 'typical of my father.'
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