The Curious State With the Largest Collection of Haitian Art
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s a bright, vibrant space in a cold, dark state.
Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
From the outside, the Waterloo Center for the Arts, in Waterloo, Iowa, is unremarkable: Low-slung and hewn in red-brown brick, it looks like a standard-issue community center in flyover country. Inside, it’s a whole other story — a place practically bursting with art from Haiti. With more than 2,000 pieces, it’s the largest public collection of Haitian art, and one of the world’s most important repositories of Haitian culture.
A walk along the laminate floors takes you past display cases filled with sacred ceremonial objects and mermaids and other mystical beings rendered in iron. You’ll see canvases depicting ruthless dictators and Voodoo goddesses, cockfights and possessions, market scenes and town squares. There are displays of massive Voodoo flags, each of their thousands of sequins hand-sewn. And for the next few months, there’s a stunning special exhibition by one of Haiti’s star contemporary artists, Pascale Monnin.
Looking out the window at the endless monochromatic sky over the Cedar River you might get a bit of vertigo. In geographic terms, Waterloo is 2,000 miles from Port-au-Prince. By every other measure, it’s much farther away. Differences in temperature and temperament are vast. Iowa is stolid, planar, quiet to the point of grim and, on the day I visited, freezing cold. Haiti is hot, tropical, voluble, mountainous, Technicolor.
“I recall people coming into the gallery and seeing this very colorful, vibrant art and being almost offended by the color — like, what is this gaudy stuff?” says Kent Shankle, the center’s executive director. A native Iowan who has worked at the museum since 1995, he says attitudes have since shifted. The collection has grown, both in the number of pieces and its international renown, and “now I don’t hear those initial reactions anymore,” Shankle says. “What I see is community members who bring visitors down to the center for the art.”
It showed that “Iowa wasn’t just some Podunk backwater. It was in fact a very cultured place.”
The collection began in 1977 with a donation from Harold Reuling, a local physician, and his wife, who traveled to Haiti often in the 1970s, when it was a fashionable tourist destination. They became friendly with artists and acquired a good deal of their work. At times, the Waterloo Center collaborated on exhibitions with the Figge Art Museum, another unlikely repository of Haitian art, just down I-380 in Davenport.
For Iowan collectors, the appeal of Haitian art was partly practical: It was relatively inexpensive to build a significant collection, says Peter Haffner, an art historian who has studied the Iowa museums. There was also some cultural cred involved: It showed that “Iowa wasn’t just some Podunk backwater. It was in fact a very cultured place,” says Haffner. Or maybe it was about the color, “especially on a day like today, gray and gloomy, you’d want to bring some of Haiti back with you,” says Shankle.
Waterloo’s collection, most of it donated, has snowballed from about 200 pieces in 1997 to more than 2,000 today. Those in the Haitian art community “got really excited about this little collection in Iowa and they encouraged their friends and other collectors” to contribute, says Shankle. The process accelerated after Haiti’s catastrophic 2010 earthquake, which drew U.S. attention to Haitian art and its preservation.
Last month, the United States rescinded the temporary protected status of some 60,000 Haitians who came to the country in the wake of that earthquake, closing a kind of chapter in U.S. beneficence. “I’m very happy that we have this [art] in Iowa,” says Shankle. “I’m sad that these pieces are not in Haiti, but I am at least comfortable that they’re safe.”
“The Birth of the Hummingbird and Other Marvels,” by Pascale Monnin, is on exhibit at the Waterloo Center for the Arts through Jan. 8, 2018.