New exhibition shines spotlight on Quebec's long overlooked Haitian artists

Dominique Fontaine is putting artists of Haitian descent centre stage in a new exhibition that launched this week. (Louis-Marie Philidor/CBC - image credit)
Dominique Fontaine is putting artists of Haitian descent centre stage in a new exhibition that launched this week. (Louis-Marie Philidor/CBC - image credit)

Dominique Fontaine doesn't mince words about how Haitian artists have been sidelined by Quebec's art scene.

Despite being in the province for decades and constantly showing their work, Haitian artists have only recently begun to make a splash on Montreal's mainstream scene, Fontaine said.

She said many institutions in the art world had a reckoning in 2020 after the widespread protests against anti-Black racism — and now they're looking for Black and Haitian artists, who previously had gone unrecognized.

"People are doing their mea culpas, they're opening doors to artists who were underrepresented, overlooked," Fontaine said.

"We're here, we're present and we can't be ignored anymore."

Now, Fontaine is putting them centre stage in a new exhibition. Imaginaires Souverains showcases 15 Quebec and Canadian artists of Haitian heritage and is available at two venues: the Maison de la culture Janine-Sutto and Galerie Hugues Charbonneau.

"These new Haitian-Québécois, Haitian-Canadian artists, are bringing so much energy into the field. They're daring, they're audacious, they're there … [and now] people have interest in what they're doing," Fontaine said.

"We had to capture it."

Louis-Marie Philidor/CBC
Louis-Marie Philidor/CBC

Long time coming, say artists

Hugues Charbonneau, the owner of the gallery, said the Haitian community was long overdue for some recognition in Canada's art scene.

"Manuel Mathieu, an artist I've been working with, he was the first Haitian artist to ever be collected into the Museum of Fine Arts," he said. "That was three years ago!"

Charbonneau said some of Quebec's Haitian artists here have gone abroad. Gelsy Verna, a visual artist born in Haiti who grew up in Montreal, went on to have a highly successful career teaching in the United States until her death in 2008. But here?

"She is in no museum collection, she is not known to the public," Charbonneau lamented.

Stéphane Martelly, a painter who creates under the name Nou, knows the feeling. She said Haitian artists in Quebec have long grappled with Haiti's bold visual art culture, while simultaneously not getting recognized for their work.

"Institutions are catching up with us and getting with the program, so to say, and realizing there's all this vitality that has to be visible," she said.

Esther Calixte-Bea, a recent university graduate, is one of the artists participating in the exhibition.

"Being part of this exhibition is an amazing feeling," she said. "To be surrounded by other Haitian artists, to see colourful work and interesting work… it's so empowering to me."

Fontaine, the curator, said seeing all the art together shows that Haitian artists are bringing "a new energy," one that has thrived despite going unrecognized for so long.

That's in part what inspired the name, Imaginaires Souverains.

"The title means it's unbonded. The imaginary, the artist's ways of thinking, of expressing themself … the artist finds ways to create, against all odds," she said.

The show opened this week and is set to run until mid-January.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.