Haitian culture sustains myriad art forms, such as painting, that express a Caribbean synthesis of African and European elements. Though formally trained artists appeared by the beginning of the nineteenth century, Haitian painting burst into the art world during the second half of the twentieth century. The movement was launched in the 1940s, when American artist DeWitt Peters arrived in Haiti to teach English. Peters recognized the distinctive aesthetic vision of Haitian painters, both trained and self-taught. He established the Centre d’ Art in Port-au-Prince, which helped established and aspiring artists by providing needed supplies, exhibition space, and assistance with marketing. This led to the establishment of schools or centers in other areas, and encouraged self-taught painters to enter the art world. The result was an explosion of Haitian art.
Multi-talented artist and Vodou oungan (priest) Jude “Papaloko” Thegenus was raised in Jacmel, Haiti. His passion for painting started at age six: “I have been drawing and painting for as long as I can remember,” he recalls, “ I would find myself drawing all over my house, on the walls, the floor. I drew anywhere, my pants, the walls of school, and when I got older I began to paint, enrolled in art school and have been painting ever since.” Thegenus started working with metal in 1979, when he first cut milk cans to make little cows.
Thegenus sang and danced from a young age, but he “felt the drum” at 12. He then began to study Vodou and play its music during local festivities. In this way he followed the path of many of his family who were involved in Vodou. During his teenage years, Thegenus organized a group of artists who expressed political and social concerns through their art. He was forced to leave Haiti in 1987.
After settling in Miami Thegenus founded Papaloko & Loray Mistik, a band that plays Vodou music as well as Vodou pop – a fusion of traditional Haitian instruments and rhythms with West African percussion, rock and roll, blues and hip-hop. During performances, the group also presents ritual dances, prayers, and other religious arts that educate the audience about Haitian culture in addition to entertaining them. Thegenus participated in the recent opening reception of Tarpon Springs’ exhibition, Haitian Folklife in Florida, in which three of his paintings were featured. His performance of traditional songs belonging to the Haitian Vodou tradition was exceptional, impelling Haitian audience members to join in.
Thegenus’ painting and sculpture is eclectic and riveting, often focusing on the Vodou pantheon, Haitian history, and social issues. Thegenus continued his work as a visual artist in Miami, and founded Jakmel Art Gallery in 1999. The gallery, now located in the Wynwood Arts District, exhibits the work of Thegenus and many other local artists. In addition, it offers events and musical performances by Papaloko and Loray Mistik.
Tap Tap Restaurant – named for the colorfully painted Haitian buses – is a stunning environment created through the combined work of many talented Haitian artists, has become an important gathering place for Haitian artists and intellectuals. In Tap Tap, Thegenus’ two portraits of female lwas are among the most visually striking works. The strength of Thegenus’ work undoubtedly derives not only from his talent, but also from his powerful ties to Vodou.
Thegenus is one of the most visionary Haitian artists today in both the aesthetic and social realms. His talent cannot be contained in one medium, but seems to flow effortlessly into visual, musical, and spiritual media. He is quite remarkable.
Tina Bucuvalas, Ph.D.
Curator of Arts and Historical Resources
City of Tarpon Springs
Tarpon Springs, FL