WATERLOO – It’s roughly 2,000 miles between Waterloo and the island nation of Haiti, but the Waterloo Center for the Arts is the repository for the world’s largest and most significant public collection of Haitian art.
There are more than 1,700 pieces in the collection, including colorful paintings by Haitian masters, metal sculptures, beaded and sequined flags and banners, mixed media and other objects representing Haiti’s creative and cultural past and present.
Now each piece is being carefully photographed as part of “Haitian Art: A Digital Crossroads,” a collaboration between WCA and Grinnell College Libraries. The project will result in an online database for the WCA, and eventually, a global portal for scholars and researchers of Haitian art, said Curator Chawne Paige.
“This will make our collection accessible to the world, and at the same time, provide a model platform for extended research into Haitian art. Right now there is no centralized repository for information or photographs. As stewards of this collection, it is important to document and respect the artists and their work. We’re trying to make our collection more visible and recognized around the world, so it’s a win-win for us,” he explained.
Each object must be documented, properly lighted and photographed from all angles. Local commercial photographer Jerry Grier has already logged many hours behind the camera, including photographing Haitian sculptures in the permanent collection earlier this month.
The process actually began in 2019 when Grinnell received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to explore the current state of Haitian art resources and their accessibility.
The WCA and Grinnell team had to determine how best to photograph the collection and anticipate any challenges that might be involved. Grier photographed more than 100 pieces in the collection to document how the process would work. Grinnell students, advised by the college’s librarians, also worked with WCA’s existing data in preparation for building a prototype database. This lays the groundwork for Grinnell College Libraries to apply for an implementation grant.
When WCA closed its doors to the public due to COVID-19, Paige seized the “down time” to concentrate on the project. Some artists have died and pieces in the collection represent some of their last works. In addition, the process is allowing Paige to gauge the condition of pieces.
In April 2020, Grier shot more than 200 Haitian Voudo flags — “some of them very old ceremonial flags that had to be handled carefully,” Paige said, followed in October by metal objects and sculptures. In December, photography began on the 800-plus Haitian paintings in the collection.
“We’re shooting sculptures now, but we still have some paintings to photograph. Most of the frames that came along with these master works were handcrafted in Haiti, which is an art form itself. It’s important to document and photograph that as well as the painting, so you get the whole picture of the work,” Paige said.
Photographing the collection will be ongoing “because we continue to collect and receive Haitian pieces as more people discover us as a repository,” noted Paige, who last week accepted more paintings into the collection from a New York donor.
Dr. and Mrs. F. Harold Reuling began the collection in 1977 with their gift, which has been built through donor gifts and multiple staff trips to Haiti to purchase and bring back new pieces.
The center has presented numerous seminars, symposiums and exhibitions through the years. In 2017 and 2008, WCA hosted Haiti Art Society conferences in Waterloo that drew major Haitian artists and scholars to the community. An endowment from a member of the Reuling family is helping pay for the cost of photographing the collection.
Paige’s hope is to eventually include the center’s extensive Midwest art, including 19 Grant Wood lithographs, American decorative arts and Mexican folk art collections in the database.
Fredo Rivera, Grinnell assistant professor of art history, is a member of the research team and describes the WCA as a “unique repository” for a Haitian collection. “This project will make it more accessible and bring greater attention to Haitian art,” he said.
He believes documenting and digitizing the collection is “incredibly important. In one sense, having more research on the optics gives us more information on the artists, and not just to think about the Waterloo collection, but connect to other public and private collections around the country and the world.
“It’s gives us a broader understanding of Haitian art, giving it breadth and depth, and brings greater attention to Haitian art for scholars and researchers to make connections, whether in art, politics, history or culture,” Rivera said, while “creating dynamic and respectful narratives about Haitian art.”