Telling the story of Haiti

Telling the story of Haiti
“Haitian Boy.” Photo by Allison Plitt
By Allison Plitt

In his 85 years, Cambria Heights artist James Brown has played many different roles — student, World War II aviation engineer, husband, father, scholar, educator and painter. But the one role that seems to spur his every word and action is that of an activist. In fact, Brown has used his artwork as a means of expressing his opinions on global issues such as poverty, political oppression and racism.

Explaining the sense of realism that he brings to his paintings, Brown observed, “I thought that if I paint things as real enough, that it would attract people — and once I have them attracted to what I’m doing, I can then have discourse with them in terms of what it’s really all about.”

For example, in his work “The Haitian Rice Farmer,” Brown has painted a man with a weathered look on his face. His intention is to show the plight of the rice farmer whose entire industry, according to Brown, was destroyed when the United States in the 1990s exported rice to Haiti and sold it at a lower price than that of the local farmers.

“What the U.S. did was they undersold the Haitian rice farmer. This picture is one of those Haitian rice farmers who were just destitute because [they] no longer had an industry to sell their rice,” he said. “The people in Haiti couldn’t buy the rice because they didn’t have the money. They eventually had to buy rice that was imported from [the U.S.]. Two to three years ago they were eating mud cakes. That was a result of this. Rice is a staple in the Caribbean with people.”

Since 1973 Brown has been visiting Haiti several times a year. “I fell in love with Haiti and its people because I was accepted like a brother, really, to them,” he mused.

Brown also discovered that another reason for his visiting Haiti was his art. “They had proportionately the largest number of artists than any other country in this world. They do art on the ceilings, the gates, the fronts of houses or on the walls.”

After painting in the earth tones of New York cityscapes, Brown embraced the impressionist style of the Haitian artists who instilled their native island’s brilliant hues and bright sunlight into their works. Brown, too, paints the lush and colorful Haitian scenery, but adds his own touch of realism to lend a sense of honesty to each subject’s story. As his voice cannot be silenced, Brown writes “dissertations” about his artwork and places them on the back of each canvas.

This sense of outspokenness traces backs to Brown’s family, whose own lives unknowingly played a role in the early civil rights movement. Brown’s grandfather was a slave in Alabama who moved to Washington, D.C., after the Civil War to become a Pullman porter, one of the many railroad porters who became part of the first black middle class.

Brown’s father and his siblings all attended Dunbar High School, then known as M Street High School, in Washington, which was the first high school in the United States created for black students. After high school, all of the children went on to attend universities – among the first generation of African Americans to become college students.

Brown learned how to draw from his mother, Pearl Brown, who studied design at Cooper Union in New York City.

“My mother got me into the art because she, in essence, was the one who taught me to draw, so my first love is drawing,” he said. “You can make mistakes in paintings, but drawings, there is a degree of talent that you really need — because many artists can paint, but they can’t draw.”

Like his parents, Brown is academically minded. He grew up in Brooklyn and received a bachelor’s degree from Long Island University and a master’s degree from Brooklyn College. He has spent most of his career teaching special education and developing schools and community-based programs in New York City to teach and mentor inner-city youth.

Besides Haitian life, Brown paints anything that stirs him, especially what he reads about in the news — the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the civil war in Sudan, the plight of the homeless or the Middle East conflict to gain control of the Gaza strip.

In other words, when Brown sees injustice, he feels compelled to let the public know what he thinks. “My thing is human rights,” he says unreservedly. “I don’t care who you are — black, white or whatever. If you don’t treat people as they should be treated, I’m writing and painting about it.”

Brown currently has a painting on exhibit at the Artcurain Gallery (22 Chapel St., Brooklyn, tel: 718-260-2909). For more information about James Brown, his artwork and upcoming exhibits, you can email him at [email protected] or visit his website at liblackartists.com/james_brown.htm.

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