Seymour Etienne Bottex
Born in Port Margot, northern Haiti in 1922, second-generation Cap-Haitien primitive artist, Seymour Bottex paints with the irrepressible spirit borne of his homeland – the first black republic of the modern world. Self taught, Bottex began his artistic career in 1958, encouraged by his older brother, artist Jean Baptiste Bottex. Intuitively using the medium of art as the conduit for his often amusing and subtle cultural commentary, little can he have realised the rich patrimony of Haitian artist-storytellers he would join.
Recognised in 1961 by enthusiasts at Port-au-Prince’s Centre d’Art – recently destroyed in Haiti’s devastating earthquake – as possessing the sort of untapped, raw talent and ‘folkish’ charm that inspired American teacher, Dewitt Peters to establish the centre in 1944, Bottex went on to paint in the atelier of the Gallerie Issa, where he honed his critically acclaimed distinctive style and achieved commercial success that saw him exhibiting his work internationally by 1968. His daughter, Amelie, translates her 87-year-old father’s words from his native Kreyol: “In primitive art there are no boundaries. It embraces novices because there are no rules.”
Inspired by fellow artists, Jacques Chery and Dieudonne Plevoise, Bottex’s oeuvre depicts ordinary people in everyday scenes, frequently incorporating Christian iconography and biblical themes from the birth, death and trial of Jesus to more obscure religious stories. Equally, his paintings celebrate vivid primary colours and display a characteristic spontaneity of line seen in the tender curve of a mermaid’s neck or the graceful simplicity of naked lovers playing music by a stream. Dr. LeGrace Benson, Director of the Arts of Haiti Research Project and Associate Editor of the Journal of Haitian Studies comments: “The compositions have an underlying geometry, and the linearity is more than simple outlines. With line he creates a second level of composition tautly related to the geometric structure. He can’t be copied or imitated successfully, as this complex play depends upon attentive mastery.”
Lacking formal training, his works quite naturally amalgamate African and European traditions formed in the crucible of Haiti’s volatile cultural hardwiring: a bride and groom process formally outside their Catholic church white wedding, surrounded by a surreal miscellany of well-wishers, street vendors and market folk on donkey-back; Adam and Eve are encircled by lions, tigers and giraffes in his ‘Tentation de Adam et Eve’ – distant echoes of the African roots and Vodou traditions integral to Haiti’s identity. “His Vodou scenes or everyday life scenes always go past representation to become poetic.
His work arises from his life in communities where a rich treasure of African, European, and American language, religions and life-ways are continuously worked into the unique Haitian culture,” observes Dr. Benson.
Bottex’s wry humour, his passion for colour and draftsman-like spatial composition meant that he was one of a selection of artists of black-African heritage commissioned by Bishop Alfred Voegli to paint murals at the Cathédrale Sainte-Trinité in Port-au-Prince – heavily damaged in 2010’s tragic quake. A cultural touchstone, and considered one of the most important achievements in modern Haitian art, Bottex’s nativity featured a lonely Joseph standing off to one side eating a banana. As Herbert Gold explains in his book, Haiti: Best Nightmare of Earth, “He discovered the joke of a husband’s irrelevance when his virgin wife gives birth.” Bottex, however, remains ambiguous, “I don’t really seek humour,” he states. “It is all within the viewer’s scope.”
Now resident in New Jersey, Seymour Bottex’s life’s works remain pivotal to the actively evolving culture of his homeland. Highly sought by collectors for the intuitive richness and striking purity of their artistic expression, his paintings not only represent the quintessential Haitian experience – painting life with a rare and understated insight and perspective – but, perhaps more importantly, inadvertently manage to become a defining moment in the development of the naïve art movement.
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