Wilson Bigaud: Life on the Edge

by Larry Kent

Wilson Bigaud: Life on the Edge 1

Larry Kent 

Wilson Bigaud was born in 1928 in Vialet, a small village on the southern peninsula of Haiti, not far from Petit Goave and about 45 miles from the capital, Port au Prince. His wife, Cloudette Ambrose, called "Cocot," was known as a "mambo" or priestess in Haitian vodou. They had two daughters who still live in Haiti and four sons who emigrated to the United States.

Before he was 18 years old, Bigaud was named as one of the Fab 5 group of artists who were commissioned to paint the murals for the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Port au Prince. These murals were famous for depicting biblical stories with all black figures. But, in 2010, the Cathedral collapsed during a devastating earthquake. The murals were totally destroyed.

At age 14, Bigaud showed an innate talent as a naif artist with no training. Three years later, he was knocking on the door of the famous Hector Hyppolite, called the father of Haitian naif painting. In 1945, Andre Breton and Cuban painter Wilfredo Lam purchased several paintings by Hector Hyppolite from Le Centre d'Art. Breton championed Hyppolite internationally and arranged for an exhibition of his work. Haitian art was beginning to become recognized. However, travel to Haiti was still difficult after World War II, and tourism was in its early stages.

Bigaud lived only a block from Hyppolite, so the great artist was accessible and subsequently became Bigaud's mentor and friend. Bigaud's first paintings had a rudimentary quality. He painted scenes of everyday peasant life and of vodou ceremonies—things that he knew best. But after three years, he developed into an accomplished painter with a unique style and technique.

Hyppolite took Bigaud to Le Centre d'Art in Port au Prince, where he was able to refine his abilities. There academic and self-taught artists worked side by side. Bigaud worked primarily on his own but he did receive encouragement from Maurice Borno, a trained artist.   By age 18, Bigaud had many achievements as an artist. His painting, Earthly Paradise, won a prize at an international exhibition in Washington, D.C., and was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His commissioned murals in the Holy Trinity Cathedral were featured in several magazines. His work also was shown in Amsterdam and Los Angeles in two traveling exhibitions.  

In 1951, there were no commercial galleries in Haiti, and collectors of Haitian art had to travel to Le Centre d'Art to purchase Bigaud's work. However, according to Bigaud's family, around that time "his mind started to slip."  In the period from 1951 to 1954, Bigaud continued to paint and produced several small but very fine paintings. His themes included Carnivale, zombies in graveyards, peasant life and ceremonies of animal sacrifice.

In 1955, Bigaud returned home to Vialet, where he continued to paint actively day and night. His son, Buchara, said that Bigaud could finish two or three paintings in a week. He liked to paint both inside his home and outside in the shade.  Two years later, Bigaud executed a large painting, Conflicts and Tensions, which possibly portrayed what the artist was struggling with internally— severe depression. Director of the Centre d'Art Dewitt Peters called this painting "Haiti's masterpiece of the era."

After 1959, Bigaud stopped painting for a few years, and it is not known if he sought treatment even though there was a sanitarium in Vialet.  By 1963, Bigaud had started painting again and briefly experimented with watercolors. His trademark shadows and stylized figures were reduced to quick brush strokes. Around 1965, he reverted to using oils on boards, but his greatness had passed him by. He attempted to return to his old form but he could not reach his mastery of the 1950s. Wilson Bigaud died in 2010, leaving behind the legacy of his paintings.  

1. Kent, Larry. Folk Art Messenger No. 89, Vol. 26, No. 2, Fall / Winter 2015. Print.