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Macondo owner brings Haitian paintings to Pittsburgh

Thursday, July 02, 1998

By Bette McDevitt

Bill Bollendorf didn't set out to be an art collector. But how he became one is a story every bit as quirky and colorful as the Haitian paintings that dot the walls of his Highland Park home.

The vivid hues of "Bourique Chaje" ("The Overloaded Donkey"), by Haitian artist Frantz Zephirin, contain a symbolic criticism of U.S. government policy toward the painter's island home. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

On a wintry day in 1974, Bollendorf and a friend left Philadelphia and flew to Haiti to live in a beach town for as long as their money would last. When they told a guide they wanted a town with no tourists, he took them on a two-hour walk out of Cap Haitien, through the mountains, to a small town on a beautiful cove.

"That's where you want to live," he said.

They were welcomed to the village of Labadie by the elder, who rented them his own house on the beach for three months.

"It was wonderful," said Bollendorf. "We ate what the villagers ate, bananas, and fish. I wandered around all day and took photographs. When we needed staples, like rum, we would walk the two hours back to Cap Haitien."

Bollendorf delighted in the Haitian people - and their art.

"They have nothing to be optimistic about, but they are. It's inspirational to be among people who are able to maintain a sense of humor in the face of such deprivation," he said.

"Haitians are very good with their hands. Secondly, they have a lot of time, and don't feel hurried. They don't have many things, so they live a rich inner life. They have vivid, bizarre imaginations.

"And finally, they can make more money painting than they can doing anything else."

Bollendorf, 57, admits he was no art expert.

"My father was a milkman, and we lived in a working class neighborhood in Philly. The only artwork we had in our house was a paint-by-numbers picture my sister did that hung over a lamp in our living room," he said.

But he couldn't resist these canvases full of bright color, arcane imagery and political symbolism.

"You couldn't help but buy the paintings. In early days, there were stacks of paintings down by the wharf. That's when there were two or three cruise ships stopping in Port-au-Prince every week," Bollendorf said.

Bill Bollendorf in front of the painting "Three Women," by the Haitian artist Louisianne St. Fleurant. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

He and his friend returned to Philadelphia with straw hats and crafts, which Bollendorf sold in a shop he named Macondo after the magical village in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel, "One Hundred Years of Solitude." Bollendorf came to Pittsburgh, and his shop to Oakland, in 1980, when his Beechview-born wife, Madeline Simasek, was sent here to serve her medical residency at Children's Hospital.

Today, she is a pediatrician on the faculty of the family practice residency at UPMC-Shadyside, and he runs Macondo Imports. Most of the paintings, which he also sells, are in their house. Bollendorf returns to Haiti two or three times each year to buy.

He said he's sold paintings to people across the country, everyone from cleaning ladies to corporate executives. Prices range from $75 for miniature gems to $10,000 for huge masterpieces. Bollendorf said he subscribes to what he calls the Will Rogers theory of Haitian art:

"I've never met a Haitian painting I didn't like."

Customers like Elaine Levitt of Scott appreciate Bollendorf's eclectic view of Haitian art.

"There's everything from a jungle painting to biblical scenes to highly stylized still-lifes," she said.

Levitt, who has collected more than 20 paintings and sculptures over the last 10 years, said she was drawn to the artwork by "the color and the joy. You look at them and they make you happy."

She and Bollendorf are intrigued by the country's history as the first black republic and only successful slave uprising in history. But he notes with regret that Haiti has not provided itself with good leadership in the years since the revolution, citing the 40-year dictatorships of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier. Their secret police, called the Tonton Macoutes, appear frequently in Haitians' paintings.

Haitian art is a volatile gumbo of the political and the religious, where the Macoutes may show up with images of voodoo gods, Catholic saints and Carib Indian gods. When it comes to religion, Haitians are a flexible people. Bollendorf said he once gave a voodoo priest plaques showing the Buddhist symbols of ying and yang. The priest made them part of his voodoo shrine, placing them between a menorah and an Our Lady of Perpetual Help alarm clock.

The overthrow of Baby Doc Duvalier unleashed a creative explosion in Haiti. Scenes of tyranny or brutal rejoicing showed up even in what looked like "nice" paintings on first glance.

One such painting is Emmanuel Pierrette's "Dechouke," which means to pull up the tree, roots and all. The painting, which shows the ouster of Baby Doc and his cronies, is painted in soft colors. The people appear to be out taking a Sunday walk, until you notice that they are carrying the roasted corpses of Macoutes on spits.

Bollendorf says the juxtaposition of horror and everyday life is typical of Haiti.

"Everything can be falling down around you, and you behave normally," he said.

Bollendorf said Baby Doc brought about his own downfall.

"The wheels started falling off Duvalier's wagon with the pope's visit in 1985. Duvalier planned to make good use of the visit, but the pope said 'You can't do this to people! This cannot stand!' to a million Haitians."

Baby Doc's wife also played a part. Michele Duvalier, who was already resented because she was from the light-skinned elite in a dark-skinned population, offended the Haitian people by renting a Concorde and flying off to Paris with several wealthy friends.

Controversial U.S. policies are frequently subjects of paintings. Years ago, most Haitians owned a black pig and counted on it like a bank account. The pig foraged and roamed free until he reached a weight of 40 pounds, when he was sold for a wedding or some religious celebration. But then the U.S. Department of Agriculture stepped in. Fearing the black pigs would spread anthrax, it destroyed them and brought in white pigs, which had to stay in pens and eat special food.

"This was totally contradictory to what Haitians thought about pigs," Bollendorf said.

The white pigs grew much larger than the old black ones. No one would buy a 500-pound pig for a party, so the white pig venture failed.

Fritz St. Jean's painting about the episode, "The Return of the Black Pigs" shows a huge bird, apparently heaven-sent, with a basket of black pigs spilling out. On the ground, the people are rejoicing over the return of the black pig.

Painters also documented the overthrow and return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's first elected president, and the boat people who have tried to escape Haiti's poverty in leaky crafts.

One of Bollendorf's favorite artists, Frantz Zephirin, 30, painted "Bourique Chaje," which means the overloaded donkey. The painting refers derisively to Alvin Adams, the U.S. ambassador who, when he arrived to present his credentials to the Haitian government, likened democracy to a loaded donkey who will go his own way, unstoppable.

Zephirin's painting shows a donkey in a red, white and blue jacket, wearing a backpack loaded with missiles and other weapons. He stands on an image of Aristide and carries a packed suitcase. Bollendorf said the painting depicts the departure of Adams for another post in Peru and the arrival of the U.S. military to restore Aristide to power.

A painting by Fritz St. Jean, also named "Bourique Chaje," shows a large boat packed with people floating in the sky above the island of Haiti, and a small boat on fire in the water. The message is clear, said Bollendorf:

"If you want to get out of Haiti, you'd better count on God's help."

Bollendorf can be reached at Macondo Imports, 406 S. Craig St. Oakland, at 412-683-6486. His Haitian art Web site, Galerie Macondo, is at:

Bette McDevitt is a free-lance writer.

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