Gérard Fortuné began painting in the 1970s and developed a distinctive style as a self-trained artist drawn equally to representing Christian imagery like the Crucifixion and the Last Supper as Haitian Vodou figures like Papa Legba, gatekeeper of the spirits; Ogun, spirit of metalwork and rum production; and Damballah, a snake god with a cigarette. Little is written about Fortuné’s early years, but he worked as a handyman at a private residence in a suburb of Port-au-Prince and developed a lifelong attachment to gardening and Haitian recipes through his mother. Kanaval, the Haitian Creole carnival, became central to the artist’s sensibility, adding playful, vibrant colors and protagonists to his pictorial lexicon, and Fortuné observed and joined in disguise its masquerades, percussive rhythms, community processions, ceremonies honoring family spirits, and sacrificial offerings.
During the 1980s, Fortuné was introduced to Haitian artists like Hector Hyppolite, the Saint Soleil Group, and André Pierre, among others. Women feature prominently in his oeuvre, from motherhood to more contemporary scenes of multitasking in which we meet a female body sprouting multiple heads much like the divine twins Marassa, who are guardians of children and representations of La Sirene (the mermaid) at the threshold of terrestrial life and oceanic cosmology and a protection figure for sailors and traffic of the waterways. Other paintings not shown in the Biennale that depict Haitian politics, presidential rule, and policing acquire humorous allegorical tones and operate as chimeras of human-animal characters. When visiting the artist in 2016 with photographer and curator Leah Gordon, Fortuné welcomed his visitors generously, unfurling several paintings at once on the ground amid his chickens and vegetable patch. He stated that he dreamed his paintings each night, and they continued to haunt him and stir visions that he applied to canvas through a daily embodied rhythm.