Read Haiti: Art from the Rubble – Part 1 here.
There?s much more to Haiti than coups and earthquakes. Some of the most prolific artists in the region have called Haiti home. Like the nation's unique culture, Haitian art reflects a mixture of African, Caribbean, French, and Catholic influences. Here?s some of the art and life I encountered there in 2003.
At the American embassy a woman hands me a slip of paper with NGOs phone numbers. "Sorry," she says, "we don't have any information on artists or local schools with art classes." I swallow hard, wondering what I'm doing here, and head outside into the midday sun. Doubtless locals wonder what I'm doing too; most foreigners here work with missions or aid organizations. Haiti doesn't have an Angkor Wat that attracts tourists during its difficult times. But I'm no slum tourist either.
I'd arrived in Port-au-Prince the previous day with luggage full of art supplies to donate and demonstrate to artists, but no idea how or where to meet them; none of the organizations I?d contacted in America or Haiti had responded to me. So I decided to come anyway, and meet artists in the few days I had there. Art gives hope, and while I didn't have water pumps and bags of rice, I did have some special wax paints.
While art schools in America are up to 60% female, there was just one woman in this class. Art in the developing world attracts more men than women; financial rewards for art only happen after years of work, if ever.
I walk along the Grand Rue of Dessalines. It seethes with a river of people. Some are headed to a market or to school, but many wander around aimlessly. Like me. I pass two other tourists, the only ones I meet. A Swedish couple, they're curious why I've come here alone. "There's not much to do here," they say, and shrug their shoulders. They don't seem to know why they've come to Haiti. Maybe I don't either, but I keep walking along the Grand Rue.
"Hey – are you in the Peace Corps?" shouts an American voice from somewhere in the crowd. With a New York accent. A skeletal face with huge black eyes pushes out of the crowd. I shake my head no. Who is this guy? What kind of line is that?
"I thought you weren't – most of the Peace Corps girls are pretty homely. What're you doing in Haiti?"
I tell him.
"There's the National Art School a few blocks away – I can take you there, and won't even charge you for it!" He grins, and I follow him down a steep sloping street. Robert moved to New York as a kid and had spent 20 years there. He'd gotten into crack, shoplifting to support his habit. One day he walked out of a store with 6 leather coats worth $600 each under his arms. He was caught – with a felony-level crime. It's been fifteen years since he was deported back to Haiti, but he talks about it like it was last week. He still hasn't kicked his habit.
We meet the Directeur of Haiti's arts university, the Ecole Nationale des Arts [ENARTS]. Students' voices filter through windows from neighboring buildings. We sweat in the still afternoon air. The Directeur sits stoically, his hands folded, in front of an empty computer screen. There's no electricity today. "Qu'est-ce que vous voulez faire avec nos eleves, madame?" he asks. I will show them how to paint with wax like this, I say, and hand him photos from a workshop in Cuba last year. I would like to give painting equipment to the school, have an exchange of art and ideas with the students.
The next morning Robert picks me up just before seven, and leads me through alleys and side streets and gardens to a small courtyard strewn with dog droppings. Murals climb across the walls, twist under a bower of branches. I walk closer to the murals. "Wait here," he says, "it looks like Claude's not awake yet." Claude's a voodoo priest, and this bower with scattered plastic chairs is his chill-out spot – and a temple too. The paintings illustrate voodoo rites: a landscape of dark faces with white head coverings, spirits incarnated into painted flesh.
Claude walks out into the early morning sun, rubbing his heavy-lidded eyes. He looks like a huge teddy bear, warm and round, his close-cropped hair tinged with wires of grey. "Bonjour," he smiles. Soon he'll take us around town to print handouts for class. But first his mother insists we stay for coffee. [Their taps aren't working so she makes it with rare bottled drinking water] Her French is confident and cosmopolitan. When she was young, she says, Port-au-Prince rarely had blackouts. She tells stories of her childhood in the seaside town of Jacmel, and of how she misses it. Of the good times in Montreal and New York, though she doesn't miss those cold northern cities. She and Claude could have been part of the Haitian diaspora in Montreal, Paris, and America – often called the 9th province because their remittances are crucial to running the country – but they've chosen to stay here. Because Haiti is home. But "l'Haiti n'est pas un jeux d'enfants," she says.
The students crowd around as I set up the hotplate and ask nonstop questions. We sniff the beeswax paints and they guess what's inside. They crowd one another as I explain how I make these encaustic wax paints, curious to get closer to this weird colored wax. They watch me paint, then dive right in.
The Directeur looks on just before everyone gets wild with wax
Soon the dozen colored waxes melt into a viscous grey-brown puddle of swirls and white as they dip their brushes and paint onto plywood. Brushes move fast once they see how quickly the wax freezes. They go wild with the paint. Years of training give painters confidence with new materials.
Two hours escape us and suddenly it's time to clean up the equipment and donate it to the school.
Few of the students have email addresses, but those that do write them down for me, and we stay in sporadic touch over the years. I have sent emails to them all since the earthquake and hope that they and their loved ones are still alive.
Based on our last communications and Google searches, this is all I know today:
One of them, Dominique Domercant, has found success as an arts journalist, and regularly exhibits his work. He now lives in America.
The lone female artist in the class, Mendes Semerzier, is still painting in Haiti.
Nixon Leger lives in America and is active in the Haitian-American arts community there.
Another, Kevens Prevaris, still lives in Haiti and is a practicing artist.
If you have any information on these artists, please contact me.
Years ago I lost contact with Claude and Robert, and am searching for their whereabouts now. Claude came to America sometime after we met.
This NGO, Stand With Haiti, has been highly recommended by people I admire. Donate to them if you can; if you can't, then you can always spread the word. Because it's going to take a long long time for this flattened city to recover.
* Some names changed.