Friday, January 29, 2010

Vibrant Haitian Art Vanishes in the Dust


Haiti has lost huge chunks of its artistic culture, with the destruction and damage of historic paintings and murals, along with the deaths of art collectors.

PORT-AU-PRINCE -- The vibrant murals that once adorned the walls of the Cathedrale of Sainte Trinite -- created in the 1950s by some of the giants of Haitian art -- are now largely dust, part of the gray rubble that covers most everything in Port-au-Prince.

The earthquake two weeks ago buried hundreds of thousands and struck deep into Haiti's vibrant arts community, erasing in seconds cultural touchstones like the murals that depicted Christ's birth, crucifixion and ascension. Even as talk turns to rebuilding, artists struggle to account for the loss of thousands of expressions of artwork that shows themselves -- and the world -- a creativity that persists through years of political strife, turmoil and poverty.

``We'll be knocking on every door possible to save whatever is left,'' said Gerald Alexis, a Haitian-born curator and expert on Caribbean art who from his home in Quebec is trying to mobilize arts groups to find a way to preserve the portions of the mural that survive. ``It is essential for future generations, for our identity.''

The losses on the cultural front are staggering. At the Centre d'Art -- the successor home of the original movement that launched Haitian art -- the front of the building has been torn off and reduced to rubble. Neighbors were able to salvage some pieces, Alexis said, though many are visible but out of reach on the second floor.

Private collections across the city, and at least one artist and several arts patrons, perished in the quake. The Haitian government has asked former Culture Minister Daniel Elie to conduct an inventory to determine what is lost.


Among the biggest losses: one of the most significant private collections of early Haitian art -- 15,000 pieces collected over the past 40 years by Georges Nader and housed at his home and museum, Musee D'Art Nader.

The pieces included works by Philome Obin and Hector Hyppolite, masters of Haitian art who painted at the Centre d'Art in the 1940s and have influenced generations of artists.

``They were the founders of Haitian art,'' said Georges Nader's son, also named Georges, who made four trips and spent hours combing through the rubble of the house to salvage what he could of the collection that his father so loved.

Among the 100 or so pieces he was able to rescue: several primitive landscapes and a playful self-portrait by Obin, who painted himself in the 1950s standing next to his ``dedicated friend,'' Georges Nader.

Several pieces by Hyppolite, considered Haiti's leading artist, were pulled from the debris. Haitian art is alive with rich color, yet every piece that was rescued is coated with dust and grime. Several on cardboard were ripped in half or suffered gouges. The younger Nader hopes to find restoration experts in the United States or Canada, but he fears art restoration will not be a priority as the country struggles to feed and house the hundreds of thousands made homeless by the earthquake.

``My parents survived, that's the important thing,'' he said, noting that his parents -- both 79 -- had decided to retire to their bedroom for a nap when the quake struck. The bedroom was the only part of the house that survived.

The Nader Gallery in nearby Pétionville, which carries some traditional work, but mostly contemporary Haitian art, survived the earthquake with hardly a single frame askew. A month ago, the multistory gallery was the site of an exhibit of the works of the old masters.

``They were all here and they might have made it,'' Nader smiled ruefully, gesturing to the artwork that hangs brightly on the gallery walls. ``We returned them to my dad's just three weeks ago.''


The Waterloo Center for the Arts in Iowa, which has the largest public collection of Haitian art in the United States, is setting up a relief fund and serving as a clearinghouse for information about the lost art and affected artists, said Cammie Scully, the museum's executive director.

The museum has contacted some artists but believes at least one compound was hard hit.

``With unemployment at 85 percent, art has been one of the ways people have been able to make money,'' Scully said. ``A lot of people are taking care of extended families through the arts. It's an unbelievably creative culture.''

Some artwork that hung in Haiti's now collapsed presidential palace has been pulled from the rubble, but not the most significant piece -- a painting by the French neoclassical painter Guillaume Guillon Lethiere. The painting had recently been rehung after being restored at the Louvre, Alexis said.

Haitian artist Phillipe Dodard's Culture Creation Foundation, which promotes arts in the schools, lost its offices -- and 18 years of work, Dodard said. But Dodard, whose work has met with international acclaim, said he was grieving the loss of the murals at the Episcopal cathedral, dozens of colonial-era gingerbread houses and the Nader collection.

``All those major artists, we don't have them anymore,'' he said of the old masters. ``Haitian culture isn't just buildings and art, it's people. But this is like losing part of our memory.''


Haitian artists also lost a leading arts patron and collector with the death of Carmel Delatour, 85. Her private collection -- which included works by some of Haiti's most significant artists -- was lost in the earthquake, and son Lionel said he's uncertain if any of her sons will continue her work.

Still, Delatour said, he believes artists, like the country, will rebound.

``I have no doubt the creativity of the Haitian people will not have been extinguished by this event,'' he said.

Indeed, as soon as the dust settled -- and international reporters and relief workers began landing in the country -- street vendors were back at work, selling paintings, steel sculptures and vivid flags beaded with various Vodou spirits.


But Jeanguy Saintus, the founder and artistic director of a dance school, Artcho Danse, and a dance troupe, Cie Ayikodans, said he is running short on optimism.

The gingerbread house on a quiet tree-lined street in Pétionville that houses his school and studio is still standing, but the back wall threatens to peel away. Parents are pulling students out of class to leave for the United States and Canada. Most of his troupe -- six drummers and 10 dancers -- lost their homes. His principal dancer, Linda Francois, is leaving shortly for the Dominican Republican to stay with a sister. She promises to return.

``The arts in Haiti, particularly dance, have always been like a catastrophe, chaos,'' Saintus said, noting there is no government and little private support for dance. ``People think you are crazy to do professional dance in Haiti.''

But over 22 years, Saintus has built a respected troupe of Haitian-born, Haitian-trained dancers. One dancer, Vitolio Jeune, was a recent contestant on the hit American TV show So You Think You Can Dance. Cie Ayikodans has performed around the world, proving to audiences in Amsterdam and at Carnegie Hall that Haiti is more than political turmoil and poverty. It is movement and heart and joy.

The scope of the damage to the school -- and the uncertainty -- threaten to sap Saintus' resolve.

``I want to be positive, I want to be optimistic, but I can't say everything is going to be all right, because I just don't know,'' he said, sitting on the porch steps, outside the studio. ``No one knows.''

Miami Herald staff writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.

Source: MiamiHerald

1 comment:

  1. I want to share with readers a unique effort to assist Haiti in my country, Trinidad and Tobago . A group called Medianet in collaboration with an NGO called ITNAC is sponsoring the sale of hundreds of original pieces of haitian artwork. This initiative began even before the earthquake and part of the proceeds ( one third, I think ) go towards assisting Haiti. I've decided to make a contribution toward Haiti every month and wondered if purchasing a piece of artwork was more focused on me, than on Haiti, but after reading this I will buy, if only to preserve the legacy of some of Haiti.