Friday, March 26, 2010

The New Realities of Haitian Painting

In the quake's aftermath, artists who once depicted vibrant local life turn to darker themes; 'I had to paint it'

Mr. Bazelais holds a painting depicting the quake destruction. "This is our reality," he says.

Before the earthquake, Onel Bazelais made colorful Carnival masks and painted scenes of life here in Haiti's cultural capital, Jacmel. These days, the artist's work depicts death, destruction and tent cities.

The Jan. 12 quake devastated this seaside town renowned for its French colonial architecture, artistic community and annual Carnival. In under a minute, about 500 of the town's of 50,000 residents were killed, 4,000 were injured and most were left homeless.

The sights and sounds of that day still haunt Mr. Bazelais. As with other artisans here, painting has provided an outlet for his still-raw emotions. "This is our new reality," says Mr. Bazelais, 41, pointing to a painting in muddy tones of gray, brown and red that depicts an encampment where hundreds of people are now crammed.

Jacmel, about 50 miles south of Port-au-Prince, has long been a bucolic getaway from Haiti's densely populated, crime-infested capital. Its 19th-century homes, boasting balconies sustained by cast-iron pillars, influenced New Orleans's architecture. It hosts film and music festivals, and its Carnival celebration attracts people from all over Haiti. Painters, poets and artisans have found inspiration here.

"Prior to the earthquake, Jacmel's artistic community was about a breezy, beautiful art," says Nancy Josephson, an American artist who has been visiting Haiti for 13 years and serves on the board of a nonprofit there called the Art Creation Foundation for Children.

At least for the moment, the earthquake appears to have altered an artistic tradition that had gained an international following. Haitian art is variously referred to as "naïve," "popular" or "folk." Even buses, known as "tap-taps," are veritable pieces of moving art, painted from hood to tailgate with floral and intricate designs. Typically, paintings reveal Haiti through the eyes of self-taught artists, like Mr. Bazelais, who draw inspiration from both Afro-Catholic spiritual themes and daily life. Selden Rodman, a deceased U.S. collector credited with helping introduce Haitian art to the world, wrote many books about it, including one entitled "Where Art Is Joy." Mr. Rodman's collection is on permanent display at a gallery named after him at Ramapo College of New Jersey.

Currently on display at another gallery at the Mahwah, N.J., college is an exhibit entitled "Mystical Imagination: The Art of Haitian Master Hector Hyppolite," which runs through April 21. It features 29 paintings by Hector Hyppolite (1894-1948), a Haitian master whose work gained international notice after French Surrealist André Breton brought some of his paintings back to Paris. The show includes rare pieces borrowed from film director Jonathan Demme.

In Jacmel, painters traditionally have used a vibrant palette of neon pinks, oranges and jungle greens. In animated market scenes, women carry fruit-laden baskets on their heads and men hawk fish. Carnival revelers parade in their masked regalia. This year Carnival was canceled. Demolished buildings, buckled streets and a sense of foreboding permeate the charming, sun-drenched town. Mountains of rubble line the streets. Most residents are relying on food and supplies from relief organizations to survive in makeshift encampments.

The dire circumstances began to appear in the paintings of Mr. Bazelais and other artists. In one of Mr. Bazelais's works, victims are trapped in collapsed houses and blood oozes out of their bodies. Despondent individuals are down on their knees, hands behind their heads, as chaos erupts around them. In another, white men in military uniform carry victims on stretchers.

Dealers of Haitian art believe that the new, harsh reality depicted in these paintings will still draw buyers. "I have interest in paintings of this genre, when artists...turn their skills to depicting the reality around them," says Tony Fisher, who sells Haitian art at his Indigo Arts Gallery in Philadelphia.

Haiti's self-taught artists have depicted natural disasters, history and politics before. "Art is how Haitians record their lives," says Sydney Jenkins, director of the Art Galleries at Ramapo College.

Indeed, in a nation frequently beset by natural disasters, this is not the first time that artists have painted tragedy. A show of Mr. Demme's Haitian art in New York last year included a painting about a hurricane. Two ambulance drivers carried a stretcher to collect the body of a fisherman who was caught in the tropical storm at sea and then washed ashore in his boat.

"This is something we experienced, so I had to paint it," says Mr. Bazelais, who shares a tent with his wife and son.

A closeup of a painting showing people upside down in rubble, and relief workers trying to save them.

Write to Miriam Jordan at

Source: AP

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