Most mornings in Haiti I drive past displays of “street art”— a common sight in and around Port-au-Prince. In most instances, hundreds of paintings are attached to walls that line the roadways, a collage of folk art images quilting the street.
In Petion-ville, just down the mountain from where we live, art is sold across the street from a camp of earthquake survivors, and in fact, some paintings now for sale along the road have selected the disaster itself as their subject.
Below is a video about street art that was produced about a month after the earthquake. In it two artists are interviewed, the first lamenting the loss of his mentor in the disaster, the second discussing his own earthquake-focused paintings. Despite the language barrier, try to appreciate the images and emotions shared here:
Responding to the same depth of emotion expressed above, Sara and I, over the last year, have purchased a number of paintings from the street. We love the stuff and have bought 5 or 6 pieces, not only because of the emotionally charged nature of the work, but also because the art is highly affordable and equally portable. (Canvases can be removed from frames, rolled up, and packed away in suitcases when we return to the US.)
The first piece we purchased in March of 2010 depicts a market scene, a common motif in Haitian folk art and an especially popular one in street art:
We enjoy the bold colors in this painting by A. Emmanuel and are struck by the featureless faces of the market women. Notice the women wear the head coverings common in the Haitian countryside.
Still other paintings feature religious themes, as in this image of the Madonna:
Notice the mirror images of the Baby Jesus. Twins are especially important in voodoo, and sometimes even Christian paintings include elements of it.
However, other street paintings more overtly explore voodoo, this other side of religious life on the island. Some offer heavily painted symbols of the loa, the deities of Haiti, such as the “vever” (design) for Agwe, the voodoo water spirit:
Sara and I have none of the “vever” paintings, but we do have the one below that is, at least obliquely, associated with voodoo:
Still other street art paintings, like the one below, explore rural village life:
I think it’s important to remember, that street art, like the painting above, like those sold adjacent to the camp in Petion-ville, not only humanizes situations that might otherwise seem hopelessly inhumane, but also dignifies these places, in some instances almost encircling the camp with images of loveliness and grace, embracing the Haitians encamped there, culturally reinforcing messages about beauty’s ability to triumph over pain.
So the next time you think about Haiti—the earthquake, the cholera, the political corruption—remind yourself, and others for that matter, that though things here might seem singularly hopeless, they are, in fact, neither simple nor beyond repair.
Remember that over 200 years ago Haitians defeated the French, becoming only the second country in the Western hemisphere (after the United States) to gain independence from a colonial master—a nation of slaves strong enough and determined enough to refuse oppression even its most imperial form.
Remember, as well, that Haitian folk art in general and street art in particular articulate the daring of a people determined to overcome. Remember that Haiti is not a hopeless place, but is, in fact, one whose people have endured centuries of mistreatment, first from a colonial system of servitude, then from a social and political elite whose wealth has depended for decades on the poverty of so many.
Indeed, the future may look bleak, prospects may seem poor, but Haitians are rich in emotional resources, their creative spirit screams from street corners where art echoes centuries of grief and centuries of hope, decades of determination, and ages of insight, wisdom, and strength.
Haitians remember the Biblical imperative to think on “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report.” (Thank you, Jane, for the reminder!)
Haitian art indeed reminds us that things are lovely–