Haitian Street Art: A “Good Report”

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–

That beauty  paints a “good report.”

Make Green, Not Greed: Sustainability in Haitian Art

When you think “island music,” you most likely think “steel drums” and the almost bubbly music they produce—happy notes.

But here in Haiti, the 55 gallon oil drums recycled for music-making have yet another artistic application—one I learned about last spring on my first trip to Haiti.

In March of 2010, I traveled to Port-au-Prince to celebrate a birthday with my partner Sara, who had already been in Haiti for nearly two months.  Nine weeks after the earthquake, the place was not exactly a “vacation destination”—the city was largely a landscape of rubble and debris—remnants of a city that used to be.

But Sara had recently moved into a house expected to be home for the next several years.  So in an effort to make it feel more like “home” and less like a house of a hill seeking its soul, Sara and I decided we wanted our home to mirror the cultural landscape of the city, to fit with the creative lay of the land, so to speak.  And it seemed easiest to accomplish that with art, or whatever remained of it here after the earthquake.

In fact, last January’s earthquake dealt Haitian art a devastating blow, severely damaging the Centre d’Art, which launched Haiti’s art movement in the 1940s, and collapsing the Musee d’Art Nader, which had housed the country’s largest private collection of more than 12,000 pieces.

But even so shortly after the earthquake that nearly leveled the city, in March artists were back at work, perhaps, partly because Haitian art is largely a study in sustainability, and artists use whatever materials they have on hand to make creative statements, sometimes even hammering them from the steel remains of oil drums, the same material on which musicians mallet out their melodies.

Ever since the 1950s Haitian artists have been pounding cultural messages into steel—a tradition of metal art that owes it origins to a blacksmith from Croix-des-Bouquets named Georges Liautaud, who began fashioning simple metal crosses to mark graves in his village, since so few Haitians could afford tombstones.  

In fact, the first piece of metal art Sara purchased and had hanging in our home when I arrived last March was such a cross.  Yes, they’re still being made some 60 years after Liautaud began the tradition.  The cross Sara had hanging on our bedroom wall looks like this:

However, the piece of metal art we purchased that Saturday in March was done in the African mask style, a stunningly beautiful Haitian woman with bold spiraling hair and DNA-ed dangles hanging from either ear:

When I returned more permanently to Haiti in June, we purchased our lovely lady a mate—a warrior, whose long, stern face guards our entrance way with steely spikes of hair and sadly serious eyes:

Since then, Sara selected and purchased a spritely angel who hovers in our bedroom—a circling girlish figure, a feminine compliment to the more masculine cross that still hangs on an adjoining wall:

So what’s one to make of this art being pounded out in Port-au-Prince?

In the US some still accuse the Bush administration of entering Iraq for oil, but it’s unlikely Obama will make war in Haiti for empty barrels of the same black gold, so Haitian artists will use the rubbish from the rest of the world’s over consumption, its gas-guzzling greed and extravagant excess, to hammer home a message other countries had better learn, learn before it’s too late.

Haiti reminds us that maybe we should sing a different tune, beat our drums not for more oil, but make do with what remains.

The pied piper of Haiti may make his music on metal drums, but will the world follow a Haitian example of green consumption over greed?