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?