Experiencing Haitian Art
Art is the medium through which some first come to know Haiti, and for others, to know Haiti better. Haitian art is too expansive to be confined to shops and galleries – it is found on public transport, on the walls, in churches and Vodoun peristyles alike. Art is Haiti's only inexhaustible resource. When others use the tired phrase "Haiti - the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere", let us counter that Haiti is the culturally richest country in the Western Hemisphere instead.
Haiti’s art is imaginative, colorful, and often surreal. With its echoes of Africa, it tells stories of resilience, resistance and hope not reflected in the mass media. Haitian art is readily recognizable. A friend once invited me to her home to see her Dominican art, which was in reality Haitian. I was frustrated that Haitian artists would feel that had to either leave their country or sell their works to the Dominican Republic for lack of a national market.
Tourism in Haiti remains under-developed. Haiti has nice beaches, but other countries have nice beaches. Haiti is close to the United States, but other countries are close to the United States. Haiti has a compelling history, but that in itself will not be enough to entice tourists. Art, music, and other cultural events could ressurect Haiti's ailing tourism sector.
This lack of visitors directly impacts the ability of a Haitian artist to sell his or her works. For some, there are opportunities to sell art aborad. Unfortunately, by the time a piece of art arrives lot bo dlo, whether in the United States or elsewhere, it has changed hands so many times that the price increases dramatically. One street away from my apartment is a gallery that sells some Haitian iron-work. What would cost ten dollars in Haiti is two hundred and fifty dollars here.
Some organizations, such as Aid to Artisans, have set in place programs to help expand markets for Haitian art. In 2006, ATA helped aristans generate 440,000 in sales by securing contracts Aveda, Williams-Sonoma, Pier 1, Smith & Hawken, and Cost Plus. Aid to Artisans also arranges for Haitian artists to participate in festivals such as the 2004 Smithsonian Folklife Festival and the Santa Fe Folk Art Festival in 2005 and 2006. In the USA, Aid to Artisans participates in Haitian cultural activities with the Haitian Association in Hartford, Saint Boniface Haiti Foundation in Boston and a unique store, Haiti's Back Porch in nearby Middletown, CT.
Aid to Artisans also published a book entitled Artisans of Haiti, a great starting point for those wanting to learn more about the different kinds of Haitian art. The book is available in both English and French and features photographs and interviews with renowned Haitian artists. To buy Aid to Artisan products, including several Haitian pieces, visit their online store. For more information, you can view a video clip about the organization here. You can also sign up for their email list.
The best way to experience Haitian art is to visit Haiti. Once in Port au Prince, you dont have to go far as there are many different options. You can go directly to Croix-des-Bouquets, a short drive from Port-au-Prince, to the area of Noailles. There are over 60 metal workers there. You can watch them work, discuss the process, and negotiate a more reasonable price than would ever be possible in the United States. One could hire a driver or take a taxi. According to Corbett's List colleagues, the new Lonely Planet Guide for Haiti/DR gives instructions on taking tap-taps there, but this takes time. You have another option though. Jacqui Labrom of Voyages Lumieres offers well guided tours of this and other areas in Port au Prince. You can contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Artists in other neighborhoods, and Bel Air in particular, specialize in the creation of Vodoun flags. Sequin by painstaking sequin, veves of Haitian spirits emerge upon sheets of silk. These beautiful flags can take over a month to create. There are many poor quality flags out there, but there are flags of extraordinary quality as well. Many shops and galleries carry them, although it is better to buy directly from the artist if you can.
For those who are patient and not averse to tight spaces with a lot of people, there is always the Iron Market downtown. It is a very old market, of which a portion is devoted to arts and crafts. While loud, crowded, and hot, there are interesting things to see. We continue to argue that building a large artist’s pavilion in a more central and stable part of Port au Prince, perhaps in the Champ de Mars neighborhood, would help promote the livelihoods of Haitian artists. The Iron Market has too many disadvantages, artists deserve better.
Heading up LaLue (John Brown Ave.), there are many roadside art stores. Almost all are very small but worth a visit. Just watch out for the traffic. Once in Petionville, there are vendors selling art on the street, particularly outside of the hotels and Place Boyer. Perhaps the most amazing gallery in Haiti is Nader Galerie, as much a museum as a gallery.
Haitian art consists of more than paintings, iron work, and flags. There are sculpters, craft-workers, and many other varieties. The art community is also bigger than just Port au Prince. In fact, Jacmel is widely regarded as Haiti's artistic center of gravity. Jacmel is known for its excellent paper mache masks as well as the country's best Carnivale. Jacmel is also home to an annual film festival. Cap Haitian has an artist community although not to the extent that Jacmel does.
Can’t make it to Haiti? You can also experience Haitian art online. Many galleries have websites that feature Haitian art including Medalia, Gallery of West Indian Art, Loblolly Gallery, Fine Caribbean Art Gallery, Galerie Makondo, Haitianna, Galerie Martelly, Art Haiti, Carrie Art Collection, Art Lakay, Haitian Paintings, Haiti Art Cooperative, Ridge Art, Valcin II, Artickles, Barrister's Gallery, Voodoo Authentica, Gallerie Des Antilles, Expressions Art Gallery, Studio Wah, the Lady from Haiti, etc. Some non governmental organizations such as Friends of Hospital Albert Schweitzer, Alternative Chance Haitian Art Gallery, Project Medishare, and HELP Haiti sell Haitian art to expand their programming.
Other good resources include the Haitian Art Society, Bonjour Haiti, Discover Haitian Art, Art Media Haiti, the Haitian Art Collection, Haitian Art Education and Appraisal Society and the Webster Guide to Haitian Art, Music, and Dance.
I am very fond of Haitian art but am by no means an expert. You dont have to be an expert though to develop a deeper understanding, through art, of a special but minunderstood country. Art, music, and dance keep Haiti strong during the hard times and will see the country into better times. Should you know of places where people can experience Haitian art, in Haiti or abroad, that I have not mentioned, please feel free to post links in the commments section below. Thanks!