Imagine a nation with a noble and proud history, but a rough last century. It was occupied by a massive, powerful neighbor to the north, who undermined its political system and land ownership to benefit its national commercial interests. Soon after those occupiers desisted, looted the treasury, slaughtered the opposition and chased away almost everyone with a university degree. Then the advent of AIDS destroyed a burgeoning tourism industry. After the younger madman was forced into exile, a few years of democratic reform were halted when the northern occupier intervened to exile a leftist leader and handed control of the country over to an occupying UN force. That force did little to stabilize the country, and managed to make things significantly worse, bringing a cholera epidemic to the nation. To round out the picture, throw in a massive earthquake that decimated the capital and top it off with a category four hurricane.
That’s Haiti. You wouldn’t wish that string of bad luck on Donald Trump. (Pick your own worst enemy if that doesn’t work for you.)
Now let’s imagine an impoverished neighborhood wracked by gang violence, where gunfire is a common, if not daily event. In the middle of the neighborhood, surrounded on all sides by high-density housing, is a quiet park. It includes a brightly painted truck filled with newspapers and books, a mobile library that can bring reading to communities where few books are found. An elegant waterfall runs down the steps of a garden path past plots of medicinal herbs and community gardens, resplendent in colorfully painted tires. At the base of the garden is an architecturally ambitious library, carefully constructed of geometric bamboo pods, every seat packed with uniformed schoolchildren devouring books in Kreyol, French and English.
That’s Haiti, too. Specifically, that’s Parc de Martissant, the project of FOKAL (The Fondation Connaissance et Liberté), a Haitian foundation that’s part of the Open Society Foundations. Its founder Michèle Pierre Louise (Prime Minister during President Preval’s term) and executive director Lorraine Mangones have offered an unconventional solution to Haiti’s many ills. While they work on combatting cholera, rebuilding the legal system, strengthening agriculture and protecting human rights, they do something most of our foundations don’t do. They build and restore beautiful public spaces, creating sources of neighborhood and national pride. While many international organizations are focused on helping Haitians access the bare minimum of healthcare and education, FOKAL dares to imagine what Haiti could be. And then they go ahead and build it.
Don’t get too comfortable. Because just above the library is a concrete path lined with shards of tile from a factory destroyed in the earthquake. Dark outlines represent the bodies of the fallen. The path leads to a broad, spreading tree. Below neon pink flowers, it bears fruit – heavy, mirrored skulls turning slowly in the breeze. The skulls are cast from the faces of the people in the neighborhood and made of concrete and rebar, the materials that killed tens of thousands of city residents when buildings collapsed in the earthquake of January 2010.
And that’s Haiti as well. Because there’s darkness in the beauty, and beauty in the darkness.
A week in Haiti, spent almost entirely in Port au Prince (and too much of it in the back seat of a bulletproof SUV), is not long enough to get meaningful impression of a nation. What I have are glimpses and fragments, some hopeful, some haunting.
I’m honored to serve on the Global Board of Open Society Foundations, and with our Vice President, Haitian-American Patrick Gaspard (former US ambassador to South Africa) and three fellow board members, I spent a week in Haiti touring FOKAL projects in Port au Prince and in Les Cayes, an agricultural community hit hard by Hurricane Matthew. On my last day in the city, I toured the downtown with a brilliant FOKAL architect, Farah Hyppolite, who has dedicated herself to restoring Port au Prince’s “gingerbread houses”, elegant hybrids of European and tropical architecture built for the city’s wealthy merchants at the beginning of Haiti’s dismal century.
Farah tells me that she had wanted to build the future of Haiti, ambitious structures that reflected the nation’s aspirations. But the earthquake destroyed her landmarks: the small gingerbread house she grew up in, the school she attended, the landmark buildings downtown that oriented her on the Rue Grand. “What will I show my children of where I grew up? Without my city, where is my past?”
For almost two decades, all I knew of Haiti was its art, in a watered-down and derivative form, paintings hawked on the streets of Santo Domingo and hanging in endless airport gift shops throughout the Caribbean. Too bright for New England, the paintings I found beautiful in the tropical sun looked gaudy on my white walls.
That explosion of color is everywhere in Haiti, from the paint on the side of goat-skinned drums, to the fruits in the market and most of all, the tap taps, elaborately painted pickup trucks that make up the capitol’s mass transit system. The ironwork, the cut, painted plywood, the explosive paint job and loud slogans compete to be heard over a visual environment that buzzes and pops at deafening volume.
I wasn’t expecting the color in vodou. In the Bureau D’Ethnologie, Erol Josué, a celebrated dancer and musician who serves as the museum’s curator, shows us bright, elegant dresses donned for rituals, embodying the colors and characteristics of the different spirits. Over lunch, I learn that during a ceremony, men may be taken over by female spirits, and vice versa, a fact that’s helped make vodou a welcoming place for the gay and lesbian community at a moment when charismatic churches are condemning and ostracizing queer Hatians.
I find the darkness I’d anticipated in a different sort of museum downtown. Lodged between a tire shop and an iron fabricator on Rue Dessalines is “Atis Rezistans”, the workshop and gallery of Andre Eugene, an internationally celebrated sculptor. Through a rusted arch and down an alleyway is a warren of courtyards and buildings, packed to the gills with wooden idols, ordained with nails, the guts of discarded computers, auto parts and tin cans. One wall is covered with the dark shapes of animals, serpents and spirits, cut from tires by the students in the neighborhood who Eugene teaches.
Vodou is a syncretic faith, build by slaves who combined elements of worship from Fon, Yoruba and other traditions in west Africa with Catholic rituals learned from the colonizers in the Caribbean: Ogun, orisha of war and metal in Nigera, meets St. George, patron saint of soldiers, and they become a loa. Eugene’s work syncretizes the detritus of post-Aristede Haiti with these ancient spirits into a new pantheon.
Eugene leads me through a curtain of bottle caps into his office, and I nearly trip over a human skull. I ask the artist where he obtained these dark materials. “Oh, skulls were easy after the earthquake. You could find them everywhere.” I ask him why his art is so morbid, expecting reflections on Haiti’s recent slew of tragedies. “It’s good to be different,” he tells me. “I like the dark.”
Indeed, Eugene’s art was dark before the earthquake and the hurricane. One of my companions grew up in the neighborhood and tells me that he always thought Eugene was crazy, a strange man who roamed the streets picking through garbage. Now that strange man shows art around the world and sells pieces for thousands of dollars. Eugene leads me to the unfinished second floor of his gallery and shows me the neighborhoods. He points out the workshops of fellow artists in the neighborhood, but my eye is drawn to the rooftops where scrap metal weighs down roofing sheets, rusting metal that holds the neighborhood together.
The shock of some of Eugene’s pieces wears off as I spent time with them. The gaping skulls with marble eyes begin to remind me of Eddie, Iron Maiden’s macabre, smiling, icon. Other pieces give me a deep sense of dread the longer I spend with them, in particular, those that feature baby dolls, disfigured, in bondage and crucified.
The Centre d’Art, a leafy and green space up the hill from Rue Dessalines, feels like it’s miles away from Atiz Rezistanse, but Haiti’s recent past is present here as well. On the site of a former gingerbread house, collapsed in the 2010 earthquake, are a set of shipping containers and pavillions, now the site for Haiti’s most important art collection. One 40′ box contains the archives of the Centre’s 70 year history. Another is filled with metal sculpture, a third with shelves of paintings and drawings, ornamental boxes and painted screens.
In a shady corner of the garden, a long wall serves as a blackboard, covered with elegant illustrations of the human form, the remnants of a workshop by Lionel St. Eloi, a sculptor and painter whose work includes richly colored canvasses and life-sized figures assembled from scrap metal. I fall in love with his owls, and St. Eloi has to be coaxed down from a nearby rooftop, where he’s wielding a power saw and working on carnival preparations, to sell me the piece.
I’m home from Haiti now, St. Eloi’s owl sits on my kitchen table, as lovely and wise in my snowbound New England home as in its tropical home. This afternoon, I plan to put it on the mantle over my fireplace where it can watch over myself and my guests, and perhaps scare the mice that enjoy the heat from the chimney.
A mask from Eugene’s studio came home with me as well. It’s by one of Eugene’s students, and while it’s as twisted and gruesome as the master’s work, it reminds me of something more comfortable, the unfamiliarity of the shapes of west African masks when I first came to Ghana two decades ago. I’m not sure what corner of the house I want it peering at me from, but I want it near me, to become part of my space over the years, the way things that are dark or broken can become comfortable and familiar.
Haiti is beautiful. Haiti is broken. Haiti is hopeful. Haiti is darkness. Haiti is color. You don’t always get to choose.
Love and respect to my friends at FOKAL, and to everyone who is working to share Haiti’s beauty and hope with the world, and more importantly, with all Haitian people.
All text and images are creative commons licensed, attribution only – please feel free to share, remix and reuse them, but please credit me. Profound thanks to Michèle, Lorraine, Farah, Dmitri and all the staff at FOKAL and OSF who made this visit possible.
Also published on Medium.