Haiti is known for its traditional paintings. // © 2013 Mark Rogers
By Mark Rogers
Haiti had been high on my list of places to visit for years. So when I received an invitation last May, I jumped at the chance. Before setting foot in Port-au-Prince, I was familiar with Haiti’s golden years of painting through the book “Miracle of Haitian Art” by Selden Rodman. From the 1930s up to the 1960s, world-renowned Haitian artists such as Hector Hyppolite Philome Obin and Wilson Biguaud created one astounding work after another. Although I knew Haiti had a great artistic heritage, I thought they had overdone it with a mass production of canvases that repeated the same designs and themes over and over. After a while, all that was left was a copy of a copy of a copy. I’d seen these products on sale in the tourist shops of the Dominican Republic and was saddened to see Haiti’s glorious artistic past reduced to brightly-colored dreck.
I hadn’t been in Port-au-Prince more than a day before I realized how mistaken I was in judging Haiti’s art through its souvenir exports. The art I saw during my visit rang the message loud and clear that Haitian art was thriving on its home turf.
I was staying at the newly-open Best Western Premier Petion-Ville, Haiti [www.bestwesternpremierhaiti.com], a property that put Haiti’s art front and center. During a tour of the hotel’s art collection in its public spaces, Pascale Therad, the artistic director of 1804 design in Port-au-Prince gave me some background on how the collection came to be.
Therad, who curated the collection, pointed out that Haiti has always had a culture of recycling, and this is evident in its visual arts as well. Since the earthquake in 2010, Haiti has received boatloads of aid from other countries, including a surplus of T-shirts. I suppose the great majority of these garments found themselves onto the backs of Haitians, but many brightly colored shirts have been transformed into patchwork creations, including the pillows on the sofa in the Best Western’s lobby.
The artwork in the hotel utilized metal lids from 55-gallon steel drums, cut and shaped into fanciful figures; rubber from tires trimmed into silhouettes that referenced God-like creatures out of Haiti’s Voodoo past; and other creations that utilized everything from banana leaves to calabash gourds. It’s a plus for visitors that the artwork in the Best Western Premier Petion-Ville, Haiti is for sale.
Presently, there are no local tour operators offering tours of the studios of Haiti’s artists. As leisure tourism grows, I hope some enterprising entrepreneur establishes these types of tours, in which the purchase of a prized piece is enhanced by actually meeting the artist and maybe even seeing them at work.
The art I saw on view balanced the figurative and the abstract while doing credit to both. Seeing the beauty of Haiti’s art scene gave me a lot of hope for the country’s recovery from the devastating blow of the earthquake.
Many Caribbean destinations have their signature appeal. Jamaica is powered by its thrilling music, St. Lucia by its scenic beauty and Trinidad by its celebratory Carnival. I can envision a time when Haiti’s tourism will have its own generator, the beauty of the painting and sculpture produced by Haiti’s artists.
Guest blog written by Mark Rogers.