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I’ve had a love affair with Haiti before I ever traveled there myself (and I’ve since been to Haiti twice). Jamaica has reggae music as its hook; Cuba is recognized by its classic cars from the ‘50s; and Trinidad is known for its over-the-top Carnival.
In my opinion, Haiti’s key to luring travelers is its art, which ranges from painting to iron work to Vodou (voodoo) flags. Museum-quality artwork is priced within the reach for average tourists, so they can easily take home a vibrant memory of their trip to Haiti.
It was the country’s art that first ignited my interest to visit: As a young man, I came across a copy of Seldon Rodman’s “The Miracle of Haitian Art.” The book chronicled the country’s artistic renaissance during the mid-20th century, when artists such as Hector Hyppolite, Wilson Bigaud and Philome Obin flourished. And when I finally did get to Haiti, it was all I had imagined.
The capital city of Port-au-Prince was rough and tumble, still recovering from the rubble caused by the 2010 earthquake. Even so, art was everywhere. Street vendors offered block-long displays of bright and lively Haitian paintings. The country’s famous tap-tap buses were emblazoned with all sorts of painted figures and slogans, such as “Thank You, Lord” and “Haiti Cherie.” Some store facades were covered in huge murals depicting the specialty of the business, from barber shops to Creole restaurants.
Village de NoaillesThere are many worthy places for art lovers to explore in Haiti, including Port-au-Prince’s Iron Market and Musee du Pantheon National Haitien, as well as the town of Jacmel. However, located a few miles east of Port-au-Prince, Village de Noailles in the Croix-des-Bouquets area was a stand-out art destination for me. Imagine a small town where almost everyone is an artist, with a specialty in creating ironwork sculptures.
Here, we parked and then set off on foot, wandering into one tree-shaded yard and workshop after another. Much of the ironwork is flat and utilizes recycled metal drums. The metal is then cut, pounded, hammered, shaped and pierced to create figurative artwork, drawing on a range of Haitian images such as Vodou gods, animals and birds.
Most open-air workshops have the artist present, which is another plus for clients who can appreciate the chance to meet the creator behind their purchase.
While bargaining is an accepted practice, I would recommend advising your clients to go about the practice in a respectful manner. After all, the item in question is unique, handmade and, in most cases, created by the person with whom they are bargaining.
I purchased a flat metal artwork depicting myriad birds perched in trees for $12 — the price of a pizza back home. Even though it was made of iron, the item was flat and easily packed in my suitcase. Designed to be hung on the wall, it’s now a treasured piece of art in my house.
While I was advised that heading out solo in Port-au-Prince can be dodgy, I received no such warning about Noailles. It was a pleasure to wander through the village on my own and view the public art in the town square. I also enjoyed being among Haitians going about their daily business, whether it was a couple of guys sharing beers in a yard or young kids shooting hoops. There’s nothing “Disneyfied” about Noailles — this is a real town that has become devoted to ironwork sculpture.
Nonetheless, Haiti still has its rough edges, so it’s a good idea to have clients accompanied by an experienced tour operator. Two of the best are Bobby Chauvet at Agence Citadelle in Port-Au-Prince and Jean Lionel Pressoir at Tour Haiti in Petion-Ville.