It had been almost four years since my last visit to Haiti. I had gone with a close friend of mine in April 2010 after the January earthquake. I am not a relief worker. The purpose of that trip was to show solidarity with my friends who were suffering so much and with a country whose culture and whose history of tortuous struggle for freedom and independence had changed my life. I wanted to personally witness the destruction and take photos in order to raise money to help with the relief efforts.
The destruction was, of course, overwhelming and the country was in a profound state of shock and mourning. I avoided taking pictures of the people in their desperate plight and focused only on the buildings and the tent camps, no people. And most folks made it very clear that that they didn’t want their photos taken. I respect that.
Since that time I have closed my physical gallery after twelve years, selling Haitian art solely from my website. I had been avoiding returning to Haiti because I’m not buying art in the quantities I had in the past and I didn’t want to disappoint the artists. But when, at long last, the Haitian Art Society decided to hold its annual meeting in Haiti this past January, it was an opportunity too good to pass up. There would be a lot of other buyers and collectors besides me, so the pressure would be off. My friend Carol is always up for an adventure, so she also leapt at the chance to go.
In spite of all the negative news about the state of the country and the thousands still living in tents, I found Haiti to be in a state of cautious optimism. The people are still in mourning, the overall atmosphere is more subdued than before, but there is a lot of energy in the country that is coming not from outside NGO’s but from Haitians themselves who have buried their loved ones and are now rebuilding their amazing country.
If you are an art lover and like adventure travel, please visit Haiti. I don’t think there is any country in the world that has the number of artists and the quality of fine art that Haiti has. If you visit, you will not experience the convenience of “first world” travel, but you will be comfortable and you will witness a remarkable convergence of African, European and indigenous Taino culture and traditions transformed by slavery and the triumph over it.
Our group numbered around 20 Haitian art enthusiasts with ages running from the early 30’s through the late 70’s. We were dealers, museum curators, collectors, scholars and fellow travelers, a very disparate group, and not a ringer among us. We stayed at the Hotel Montana. The Montana is an old-line Haitian resort hotel built in 1946. Most of it collapsed during the 2010 earthquake killing about 200 people, including many on the staff of MINUSTAH, the United Nations peace-keeping mission in Haiti.
The hotel has since been partially rebuilt. It has a beautiful pool area and a great terrace with a bar and restaurant overlooking Port-au-Prince. The rooms are adequate with decent bathrooms and comfortable beds. The hotel is located half way between Port-au-Prince and the up-scale suburb of Pétionville.
The hotel was really good about letting the sequin artists Mireille Délice, Yves Telemak and others visit us in the evenings to show us their work in an unused meeting room. The food is not gourmet but generally good. It was a real pleasure to drink good Haitian coffee on the terrace in the morning and 5-Star Barbancourt Rhum at the bar in the evening. In January the weather in Haiti is spectacular.
Good Food and Music
The first evening after most of us arrived we had a really good traditional Haitian meal at a lovely little restaurant called Vert-Galant [now closed] that is housed in an old Gingerbread-style house in downtown Port-au-Prince. According to our host Toni Monnin, the proprietor is a French national who manages the restaurant at the Plaza Hotel during the day and operates his restaurant at night. Later in the week we had a delightful buffet lunch at the Plaza. There is really no fast food in Haiti, so when you travel, you have to plan your meals or carry a picnic lunch.
We spent the rest of the evening taking in the RAM performance at the iconic Hotel Oloffson [No website but the hotel is still operating and RAM is still performing.]. The Oloffson is one of the world’s worst and best hotels. I stayed there for ten days the first time I visited Haiti in 1997. I say it’s one of the worst because then it was basically a dump — the roof leaked in our room, the hot water was unreliable, and I didn’t trust the railing and flooring on some of the balconies.
However, I also think it’s one of the best hotels in the world because of the people who come there. It seems like every do-gooder (and not-so-do-gooder), CIA operative, journalist, and government official at one time or another stays, eats and/or drinks at the Oloffson. The Gingerbread-style hotel was built as a private home in the late 19th century, used as a military hospital by the US Marines during the American occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934, and converted into a hotel in 1935.
It is truly a center of social life in Port-au-Prince. It has terrific Haitian art everywhere and the rooms are named after the famous people who stayed there – Jonathan Demme, Graham Greene, Charles Addams, Lillian Hellman, etc. It provided a safe haven for foreigners during the grim Duvalier years when the tourists stopped coming and was the one place folks of all political persuasions came to be entertained by RAM during the tumultuous 1990’s. I used to regularly see former President René Préval on the porch.
The Oloffson survived the earthquake almost totally intact. I have an image of it floating on top of the seismically liquefied soil like Lasirene, the Vodou mermaid, while the rest of the city sinks into an ocean of rubble.
RAM is the rasin band formed by the Oloffson’s current operator, Richard Morse. R A M are his initials. Rasin music combines traditional Haitian Vodou music with rock and roll. The musicians are accompanied by traditional rasin dancing led by Lunise Morse, Richard’s wife. He is the lead singer and songwriter, but his singing these days seems pretty much limited to a few shouts and some gestures with his Gede cane. Nevertheless, RAM performances on Thursday nights are lively and entertaining, somewhat reminiscent of 1950’s big band era sound with a Haitian twist.
Galleries and Bizango
We spent the next day visiting the galleries in Pétionville. Our first stop was at Galerie Monnin owned by one of our hosts Toni Monnin and her husband Michel. [The gallery is no longer in Pétionville. It is now located in the Monnin family compound in Kenscoff in the mountains above Port-au-Prince. The address is Laboule 17, Route de Kenscoff, tel: +(509) 2816 8464, email info@galeriemonnincom.]
I purchased a small Erzulie sculpture by the late Camille Jean aka Nasson. Erzulie is the general name for the female principle in Vodou, often conflated with the Virgin Mary.
Nasson’s work generally incorporates recycled metal and wood, the finish often burnt black and coated with wax. Like most Haitian artists he was untrained in the sense that he didn’t attend art school but learned and developed his art collaboratively by working with other artists and just by doing, i.e. listening to the Vodou spirits and giving them material form with what he found on hand.
The highlight of the day was our visit to the remarkable collection of sacred Vodou objects assembled over many years by Marianne Lehmann, originally a Swiss national who has lived in Haiti for over 50 years. Her collection consists of over 3000 objects in all media that she began acquiring in the 1980’s from local practitioners when they were forced to sell their sacred objects to raise money for various emergencies. Her objective is to keep these wonderful cultural objects in Haiti and from disappearing into private collections.
Ultimately, she would like to donate the collection to a public museum built in Haiti. So far, there have not been the money and resources to do that. She has kept the storage location confidential to prevent the objects from being harmed by overzealous evangelical Christians who view Vodou as devil worship. I am not exaggerating.
After the earthquake the Smithsonian Institute joined with public and private Haitian cultural organizations to initiate the Haitian Cultural Recovery Project. One of the initiative’s projects is to catalog and preserve Marianne Lehmann’s collection. Remarkably, like the Oloffson, the collection was largely unharmed by the quake. There is wide speculation that the power of the objects protected the building even though all of the pieces had been desanctified when they were taken out of the hounfoû (Vodou temples).
The most impressive part of the collection is the life-size Bizango warriors which are generally not seen by the uninitiated. Bizango are secret societies that originated with the maroons or escaped slaves who called upon the ancestral spirits or lwa to resist slavery with both real and spiritual weapons. Bizango played a major role in the Haitian revolution (1791-1804). Bizango societies still exist and the struggle still goes on. An exhibit of some of the Lehmann collection just ended at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. Marianne Lehmann is a true hero. It was a great privilege to meet her and see part of her life’s work.
On Saturday we focused on downtown Port-au-Prince. We began with the sculptors of the Grand Rue, also known as Atis Resistans or Resistance Artists. [The website has not been updated but the artists are still active. Every two years in December they organize the Ghetto Biennale. The last one was held in December 2017.]
Squeezed in among the used auto part and repair shops of the city, Atis Resistans live and work in a warren of shacks, small shops and houses in an area that has traditionally produced wooden craft objects for the tourist trade throughout the Caribbean. The area has been transformed largely through the efforts of two artists, Jean Hérard Celeur and André Eugène. They have become master sculptors of bricolage or assemblage, producing powerful pieces from the discarded detritus of contemporary life — old engines, automobile tires, discarded wood, you name it.
The late Nasson was a major influence on them. During our visit it was very clear that Celeur and Eugène are passing their art down to younger practitioners, as we were escorted from one small space to another by emerging artists anxious to show us their work. The Republic of Haiti was represented for the first time at the 2011 Venice Biennale by three artists from Atis Resistans.
From the Grand Rue we moved on to the Iron Market. Originally built in France in the 19th century as a Cairo railroad station, it somehow ended up in Port-au-Prince in 1891. A fire devastated part of it in 2008 and the earthquake finished it off in 2010. I used to visit the late artist Pierrot Barra in his stall there. It was a pretty edgy place to go in those days. The Irish billionaire Denis O’Brien, owner of Digicel, put over $12 million into renovating the market right after the quake. He equipped it with solar panels and made it earthquake and hurricane resistant.
When you go as a foreigner, you will be greeted by men offering to guide you. Hire one of them for an hour or two. You’ll have to buy something from his booth or pay him something, but it’s worth it to have someone show you around and you won’t be hassled by anyone. The Iron Market is actually a good place to buy interesting religious objects like libation bottles, magic bundles called paket kongo, etc., but you can also find really terrific souvenirs and gifts at very reasonable prices after negotiating, of course. I bought some gorgeous beaded purses. More than likely you will pay more than a Haitian would for the same thing. I call it “a gringo tax,” but the prices are still cheap. Try not to get yourself in a situation where you’re bargaining over 20 cents.
Dollars are as widely accepted as gourds, the official currency. There are roughly 40 gourds to a US dollar. [As of June 2018 the rate is roughly 65 gourds to a dollar.] Sometimes, merchants will quote you prices in Haitian “dollars.” But there really isn’t any such denomination. Informally, there are 5 gourds to one Haitian dollar. I just keep everything in gourds, so I don’t get confused. It’s important to have lots of small bills in US dollars because change is hard to come by, unless you want gourds as souvenirs. At the hotels and large galleries you can use credit cards and sometimes even checks drawn on US banks.
In the afternoon we visited El Saieh Gallery which is located up a very steep hill close to the Oloffson. El Saieh Gallery was founded in the 1950’s by the late Issa El-Saieh, one of the great dealers in Haitian art. Issa died in 2005 and the gallery is now run by his son and daughter-in-law Manno and Sharona El Saieh. I used to visit Issa at least once every time I came to Haiti. He priced his art by the size and how much he liked you. When he died, his collection was in pretty bad shape as was his house and exhibition space, but Sharona and Manno have done a wonderful job putting the gallery in order. They have a particularly good collection of vintage metal and wood sculpture.
Sunday in the Mountains
The next day was Sunday and the ideal day to travel up into the mountains above Port-au-Prince. On our way up we stopped to visit the studio of Pascale Monnin and view the superb art collection of the Monnin family. Pascale was born in Haiti but, as a small child, moved to Switzerland with her mother. However, she spent her summers and holidays in Haiti with her father Michel Monnin. At twenty, she moved back to Haiti permanently. She works in many media. Although not a practitioner, she is very interested in the religious experience and its symbols. She is part of a new group of Haitian artists who are educated, well-traveled and inspired by Haitian Vodou and culture and present it in contemporary ways. This group includes internationally well-known Haitian artists like Paskö, Killy and Mario Benjamin.
Sunday’s highlight was our visit to the village of the Saint Soleil artists in Soissons-la-Montagne. Saint Soleil is a school of Haitian art that was founded in 1972 by Jean-Claude Garoute aka Tiga and Maud Robard, two academically trained Haitian artists, who gave drawing and painting materials to willing peasant farmers in the area and instructed them to illustrate the spirits. The peasant artists were so successful that in 1975 they attracted the attention of André Malraux, the French minister of culture, who brought them international recognition. The original cooperative of artists only lasted about 5 years.
However, five super stars known as the “cinq soleils” (five suns) emerged out of the original group – Louisiane Saint-Fleurant, Levoy Exil, Denis Smith, Prospere Pierre-Louis, and Dieuseul Paul. Louisiane, Prospere, and Dieuseul Paul have passed away, but the remaining two “soleils” are still actively producing work. In the 1980’s with help from the original members the cooperative reorganized itself in the village and now Soissons-la–Montagne is home to many artistic descendents of the original Saint Soleil school, sometimes call Nouveau Saint Soleil.
My adrenaline had been surging since my arrival in Haiti on Thursday, but coming into the cemetery on the outskirts of the village revved it up some more. Here was Tiga’s tomb and surrounding the cemetery were walls with murals by the Saint Soleil artists. It was really the Saint Soleil artists, particularly Louisiane Saint-Fleurant, that got me hooked on Haitian painting. Actually, the first Haitian painting I acquired was a Vodou possession piece by Lionel Paul that I bought in San Juan, Puerto Rico, about 25 years ago. I hadn’t yet been to Haiti and had never heard of Saint Soleil. Much later I learned that Lionel Paul was now calling himself Onel and was considered one of the primary descendents of the original “cinq soleils.”
After leaving the cemetery, we stopped at a couple of artists’ studios and some of my companions made purchases, but my friend Eddie and I were on the hunt for Onel’s studio. We were directed to a large, well-built, two-story house at the top of a knoll. His daughter answered the door and said her father wasn’t home, but she phoned him and then led us upstairs to the gallery/studio.
We were shown a stack of unstretched paintings. In sync and on a roll, we methodically sorted through the stack and set aside the keepers oblivious to the amused stares of our friends. Then it happened. We both wanted the same painting. We agreed to toss for it. That was a tactical error on my part. I should have just taken it and dared Eddie to wrest it from my lust crazed hands. Needless-to-say, I lost the toss. But we were surrounded by an embarrassment of riches, so my pain was easily assuaged with another painting. It was a great afternoon.
I have to say, I love the Lionel Paul painting I bought in San Juan but only like Onel’s current work. Like many successful artists, he has found a formula that works for him. His earlier work is an inspired frenzy of dots and emerging forms from the folds of a dancer’s skirt, all in paint. His current work is an aesthetically pleasing blend of paint and collage, mostly from fabric scraps, energetic but lacking some of the soul and mystery of the San Juan piece.
Steel Drum Village
Monday was our day to visit the village of Croix-des-Bouquets, just outside of Port-au-Prince. It is an amazing place for anyone with any interest at all in art. Within a few square miles you can walk to dozens of workshops where bòsmetal (literally the bosses of the metal or metal sculptors) and their apprentices are working away producing marvelous cut steel sculpture (fer découpé) for both the mass and the fine art markets. The sound of hammering on metal is everywhere. Croix-des-Bouquets is where in 1953 the American artist Dewitt Peters, a founder of the famous Centre d’Art, discovered the blacksmith Georges Liautaud who at 54 began an illustrious artistic career as a metal sculptor and in the process created an arts industry.
The village has changed a bit since my first visit in 1997. Then, the workshops were not so organized. Starting with Serge Jolimeau’s place, you wandered from atelier to atelier along the unpaved main street. Although most of the artists were located close to each other, it was all a bit haphazard.
A few years before the earthquake the growing reputation of the artists attracted the attention of the European Union and North American film and advertising professionals who began to promote the area as an example of economic development through the arts. The EU built a permanent exposition space on the grounds of an old sugar plantation. There is now an organized art market with small stalls in addition to the stand-alone workshops. The newly paved main street is outfitted with solar lighting and brick walkways. Public art by well-known Haitian artists embellish the street and the main square. The earthquake had little physical effect on Croix-des-Bouquets because most of the buildings are single-story.
Serge Jolimeau is no doubt the eminence grise in the village. He has trained most of the practicing bòsmetal. While the sculptors that followed Georges Liautaud created work that embraced elemental two-dimensional shapes, Jolimeau brings a unique elegance and rhythm to the art form. He embellishes and texturizes his work and then varnishes it to reflect light. He also started making artful utilitarian pieces like headboards for beds, room dividers and fireplace screens.
Some of the most appealing metal work is that of Jacques Eugene. His work is whimsical, mixing metals, and often embellished with painted designs. The first time I met him he was so thin I thought he was malnourished. I liked his work and thought it would sell so I bought a few pieces to test them out. They flew out of the gallery, so I bought more on my next visit, noting that the artist seemed to have filled out a bit. Thereafter, until I closed the gallery, I would often buy an entire wall. I clearly wasn’t alone because Jacques Eugene seemed to be doing better every time I visited. He seems to be thriving today and it’s nice to see that.
Croix-des-Bouquets is also the home of a really good sequin and bead artist named Jean Baptiste Jean Joseph. In the past I was never really able to connect with him. He had a delusional sense of what his work was worth and would ask ridiculous prices for it, but something has changed with him since the earthquake. His work is still really good, maybe even better, and his prices are now very reasonable. He makes fabulous rara costumes. Rara bands are wandering musicians who come out during Carnival time.
Before we left Croix-des-Bouquets, we made a stop a bit outside the village at the workshop of Jose Delpé, one of the most innovative artists of the younger generation. Like most of the bòsmetal, Delpé straddles two worlds – he produces for the mass market in one workshop in the village and he produces serious work for the fine art market in this workshop. His serious work combines bricolage with the tradition of fer découpé. His work can be as delicate as a graceful warrior assembled from a china doll’s head, eating utensils, and driftwood and as formidable as a five-foot long skeletal fish made from the jawbone of an ass and found metal. His work is not as brut as the bricolage of the Atis Resistans with its in-your-face sexuality but is just as strong.
To Martissant and Jacmel and Back
Tuesday was our day to go to Jacmel, a beautiful colonial coastal town that is a kind of Haitian Berkeley. It has attracted many intellectuals and artists who want to escape the turmoil in Port-au-Prince. Although it’s only about 50 miles to Jacmel, it takes about three hours minimum to get there because of the traffic and the winding road through the mountains. It’s important not to plan to do too much when traveling in Haiti and to consolidate your stops. We did not do this when planning our jaunt to Jacmel. We really needed two days to do the town justice. But hindsight is 20/20.
On our way to Jacmel we stopped at L’Habitation LeClerc, the renowned dancer Katherine Dunham’s old estate in Carrefour. The site had been the home of Pauline Bonaparte, Napoleon’s sister and the wife of General LeClerc whom the emperor had sent to Haiti to put down the revolution. Yellow fever did the general in and Pauline returned to France. Ms Dunham purchased the property in 1944 and turned it into a private retreat with a small hotel and private villas.
The setting itself is the last remaining coastal forest in Haiti. It is popularly called “la Source” because of its sweet water springs that tradition says come from the lost continent of Atlantis. Devout Vodouists consider it a sacred spot. However, as the population in Port-au-Prince swelled with peasants migrating out of the countryside and with gangs taking control over poor areas abandoned by an ineffective central government, the neighborhood around the forest called Martissant became very dangerous and overcrowded. Squatters began to invade the property, polluting the springs and cutting down the trees for fuel.
Finally, in 2007 a presidential degree declared the Dunham estate and three other adjacent properties public lands. FOKAL, la Fondation Connaissance et Liberté was assigned the task of making the area into a botanical garden and public park. The result is Martissant Park and its programs that focus on the park as a hub to transform the surrounding community. In 2012 a memorial garden was started to honor the earthquake victims.
One remarkable thing about the park that shows its importance to the community is that even after the earthquake when the population was scrambling for open space to build temporary shelters no one invaded or vandalized the park and there were no security guards. The park has, indeed, become “la Source” for programs in the community that include waste management, water purification, and primary medical care. Martissant is still a poor community but security is no longer a problem and conditions are improving.
We arrived in Jacmel around noon with just enough time to make a quick visit to FOSAJ (Fondation Sant d’a Jakmel). FOSAJ is an artist collective started in 2003 by Haitian artist Patrick Nadal Boucard. Its purpose is to provide education and exhibition space to self-taught local artists. Its director was killed in the earthquake and its building was severely damaged, but under the leadership of Luckner Candio, aka Prince Luc, the artists have regrouped and are now trying to raise enough money to repair the roof on their building. While we were there, they were preparing for Carnival with a group of dancers practicing their routine using a wooden ladder as a barre.
Unfortunately, time was not on our side, so we had to return to Port-au-Prince after just a very brief taste of the riches Jacmel offers the visitor. The next time the Haitian Art Society has a confab in Haiti more time in Jacmel will have to be at the top of the list.
On our last full day in Haiti my friend Carol and I took an opportunity to spend time with my dear friend Dr. Jacques Bartoli while the rest of our companions shopped in Pétionville. That night at the Montana we gathered together to thank our hosts, Toni Monnin and Axelle Liautaud, and were honored by the brief appearance of the American Ambassador Pamela White who remarked that “Haiti is too rich to be poor.” We couldn’t have agreed more. The Haitian Minister of Tourism Stephanie Villedrouin noted that we were the first non-aid group to come to her country since the earthquake. The best part of the evening was an amazing drumming and dance performance by a Haitian folkloric group.
In addition to the hard work by our two hosts Toni and Axelle, we also had an excellent driver in Joseph whom we engaged through the travel agency Agence Citadelle. I personally used the agency some years ago to travel to another Caribbean nation as well as within Haiti. They can make whatever arrangements you need to make a comfortable and exciting journey to a country that needs to be rediscovered by travelers.