11 July 2001 by Trenton Daniel, Haitian Times
Paintings exploding with colors line the downtown thoroughfares and streets leading to the hillside family-owned hotels in suburban Petion-Ville. With shades of blue and red and yellow to match the streetside paintings and lotteries, tap-tap trucks wobble their way through the city’s mad traffic. Signs of women with trendy hair styles hang over the beauty palours.
Art – which abounds in Haiti – begs the question: What makes its art so powerful and internationally respected? History, political strife, and a little bit of foreigner promotion say gallery and museum owners. “What makes our art so strong is our history. As people, we are always struggling – since the beginning,” said Lori Manuel Steed, who along with American Brigit Coles founded the first Haiti-based online art gallery last month, ArtMedia Haiti.
Well before Haiti’s current ongoing political dispute between President Jean-Bertrand Ariside and opposition coalition Democratic Convergence, Haiti endured hard times – the bloody ouster of democratically elected Aristide in 1991, decades of dictatorship and military rule, and a U.S. occupation in the early 20th century. And since the “beginning” Haiti, a former French colony, witnessed a slave revolt in 1791 and the country finally established its independence in 1804, making it the world’s first black republic. “All of this triggered something,” said Steed, who is the daughter of painter Michèle Manuel and founder of Galerie Metisse in Petion-Ville… “There’s art everywhere – the tap-taps, the signs. You go to a Vodou ceremony, you see it there, you see it everywhere.”
Indeed, it’s as though the museums and galleries are an extension of the creative spirit that exists here. Steed also said that art dealers and collectors abroad – while they didn’t ‘discover’ Haitian art – have done their share to help promote it. She cited filmaker Jonathan Demme and Denmark’s honorary consul Jorgen Leth, both of whom own vast collections, as helping Haiti’s art find its place on the map. “We definitely had some people who helped us, because of who they were and how they portrayed us,” said Steed. “There are a few people, or enough people in the world, who want to give Haitian art its place in the world.”
Georges Nader, Jr., owner of the Galerie d’Art Nader in Petion-Ville, was of the same opinion as Steed, attributing the Caribbean climate and Haiti’s history as a muse to the some 2,000 artists in the country. “Probably the sun, the landscape here – everything – it’s the climate and the spirit of the Haitian people,” said Nader, who inherited his position from his father, the gallery’s founder in 1968. “They want to show a colorful Haiti and forget about all the problems in Haiti.” But Francine Murat, owner of the 57-year-old Center of Art in Port-au-Prince, put it in historical context..
The gallery director for 30 years says that, compared withother Caribbean countries, Haiti’s history of colonial rule and its subsequent independence created a mixture of cultures and races. “We have a mosaic of culture – a mixture of races and heritage – that we claim as our own,”said Murat, pointing out that Haiti has an ancestry of French, Hispanic, and African descent – with the United States being only a few miles away, that all serves as an influence. “That’s our inspiration, I think.”
Other gallery owners, however, were less optimistic about the current state of Haitian art, waxing nostalgic for the good old days of when artists were inspried by their craft rather than money. “I think Haitian art is finished, I think they better write a march song to take it to its funeral,” said a prominent gallery owner who asked not to be named. He says Haitian art has gone astray in a pursuit of commericalization and gallery-owner ignorance
Most art industry types, including the artists themselves, were skeptical of the government’s intents of promoting Haitian art. “The government lives with art, but they don’t care about their artists. Their artists are only passwords for saying, ‘we love Haitian art, this and that,'” said Melchiade Domond, a 33-year-old artist and graphic designer who attended the National School of Arts. And a gallery owner raised his eyebrows at the question of government promoting local art. “I’d love to know what they’re doing,” he said. “Maybe they’re doing it in secret.” But M. Pradel Henriquez, the culture ministry’s director of artistic creation and literature, said the government was doing “lots of things.”
He cited several government-sponsored exhibitions but didn’t elaborate. He declined to answer questions about the Ministry’s budget. “It’s very complicated,” Henriquez said. Culture Minister Guy Paul, who was a principle architect in Aristide’s economic and social plan, was unavailable for comment. This week the National Museum is featuring an exhibit commemorating Haitian Independence Leader Toussaint Louvertures’s signing of the Haitian Constitution in 1801. “There’s a strength due to all the struggles, and a freshness,” Steed said.