Haiti Now - An Essay, 1998

An Essay
Written for:
Museum of Arts and Science
Evansville, Indianna
(Photos added to essay 2005)



The organization of this exhibition has been a cooperative effort. It has been a privilege to work with Beverly Fowler of Evansville and Candice Russell of Plantation, Florida, gracious lenders to the exhibition. I am grateful for their enthusiastic response to this project and their generosity in sharing not only their paintings and textiles, but an extensive knowledge of contemporary Haitian art.

To John and Gail Dunn, for their generous funding assistance, I extend my sincere thanks. 
Mary McNamee Schnepper 
Curator of Collections


Haitian Art History can be found on this pageArrogance or naivete compels the smitten traveler to believe that others will share one's passion for a destination. On my 10th trip to Haiti, a place that enthralls me, I found how wrong I was to think that the island's magic was democratically infectious. 

Friends and I were eating dinner on the verandah of the fabled Oloffson Hotel in Port-au-Prince. It was the first trip for Marianne, the sister of my Haitian traveling companion Ginna, and I expected an enthusiastic response when I asked her opinion of the country. "It's dirty, crowded and chaotic," she said dismissively. 

Well, yes, Haiti is all those things, I thought. But it is much more, as Ginna and I knew from previous trips. It is voodoo drums in the night, melodic compas music on street corners, fanciful gingerbread houses from another century and art, marvelous art, everywhere you look. 

Art, specifically paintings, was what drew Ginna and me to the beleaguered Caribbean island in the first place. We came in search of bright tropical visions in so-called primitive style and were surprised at the range of expression. Museums in the capital had the best examples of long-dead masters like Hector Hyppolite. Yet there was an abundance of quality art by living geniuses, including the voodoo-inspired paintings of LaFortune Felix and Andre Pierre, in the better galleries. On each trip since 1985, it was a delight to discover new painters such asWagler VitalFrancoise EllassaintGelin Buleau and Jorelus Joseph, recent winner of an international art prize in Santo Domingo. No matter what onerous political regime held sway, the urge to create in this desperately poor country took precedence for dozens of artists. 

This urge is all the more remarkable when you realize that Haitian art, though a significant export for the handsful of artists the work supports, Unique Haitian Artisn't enough to keep any but diehard Haiti-lovers coming back. The tourist trade was moribund before Graham Greene wrote the thinly fictionalized novel "The Comedians" set at the Oloffson Hotel in 1966. The occasional celebrity visitor likeJulia RobertsJean-Claude Van Damme and film directorJonathan Demme, an avid Haitian art collector, hasn't transformed Haiti's shantytown image to the outside world. 

Most Haiti-bound Americans don't have the island's Club Med in mind. They come to the lost paradise not to soak up the sun but with more serious purposes in mind. They are missionaries, Peace Corps volunteers, emissaries of Bill Clinton, doctors, nurses, and land management specialists, all of whom want to help the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. 

The returnees are in a small, select group who are equally smitten by Haiti's strange charms. They embrace its quirks and mysteries, like the remarkable, telejiol, a fax-fast form of instant verbal communication that allows seemingly everyone to know that you arrived on the afternoon American Airlines flight and what your business is. They also forgive its myriad failings, like the increasingly pot-holed airport road. There is a rhythm here beyond music, a passion beyond explanation. People who adore Haiti, or at least have a frustrating love-hate relationship with it, talk about this elusive force as if it can be universally seen or smelled or touched; 

The first time visitor isn't likely to think Haiti is elusive, however. It is direct and confrontational, a sensual hit. 

Haitian Art is an olfactory assultFor better or worse, the introduction is through the nose. The pungent, inescapable smell of burning charcoal, the dust from the unpaved portion of the airport road, the sweat of people conducting a frenzied charade of commerce at the Iron Market -- it's a full-bore of olfactory assault 

The eye takes in color, riotous, pervasive, all over the place. Despite rabid poverty, the smallest buses known as tap-taps bear coats of paint in stripes, designs, figures and sayings. Storefronts have hand-painted images of food, hairstyles, and clothing. The humblest shacks warrant dressing up, parrot-like, in lime green and deep turquoise, or pink and yellow. 

Heated debate nearly leading to fisticuffs engages two men outside a shop on a Sunday morning. One is young, barefoot, raggedly dressed. The other could be his father in a straw hat and better clothes. The elder heckles the younger about the way he is loading a 50 pound bag of rice in a wheelbarrow. When the older man tries to wrestle the device away from the younger man, the latter explodes, maneuvering it his own way as a group of onlookers laughs at his fury. Show over, the crowd disperses and the older man chuckles. 

Haitians are also hopeful, patient and maybe a bit mad. The persistence of commerce against all odds -- much more supply than demand -- is one example. Women who have carried fruit on their heads to get to work squat next to their sidewalk displays of mangoes, watermelons, pineapples and lemons On certain comers they are elbow to elbow with each other, stocking the same goods. They live in small shacks without potable water or sewers or electricity, but they have all this fruit. The women gossip, laugh and wait all day for the infrequent customers on the major thoroughfares and winding back roads of Port-au-Prince. 

What sustains the masses is voodoo, a syncretic blend of African tribal rites from their native land and Roman Catholicism from Haiti's interlopers. Even non-Haitian Many are affected by Voovooresidents are affected by voodoo. Though they don't practice this religion or worship its pantheon of gods, they believe in its power to influence health, romance and willpower. 

A South American psychiatrist searches the streets of Port-au-Price one morning for country eggs, because a voodoo priest said they were necessary for a concoction to ease his son's asthma. Another foreigner is said to be under a voodoo spell cast by his lover, the 19-year-old daughter of his Haitian cook. How else to explain the sway that the young woman, hardly fair of face or figure, has on this handsome older man of means? 

But voodoo cannot solve political intractability. Some who have lived here in the most recent worst times now want out. An elegant European couple who own a gallery in Petionville, the prosperous suburb up the mountain from Port-au-Prince, are considering a move to ~~ they deem a potential improvement of their lot. 

Another gallery owner whose work with the United Nations and the Organization of American States helped restore Jean- Bertrand Aristide as the country's first democratically elected president in 1994 is planning an exodus. He has spent nearly 20 years in Port-au-Prince, raising four sons and surviving in spite of an international trade embargo and great political unrest. But increasingly violent crimes, a hungry jobless majority, and a government not moving fast enough to help are making well-off residents like him and others examine the sanity of staying. 

Even moneyed Haitians who chose to endure in the tumultuous 1990s are leaving. Maggie, a sultry woman in her 30s, tells a story of imminent escape. She is sitting on the balcony of Villa Peabody, surrounded by the capital's elite class of doctors, politicos, journalists and expatriates. The occasion is the 60th birthday party of Jorgen Leth, the esteemed Danish filmmaker who lives six months of the year in the villa that some call the most beautiful gingerbread house in Port-au-Prince. The joyous mood of the evening belies some private dark thoughts. 

After robbers took a watch and some cash Haitian artists immigrate for various reasonsfound downstairs while Maggie slept in an upstairs bedroom, she started plotting a move to Miami. The first step is closing her retail textile business in downtown Port-au-Prince. The second is to become a go-between for Haitians needing American goods and services. 

Even the simple act of getting around the capital is not simple anymore. Stop signs are ignored. Stoplights are inoperable. Get in a car accident or disagree with a taxi driver about a fare and there is no policeman to call to settle a problem. If gun-toting authorities halt your car late at night, it is wise to let them search the vehicle without question. 

But Haiti's excesses and insufficiencies are forgotten in the sublimation of music. Visitors and residents baptize themselves in pure sound every Thursday night at the Oloffson, watching and dancing to the folk-based roots music of RAM. This 12jpiece band is led by Oloffson manager Richard Morse. Wife Luniece sings and dances with the group, rocking the shaky rafters of the gingerbread hotel more than 100 years old. The crowd of hundreds, mostly Haitians under 40 with a future, know the words to each song. Recently signed to Jimmy Buffett's record label, RAM is likely to become the country's best export since Barbancourt rum. 

Dancing from the moment he enters the hotel, tall, round-bellied Michel and his stylish friends are here to party. At intermission, he chats up American strangers at the next table. Seeing RAM is a huge release from a very stressful job. "I perform surgeries on poor people," he says in English. "You should come to my clinic." 

It is Michel who gets me up and dancing, singing the chorus to "Damballa Ouedo" about voodoo spirits. It is Michel who raises his arms in ecstasy and falls back against a table in artful imitation of a man possessed by spirits. And it is Michel who didn't tell the truch. The nextBeauty can be found on the Haitian canvasevening at dinner with a haitian clothing desinger I learn that Michel is no physician. The only cutting he does is above the neck, on the heads of elite women, in his job as hair stylist. 

"Haitians are always dreaming," a friend who lives in Port-au-Prince tells me. The evidence is in the omnipresence of lottery shacks with names like Chez Toto. People who bathe in the rainfall run-off on downtown streets use what little money they have on tickets, hoping to improve their lot. 

The lot of others is already improving. Rumors circulate that it is dirty money from the drug trade accounting for $500,000 homes suddenly springing up on the road near the walled mansion of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected president. Billboards on the road advertise expensive cars and watches for the few rich folks. One wonders what peasant women on donkeys and men tending fields of banana plants nearby think of these recent changes to their quiet rural life. 

If drug barons are growing richer and more powerful, Haiti's slide toward a political abyss will be harder for the international community to reverse. In this light, it seems lunacy for the United States and the United Nations to turn their backs on the beleaguered nation. 

And yet in spite of a constipated economy and a monetary system that one learned Haitian calls "an illusion," Haiti keeps on going. Credit religion or national pride or belief in the future, but strange, suffering, beautiful Haiti persists. 

Candice Russell January 1998 

Candice Russell is a free-lance journalist and art dealer who has traveled extensively to Haiti in the past twelve years.