By Candice Russell
A South American psychiatrist searches the streets of Port-au-Prince one morning for country eggs, because a voodoo priest saod 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 love, 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 Cuba, which 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 democratcially 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 ont he balcony of Villa Peabody, surrounded by the capital’s elite class of doctors, politicans, journalists, and expatriates. The occasion is the 60th birthday party of Jorgen Leth, the esteeemed Danish filmmaker who lives six months of the year in the villa that some call the most beautiful gingerbread hosue in Port-au-Prince. The joyous mood of the evening belies som private dark thoughts.
“This country has nothing any more,” says Maggie dispiritedly. “No police, no safety, no freedom.”
After robbers took a watch and some cash found 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 disagre with a taxi drive about a fare and there is no policeman to call to settle a problem. If gun-toting authorities halt your car late a night, it is wise to let them search the vehicle without question.
But Haiti’s excesses and insufficeencies 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 12-piece 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.
(see next Sunday for conclusion of essay).
By Candice Russell
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 you business is. They also forgive its myriad failings, like the increasingly pot-holed airport road. There is a rhythm here beyond music, a pasion 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.
For 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 commerce at the Iron Market — it’s full-bore olfactory assault.
The eyes take 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 handpainted images of food, hairstyles and clothing. The humblest shacks warrant dressing up, parrot-like, in lime green and deep turquoise, or pink and yellow.
Haitians themselves are the antithesis of drab in dress and personality. they are proud and volatile. They love drama and arguments for their own sake, which may be why bargaining with street vendors is the only way business is done.
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 older man just 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 corners 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. They 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 Vodou, a syncretic blend of African tribal rites from their native land and Roman Catholicism from Haiti’s interlopers. Even non-Haitian residents are affected by Vodou. Though they don’t practice the religion or worship its pantheon of gods, they believe in its power to influence health, romance and willpower.
(to be continued)
By Candice Russell
A portion of my Haitian Vodou flag collection travelled from South florida to Evansville, Indiana a while ago for a major exhibition — “Contemporary Art of Haiti: Paintings from the Collection of Bev Fowler and Textiles from the Collection of Candice Russell.” The show ran from February 8 to March 22, 1998. I was invited to speak at the crowded opening, which included some young Haitians conversant with the subject of Vodou.
I was also asked to write an essay that was the handout to visitors of the museum during its run. Titled “Haiti Now,” here is the text of that essay:
Arrogance or naivete compels the modern traveler to believe hat others will share one’s passion for a destination. On my tenth 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 travelling 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 Vodou 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 Daribean 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 Vodou-inspired paintings of LaFortune Felix and andre Piere, in the better gallleries. On each trip since 1985, it was a delight to discover new painters such as Wagler Vital, Francoise Eliassaint, Geline Buteau, 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 desperatly poor country took precedence of dozens of artists.
The urge is all the more remarkable when you realize that Haitian art, though a significant export for the handful of artists the work supports, isn’t enough to keep any but diehard Haiti-lovers coming back. The tourist trade was moribund before Graham Greene wrote the thinly fictionzlied novel “The Comedians,” set at the Oloffson Hotel in 1966. The occasioal celebrity visitor like Julia Rroberts, Jean-Claude Van Damme and film director Jonathan 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 this 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.
*Look for continuation of this essay on next week’s blog.
By Candice Russell
With presidential elections in the United States still a long way off, it doesn’t seem to matter to television pundits already speculating about who will run for the highest office in the land and who is likely to win. All of this makes me mindful of the dismal turnout nationally for this important time in our political lives (yes, we’re all affected in ways big and small by who is in office). It all seems the sadder when I picked up a copy from my home library of Alex Web’s “Under a Grudging Sun, Photographs from Haiti Libere 1986-1988.”
In often heartbreaking color images, he documents the struggle of Haitians to live and to vote, a privilege for which some of have had to lay down their lives .Funerals and wounded bodies are part of the mix of photos in this important but difficult book. This fight for political freedom may seem foreign to us, but it is a reminder that democracy in other places isn’t a given, even when it is established as it was in Haiti but the free election of Jean Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first freely elected leader. He was ousted by a coup then returned to the presidency on October 15, 1994 with the help of American armed forces on the ground (I know this because I was there in one of the most amazing experiences of my life).
There is so much beauty in Haiti and Webb’s camera captures that, too. Beautiful children with pleading faces, donkeys bearing items for market, marchands selling onions, gossipers standing next to an oh-so-blue sea, it’s all here. There are lovely churches and wrought iron balconies and brightly colored peacock-strutting buildings — the background for so much human drama. The worshippers of Vodou in the waterfall during the Saut d’Eau pilgrimage want to live their lives in peace as much as the people killed by anti-election gunmen and army recruits or those living on the brink of disaster in the Cite Soleil slum. These images collectively show desperation, mourning, freneticism, and disquietude. I cannot count how many men have assumed the presidency since Webb’s book was published. But the so-called crown of ascendancy that sits atop the leader’s head doesn’t sit there easily or without fear of political opposition to the point of violence. That uncertainty plagues Haiti. And now it is fear of another unknown — a repeat of the 2010 earthquake.
In an opening essay, Webb confessed he started this photo project, then dropped it for awhile — “my vision quailed in the face of history.” Who can blame him? Even a Haiti follower and writer as adept as Amy Wilentz has written that Haiti is a hard place to wrap one’s mind around. The lensman finishes his long, reflective essay by falling back on his photojournalist skills: “But I am certainly the wrong person to predict the future of sad and beguiling Haiti. I should perhaps just walk, and watch, and wait…”
The back cover says all there is to say about the grief that he captures. Men in blue shirts are carrying small black child-size coffins up the stairs to a pink church.
By Candice Russell
Lucky for you if you were one of the fortunates attending “Lespri Endepandant: Discovering Haitian Sculpture” at Florida International University’s Patricia and Philip Frost Art Museum in Miami, Florida in 2004. Lucky are those who purchased the thorough catalog, that includes all the items in the show in color and black-and-white along with biographies of the artists. The list of lenders to this landmark show that did not travel included people in Europe, Haiti and South Florida.
Glass bottles, mixed media constructions with doll heads by Pierrot Barra, and outstanding life-size sculptures expressing the crudest attributes of visualizations of the Vodou spirits — this show held nothing back in the way of presentation. Religion, sex, desperation, recycling — it’s all here, manifest by artists too often relegated to the sideline by painters who holds the highest rungs of prominence and distinction. Their work isn’t often pretty or even nice enough that one would choose to display such things at home in a place of honor. But they are so true to the spirit of Haitian art at its most honest and raw.
Of course, this last comment doesn’t apply to etal sculptures by Georges Liautaud, Murat Brierre, and Gabriel Bien-Aime that transforms metal oil drums into crucifixes, a vampire riding a bicycle, and a woman in the process of giving birth.
My personal favorite pieces in the show and catalog are the mixed media figures or wood, metal and other found, discarded objects are by Jean Camille Nasson and Jean Herard Celeur. They are dark, fetishistic, African-looking statues with a distinctive Haitian flair. Andre Eugene’s skeleton-head sculpture “Chef Section” with a stiff pipe for a penis is all about power and willingness to use it in the most brutal ways.
Patrick Vilaire and Edouard Duval-Carrie are represented in the section called “Contemporary interpretations.” There you will also find the fanciful and fun female angels by the inimitable and un-copyable artist Lionel Saint Eloi, who also does outstanding paintings.
Even the geniuses of papier-mache got their due in this show, including Michel Sinvil’s “Devil Bat.” Curator Elizabeth Cerejido did an outstanding job of gathering a wide array of objects in different forms, sizes and materials, without their having to share the exhibition stage with paintings.
It’s the sculptors who are in need of household name recognition among Haitian art collectors. While everyone knows Liautaud, how many know Saint Eloi?
With an opening essay by Donald Cosentino of U.C.L.A., the driving force behind the travelling exhibition “Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou” which I saw in Miami and New Orleans, the catalog is a must-have addition to the library of anyone who wants to know more about Haitian art. I only wish it and the show had been bigger — but that’s a minor complaint from someone who cannot get enough of Haitian art.
The catalog is nearly 100 pages long. Please contact me through this website –www.haitianna.com — if you would like to purchase a copy. I only have a few and there won’t be any more put into production.
By Candice Russell
This is an open letter to Michel Martelly, the President of Haiti:
Dear Mr. Martelly,
As a Christmas gift to the Haitian people and the world, I implore you to commit funds and manpower to rebuild the vaunted Center of Art (Le Centre d’Art) in Port-au-Prince. Yes, I know you have had other things on your mind, like political protests and elections for other offices. Yet this is an important topic.
But, being a musician and an artist yourself, you should have cognizance of exactly what le Centre d’Art has meant to the development of Haitian art and the collecting acumen of untold thousands of visitors to the island since the 1940s. It is as much of a landmark for people who know and love Haiti as the Citadelle in Cap-Haitien. It is where so many art careers were begun and nurtured. Who can put a price on the synergistic conversations between artists over the decades that provided them with much-needed encouragement or set them forth on a new path of creation?
As a musician, you know how vital the arts are to a country. But also, Haitian arts of all kind are valuable experts to the rest of the world — much cherished and not duplicated anywhere else. Haitian art, in my opinion, is your best export — worthy of display in museums from Los Angeles to Paris, lionized in books, hanging in homes and offices in countries around the world. For new generations of artists, unfamiliar with the gallery system and in need of nurturing, le Centre d’Art is an indispensable cog in the wheel of discovery. By not rebuilding this vital institution in Port-au-Prince, you are squandering the hopes and dreams of many self-taught artists who need that kind of boost in their careers. Many may also need access to materials to create art that they cannot afford on their own.
My suggestion is to interface with France, Canada or Italy, even the U.S., to funnel funds dedicated to Haiti after the earthquake to be specifically earmarked for rebuilding the Centre d’Art. Yes, private donors may do this in years or decades to come. But why wait, when the need is so great right now? Let this rebuilt institution be a beacon of hope for new generations and a commitment of faith in the artistic promise of Haiti, which is always evolving, no matter what the political climate?
I have fond memories of visiting Le Centre d’Art under the leadership of Francine Murat. I remember marveling at its collection of Jasmin Joseph paintings and asking to go into the back rooms that were locked, home of many treasures.
This decision would be merry-making for many Haitian art lovers, not to mention Haitian artists who need a place to go, to find their artistic voices, to learn, find mentors, talk with other artists, and soar.
Please make it happen, Mr. Martelly. Thank you.
By Candice Russell
It is possible, as an art collector, to be drawn to the same subject or artist multiple times. Who knows why these affinities develop? It happened to me in the summer after I broke my ankle. Part of my recovery to full walking health was strengthening my ankle by swimming in my backyard pool. When I went to Haiti in August with a friend, our buying trip caught the notice of one gallery owner who remarked that I seemed to be drawn to images of La Sirene, the Haitian Vodou lwa whose domain is the sea. She works as a benefactor for people in trouble on the water — swimmers, fishermen and voyagers. No wonder I liked La Sirene.
In the case of another sub-category in my Haitian art collecting, I was more conscious. I love artwork that depicts Santa Claus, generosity, the Christmas tree and all the lights and glitter associated with the season. I own a two-foot-tall papier-mache Santa Claus, a painted metal Sant Claus and a Jacques Valmidor painting of Santa and a snowman, measuring 20 inches by 24 inches.
These are happy paintings celebrating a happy time. At Slotin folk Art Auction, I bought an 8-inch by 10-inch painting of Father Christmas by the great Alexandre Gregoire. It’s not as overt as my other Haitian Christmas pieces, but I love it all the same.
I also have a Saincilus Ismael of Joseph leading Mary and the baby Jesus as they ride on a donkey. One of my favorite is a 30-inch by 40-inch painting by Wagler Vital, pictured in my book “Masterpieces of Haitian Art.” It’s a village square with a stunning centerpiece of a beautifully decorated Christmas tree. I don’t know if this is how Haitians celebrate the holiday, but this festive painting makes me hope that there are public acknowledgments in town squares with lights and colors and tress (and maybe even a gift-giving Santa).
But the sweetest Christmas work is in my bedroom year-round because it is too nice to put away in January. It’s a painting by Jacques Richard Chery, ten inches tall and eight inches wide, of Santa Claus handing out presents to children. He carries a satchel of gifts and the children are beyond delighted.
My friend, Dr. Carlos Jara, an art dealer in Haiti and psychiatrist by profession in his native Chile, had a collection of crucifixion paintings, which he carefully amassed. These are even harder to source in Haiti, years ago and especially now.
What ever you decide to focus on, make the journey fun. Go to Haiti, if you can and visit galleries. Talk to people on the street. Even buy art from the street, if you feel confident to tell the good art from the bad art.
The beauty and wonder of Haitian art are seemingly limitless. Bossou, for example, when on Vodou flags, is either just the head with two horns or the full-bodied beast, usually tied up. Many different representations in visual form of the same Vodou spirit means a wealth of very different images by a variety of artists. There’s no better time to collect than now.
By Candice Russell
If you love Haiti and Haitian art or know someone who does, there is a great paperback book available that your friend will enjoy — “Farewell, Fred Voodoo” by Amy Wilentz. She is the author of the acclaimed non-fiction book “The Rainy Season,” abou the fall of Baby Doc Duvalier and the ascendance of priest-turned-politician Jean Bertrandn Aristide.
Like that previous book, “Farewell, Fred Voodoo” is a personal view of experiencing Haiti at a critical moment in its history. She returns to the country that so fascinates her after the earthquake ofJanuary 12, 2010 and returns again, sorting through the non-governmental agencies, medical personnel and Haitian survivors to figure out something about why she loves it so.
I’m not sure Wilentz comes to great conclusions about Haiti, a hard place to get your arms around and figure out. Perhaps she raises more questions than she answers — but that’s all right. She’s on the front lines, making assessments about people and self-sacrifice, narcissism and desperation, with a marvelous degree of understanding and avoidance of harsh judgment.
Fred Voodoo is the slang term journalists used for any man or woman on the street with something to say. Here is what the Minneapolis Star-Tribune newspaper wrote about Wilentz’s book: “The book’s literary journalism ispart history lesson, political analysis, travelog and personal journey. wilentz’s informed commentary is sobering and witty, her analysis insightful and her descriptions of the people and places of Haiti riveting. a must-read.”
She goes to the front lines — the gritty camps that grew up among the rubble in Port-au-Prince. One poignant interview with Moise Philippe reveals the essential dilemma in Haiti, where obstacles prevent action and governmental corruption is rampant. With his house damaged, he lives in the camp with his wife and their two teenagers: “I’m not waiting for someone to come and give me a house somewhere. I’m rebuilding my own house. We have to organize ourselves. In this camp, if we hadn’t known how to organize ourselves, we’d be dead.”
Apart from the medical teams from abroad who descend on Haiti with more ego than good intentions, there is the noble female Dr. Megan Coffee, whom Wilentz strongly admires. This is because she is inventive in solving problems for patients and getting what they need, she is also dedicated. She stays long past the time that small armies have left, along with the TV cameras and print journalists. That degree of commitment is impressive in a country that didn’t work very well prior to the earthquake. And she is truly making a difference.
There is also praise for the efforts of Sean Penn, movie actor turned do-gooder, who fails to abandon his efforts in Haiti months after the earthquake. She talks about a phone company making great strides in progress for Haiti, despite serious odds against anything getting accomplished.
One night, she is sleeping outside the Oloffson Hotel (people feared another earthquake and buildings toppling while they slept) armed with her must-have survival items: bug juice, Valium, a flashlight and rum. She goes over in her head the images of the day: including a girl inconsolably crying and a camp set up on a soccer field.
There is much more beauty and horror to be had in Haiti in coming years. With luck, Wilentz will chronicle her impressions and adventures as Haiti evolves.
By Candice Russell
Have you ever wanted to travel to Haiti? Not as a worker in a hospital or a clinic or a builder of houses, but as a cultural consumer of what the island has to offer? Where would you begin? How would you get around from place to place? Who would you trust?
A first trip to any foreign country you’ve never been before is always daunting to plan. That’s why group travel is so popular. The organizers of such trips take the angst out of getting around and guarantee that you will see the best of that country.
According to a report in the Travel section of last Sunday’s Sun-Sentinel newspaper, there is a new 10-day trip to Haiti being offered by G Adventures. Called “Highlights of Haiti,” it includes two nights in Cap-Haitien and a visit to the mountaintop fortress of La Citadelle,the peaceful seaside town of Jacmel, a meeting with a Vodou priest in Port-au-Prince, plus a visit to beautiful caves.
The cost is $2,499 per person, double occupancy, including lodging for nine nights, most meals, internal flights, and a variety of tours. To ask questions or sign up, call 888-800-4100.
My list of questions for the company include: do you have room for solo travelers, who would pay a single supplement? Will we see a Vodou ceremony? Will we visit galleries and street vendors selling crafts?Do we have free time to explore on our own for a morning or aftrenoon? Will we see RAM perform on Thursday night at the Hotel Oloffson? (The latter, in my mind, is a must). Will you visit Kenscoff and Soissons-la-Montagne, where the original Saint Soleil artists lived and thrived? If it’s up and running, will you visit the Iron Market in Port-au-Prince? It’s a shopping experience like no other.
Having been to Haiti many times without a travel company coordinating my itinerary, I might have been relieved by someone else in charge of the planning. It’s also nice to share meals with (one hopes) like-minded adventurers who found Haiti fascinating enough to warrant a visit and maybe even plan a return.
Of course, there are advantages to going alone, too. You inevitably meet people along the way, especially in places like the verandah of the Hotel Oloffson at mealtime or the bar? Share your stories with new friends, pick up tips about where to go next or what to avoid.
People who visit Haiti are inevitably disarmed by the beauty of the country, the welcoming nature of the people, the color everywhere (man-made and from nature), and the sense of industry that never lets up, even on Sunday. It’s a remarkable place, not as easy to visit or get around as before the 2010 earthquake, but certainly worthwhile for the intrepid.
Please share your trips to Haiti with me via the email posted on this web site: email@example.com. It’s an exciting place, like no other on earth. I have friends who are Haitian who haven’t been to the island in decades. Yet, for next year, they are planning a group trip of friends and relatives to go back to Haiti for a month-long trip. Can’t wait to hear about their experiences.