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A Great Haitian Humanitarian Has Died

June 21, 2009

The Reverend Gerard Jean-Juste probably did more for Haitian refugees in South Florida and, by extension, all of the country in his lifetime, than anyone else. A Catholic priest and a humanitarian, he defended the rights of this beleaguered minority and lived to see the growth of Haitian political power in Miami as more and more Haitians won elective office. So with these facts in mind, it is no wonder that when he died on March 27th following complications from a stroke and respiratory problems, people came by the thousands to mourn his passing.

According to a timeline in the Miami Herald, Jean-Juste moved to Miami in 1978 and was hired as the director of the Haitian Refugee Center. Eventually he had his own grass roots political watchdog group called Veye Yo. He returned to Haiti in 1991 for the inauguration of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first democratically elected president in Haiti’s history. But arrests on the basis of weapons possession and murder and suspension from his parisih duties at St. Claire Catholic Church were signs that he could be a divisive figure at a time when taking a stand in Haiti can have dire consequences. Released from jail, he continued to officiate mass and feed neighborhood children. All the charges against him were eventually dropped.

Last year he received an honorary doctorate degree from the University of San Francisco in recognition of his advocacy work. It was the generous, caring Jean-Juste that drew 3,000 people inside Miami’s Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church in early June, while thousands more stood outside in the rain. The Haitian community has lost an important man, an eloquent spokesman for his people, and a purveyor of good in the world.

–Candice Russell

Jean Camille Nasson (1961 – 2008)

January 17, 2009

It is with regret and sadness that I report the death of the great Haitian sculptor Jean Camille Nasson (1961-2008), who died last month. In a country plagued by natural disasters like floods, rampant poverty and political uncertainty, lives are cut short by a multiplicity of factors. And collectors are left wounded by the loss.

One of my favorite Haitian art possessions is an angel-devil figure carved of dark wood by Nasson. Its wings are made of metal and its head is festooned with tiny nails around which are wound brassy-colored metal threads. The figure has horns. In front of him is a metal cross attached with nails. Instead of eyes, there are empty sockets. The work is gritty and raw, yet breathtakingly sophisticated. Nasson evoked the duality of good and bad within the same personage. An explanation about this intriguing work came from Haitian art dealer Reynald Lally, who was exhibiting the work of Nasson and other cutting-edge Haitian sculptors several years ago in Miami, Florida. He said that Nasson, as a child, had been molested by a Catholic priest. This sexual attack left him with conflicted feelings about the church, which obviously were manifest in my sculpture.

Lally, who lives in Haiti, was kind enough to write about Nasson in an email to me: “His work with sculpture began at the age of eight, when a Catholic priest showed him how to make religious sculptures. He became friends with Haitian contemporary artist Mario Benjamin who showed him art books.

“Nasson started doing figures carved out of wood. He added nails, metals and other found materials. He made devils and Virgins Marys with antennas. I asked him why he placed antennas on his figures and he answered, ‘So they can send and receive messages.’

“His work can be found in museums around the world including Casas de Americas in Havana, Cuba, the Vatican collection in Italy and the Waterloo Center for the Arts in Waterloo, Iowa, among other places. The new stars of Haitian art from the Grand Rue — Guyodo, Celeur and Eugene — were highly influenced by Nasson. He always had a smile on his face. That is how I will remember him.”

Nasson’s remarkable sculptures were seen in the landmark Haitian sculpture exhibition “Lespri Endepandan: Exploring Haitian Sculpture” at Florida International University’s main museum in Miami, Florida several years ago, Writing for City Link newspaper at the time, I called these mixed media figures fetishistic and born of influences from Christianity and Vodou. Nasson’s sculptures held their own amidst works by Georges Liautaud, Lionel St. Eloi, Pierrot Barra and Edouard Duval-Carrie, among many others. Nasson was a titan and a true original in the ever-evolving Haitian art scene.

–Candice Russell