By Candice Russell
This is a continuation of a story begun last week about murals created in Haiti immediately after the return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the presidency of Haiti on October 15, 1994. It was published eight days afterward in the Sun-Sentinel newspaper in Fort Lauderdale Florida. The story is intended to celebrate the contagious joy of artists allowed to express themselves after years of political upheaval and oppression.
The wall of murals faces City Soleil, or Sun City, infamous as the poorest slum in the capital. Last Sunday morning, as Charlemagne Celestin, 29, worked on a twin portrait of Aristide and U.S. President Bill Clinton, churchgoers and other passers-by stopped to watch and comment.
For Celestin, an Aristide supporter, this mural is the sixth in a series he has completed in a matter of days. These murals are his first works after three years spent in hiding from the pro-military attaches.
With the departure of Lieutenant General Raoul Cedras, Celestin felt free to begin work. His most detailed mural depicts the 1988 massacre and burning of the Saint-Jean Bosco Church, where Aristide used to preach. At least a dozen people were killed and more than 70 others injured in the attack.
Though Artistide was the target of the attack, he escaped without harm. In Celestin’s mural, the face of Aristide floats in a small cloud above the church. He somberly watches people running from the church, climbing walls for escape, and lying on the ground. Particularly disturbing is the sight of a pregnant woman in a white dress and kerchief with her hands raised. Her bleeding belly is being sliced by an attache in a red armband. Everywhere is chaos.
Celestin’s work reflects the currently favorable view of Americans as liberators. His point of view is reflected in a telling mural a few yards away from his other works.
On this wall painting, an African-American soldier, rifle hanging on his back, comes to the rescue of a man in trouble. The man holds the Haitian flag in one hand and a copy of the Haitian Constitution in the other. He is about to be shot by a man in red, standing next to a paramilitary thug with a red bandanna. On the wall behind them is Creole graffiti in different colors that says: “Down with injustice, breaking bones, tribulation.” A different trio of words is next to the man holding the Constitution: “liberty, justice work.”
Near this same concrete canvas is another, more hopeful mural by Charlemagne. A man stands next to his seated wife, while her two children kneel with their heads in her lap. In white lettering is the Creole phrase: “Nou tout se pitit yon sel man man,” or “We are all children of the same mother.”
Celestin’s fantasy of political redress is reflected in another mural in this series. In front of Brigadier General Philippe Biamby and police chief Michel Francois, key henchmen of the coup that overthrew Aristide, Lieutenant General Raoul Cedras kneels with head bowed. But his head is bowed before Aristide, who is in priestly garb. The contrite head of the Haitian military and coup leader (now living in Panama) begs for forgiveness as Aristide blesses him with a hand-held cross.
Christiane Boubon-Lally, owner with husband Reynald, of Galerie Bourbon-Lally in Petionville (just up the hill from Port-au-Prince), appraises the murals — most of which are no more than four feet by four feet– and their young creators. “I think it comes out of their hearts,” she says. “Celestin shows what most people feel.”
Yet she adds, “Some of the sophisticated Haitians think it’s a shame that Haiti needed a foreign country to help them. But they realize they couldn’t do it alone. The people don’t bother about that. It (the U.S. intervention) is like a miracle for them, like God coming to help them.”