By Candice Russell
This is the final installment of a story begun two weeks ago 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 mural tradition is long-standing; it is found in some Haitian interiors, specifically Vodou temples, or hounfots. Since the vast majority of Haitians believes in Vodou, Catholicism, or a combination of the two, they are familiar with the images of Haitian Vodou spirits painted on temple walls or geometric designs known as veves that are symbolic of them.
The murals that prediated the two historic “freedom” events, if not religious, had to be subtle. LeGrace Benson, who is researching iconography, has visited Haiti since 1981. In that year, she saw her first exterior mural near downtown Port-au-Prince, next to a road construction project.
“It was quite stunning,” says Benson by telephone from her home in Ithaca, New York. “The sun was rising over a landscape with trees, which are emblematic in Haiti. At the bottom was written in Creole, ‘Another Haiti.’ It meant a new beginning. And that was when Jean-Claude Duvalier was still in power.”
This mural was a discreet expression of desire for change, so unlike the murals of overt messages being painted now.
Celestin, of course, is not the only mural maker celebrating this directness. Murals by others, such as Anantua Michelet and Ronald Perou, are similarly pointed.
Michelet’s work, not far down the walk from the work of Celestin, shows a man in a business suit next to a peasant woman with a basket of fruit on her head, and two other women. The young muralist — she is only 20 — then presents the image of a boy raising the Haitian flag next to an abstract map of Haiti. The translation from Creole reads, “Lift up the flag of justice. Bourgeois, poor, middle class, hand in hand for us to build Haiti. Don’t split apart anymore.”
Perou’s political mural is also found on the airport military wall; it’s dated October, 1994. The burning of Saint-Jean Bosco church is portrayed in the background hear a cache of discarded knives and other weapons. Five people hold tiny Haitian flags on the other, present-day side of the mural, next to a map of Haiti bearing the words justice, peace, development, democracy, and reconstruction. Over them flies an aircraft with a rooster’s face, symbol of Artistide. The aircraft is named Lavalas Air, a reference to Aristide supporters in a movement called “lavalas” or cleansing. It is a portrait of hope, with Aristide in charge.
While some of the new political murals have a technical sophistication that recalls the drawings of Haitian master artists like Rigaud Benoit, most of the murals are crudely done, almost cartoon-like. “From an artistc point of view, they are not bad,” says gallery owner Christiane Bourbon-Lally. “They look like caricatures, even if they are for something good, to express an idea that is positive for the country.”
It is the message being communicated that counts above aesthetic considerations. Scholar Benson calls the mural movement in Haiti “very exciting.”
“It’s a sacrifice of people’s time and money to create them,” Benson says. “Murals are expensive. People have to pool their resources to paint them. And the people whose space they are being put in must approve. It’s not like graffiti where people create it in the dark…That means a community effect, with people participating in the creation of murals or watching them being painted.”
Provoking assent or dissent, the murals are helping to establish a new political identity for Haiti at a significant time in its history. Benson knows that these murals represent a profoundly felt passion.
The sentiment is expressed on another stone wall near City Soleil. It is written in foot-tall letters in red and blue paint, in English and Spanish: “What a beautiful day to be here again. We thank Clinton. We wish him good luck in his life. We thank also United Nations.”