“The Mural of the Story” — Part One

By Candice Russell

This story was published in the Sun-Sentinel newspaper (now the South Florida Sun-Sentinel) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on October 23, 1994 — eight days after Jean-Bertrand Aristide was restored to the presidency of Haiti. He had been deposed as the country’s first democratically elected leader and returned from living in exile. The story was inspired during a drive from Port-au-Prince on a Sunday morning, the day after Aristide’s triumphant return to the National Palace by helicopter with the help of the U.S. military. Graffiti was everywhere, extolling the happy news of the change in government. Murals were being created, sometimes with written phrases.

I asked my friends to stop the car, so that I could photograph the murals and talk to the artists in the process of painting them. While I didn’t want to miss my flight home to Florida, I couldn’t pass up the excitement of these brand new artworks extolling the joy of the people at Aristide’s return. My story in the Sun-Sentinel was the first in the U.S. to cover these extraordinary political murals of Haiti, some with the paint still wet.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — ¬†On concrete walls throughout Haiti’s capital, history repeated itself last week. As they had nearly a decade ago, another time of hope for a silenced people, political murals in bold colors suddenly appeared everywhere.

The murals, freshly created and diverse in expression, are inspired by the return of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, after his three-year exile.

In 1986, it was a leader’s departure that prompted the same type of visual outpouring, throughout Port-au-Prince, Jacmel, and other cities. That is when President Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier and wife Michele fled the country, ending 29 years of a ruthless dictatorship. It also suggested the possibility of free elections some day.

Then, as now, mural makers, untrained artists of passionate conviction, were busy.

The Haitian national flag from the pre-Duvalier days was re-installed in 1986. Its colors, red and blue, were painted in a burst of patriotism on curbstones, houses, and tree trunks, along with the Haitian coat of arms and a new meaningful motto, L’Union Fait La Force (Union Makes Strength).

Now, the freshly painted murals in Port-au-Prince forecast a new day of hope and reconciliation under Aristide, the former Catholic priest with vast support among the country’s poor. They elected him by a margin of 70 per cent, marking their ballots next to the red rooster that is his symbol. Like that symbol on the ballot, these vivid wall paintings speak to the overwhelming majority who cannot read or write.

The most dramatic murals in the city are not even two weeks old. They are painted on a gray concrete wall surrounding the Haitian military airport.

The top of this wall is lined with barbed wire and sandbags, evidence of the current residents behind the wall — U.S. troops. A few soldiers in fatigues and helmets peeked out of a concrete watchtower, casually talking and laughing with Haitians on the other side.

In front of this wall is a narrow drainage canal. To get across requires careful maneuvering over a makeshift ladder. A widely spaced row of trees, their trunks painted white, offer no shady respite. A white goats rests in a rusting wheelbarrow. A boy in blue shorts sleeps with his mouth open on a bench.

It’s unbearably hot, dusty and noisy from the passage of traffic — this is one of two main roads to Haiti’s International Airport. The conditions may be far from ideal, but it’s a perfect place for the creation of popular art to be seen every day by hundreds of Haitians and visitors to Haiti. (Look for Part Two of this story next weekend).