By Candice Russell
If you haven’t been to Haiti, you may not know that art isn’t just a commodity in tony galleries with spotless white floors. Of course, it is present there in paintings, wood sculptures, metal figures, and Vodou flags. I’m talking about a wider consideration of art in Haiti.
The artistic impulse is inherent within the Haitian people who don’t call themselves artists. They are expressing themselves in artistic ways in the careful stacking of fruit on a display in a downtown Port-au-Prince open-air market, in the colors chosen to paint a modest house to make it beautiful and distinctive, and in the tap-taps or large buses overcrowded with travelers. The tap-taps are brightly painted with stripes and other designs, prayers, and the images of American movie stars — what ever catches the owner’s fancy.
Drive high up in the mountains to Kenscoff and you’ll see houses of eye-popping color like a deep blue a few shades above navy or lime green or pink. Set against green mountains, they are tropical manifestations of pride and artistry.
Of course, this same artistic impulse can be seen in the architecture of homes both magnificent and humble in Haiti. From the terraces of the old Montana Hotel, up the John Brown Road from the capital heading toward Petionville, one could see fabulous mansions with twin outdoor staircases worthy of the sultan of Oman or some other royal personage. One can only imagine what they looked like inside, gorgeously appointed with expensive furniture.
In strolling the streets of Port-au-Prince decades ago, one could easily see two-story colonial era homes with tin roofs in teal and other bold colors. These architectural gems had stood their ground for a century or more and spoke to a style of home no longer in fashion for today’s construction. Often, these homes have shuttered windows and wrap-around porches, all to take advantages of welcome cross-ventilation in the years before air conditioning.
Danish filmmaker Jorgen Leth lived in one of these beauties. It was in Port-au-Prince behind a gate on a property with a swimming pool and room for a small golf course. Formerly, it was the home of Lawrence Peabody, a noteworthy American. Leth outfitted the home with his substantial collection of Haitian art — most of it acquired through his friendship with the late Dr. Carlos Jana. This large, two-story home with elaborate gingerbread fretwork was painted white like a gigantic wedding cake.
An architectural cousin of the Leth/Peabody homestead is the Hotel Oloffson, open to everyone. Its grandiose placement at the end of a large park-like property is impressive. So is its swimming pool and verandah overlooking the gardens. That is where most meals are served. It’s also the best place to unwind with a cold beer after a day on the town. The large, legendary bar just inside on the first floor is a meeting place for those in the know about Haiti, whether they are art collectors, academics, non-governmental workers, or inveterate travelers curious about the most exciting place in the Caribbean.
Go to Haiti and catch the artistic vibe for yourself. It’s a place like no other.