Vibrant Haitian art vanishes in the dust

Lying in the rubble in Port-au-Prince is its precious artistic heritage. The city that housed so many of the country’s artists and collectors has lost a significant part of its artistic heritage and many of the individuals who fostered artistic development and art conservation. Here are some excerpts from a Miami Herald article on this additional tragic loss.

The vibrant murals that once adorned the walls of the Cathedrale of Sainte Trinite — created in the 1950s by some of the giants of Haitian art — are now largely dust, part of the gray rubble that covers most everything in Port-au-Prince.

The earthquake two weeks ago buried hundreds of thousands and struck deep into Haiti’s vibrant arts community, erasing in seconds cultural touchstones like the murals that depicted Christ’s birth, crucifixion and ascension. Even as talk turns to rebuilding, artists struggle to account for the loss of thousands of expressions of artwork that shows themselves — and the world — a creativity that persists through years of political strife, turmoil and poverty.

“We’ll be knocking on every door possible to save whatever is left,” said Gerald Alexis, a Haitian-born curator and expert on Caribbean art who from his home in Quebec is trying to mobilize arts groups to find a way to preserve the portions of the mural that survive. “It is essential for future generations, for our identity.”

The losses on the cultural front are staggering. At the Centre d’Art — the successor home of the original movement that launched Haitian art — the front of the building has been torn off and reduced to rubble. Neighbors were able to salvage some pieces, Alexis said, though many are visible but out of reach on the second floor.

Private collections across the city, and at least one artist and several arts patrons, perished in the quake. The Haitian government has asked former Culture Minister Daniel Elie to conduct an inventory to determine what is lost.

Among the biggest losses: one of the most significant private collections of early Haitian art — 15,000 pieces collected over the past 40 years by Georges Nader and housed at his home and museum, Musee D’Art Nader.

The pieces included works by Philome Obin and Hector Hyppolite, masters of Haitian art who painted at the Centre d’Art in the 1940s and have influenced generations of artists.

“They were the founders of Haitian art,” said Georges Nader’s son, also named Georges, who made four trips and spent hours combing through the rubble of the house to salvage what he could of the collection that his father so loved.

Among the 100 or so pieces he was able to rescue: several primitive landscapes and a playful self-portrait by Obin, who painted himself in the 1950s standing next to his “dedicated friend,” Georges Nader.

Several pieces by Hyppolite, considered Haiti’s leading artist, were pulled from the debris. Haitian art is alive with rich color, yet every piece that was rescued is coated with dust and grime. Several on cardboard were ripped in half or suffered gouges. The younger Nader hopes to find restoration experts in the United States or Canada, but he fears art restoration will not be a priority as the country struggles to feed and house the hundreds of thousands made homeless by the earthquake.

“My parents survived, that’s the important thing,” he said, noting that his parents — both 79 — had decided to retire to their bedroom for a nap when the quake struck. The bedroom was the only part of the house that survived.

The Nader Gallery in nearby Pétionville, which carries some traditional work, but mostly contemporary Haitian art, survived the earthquake with hardly a single frame askew. A month ago, the multistory gallery was the site of an exhibit of the works of the old masters.

“They were all here and they might have made it,” Nader smiled ruefully, gesturing to the artwork that hangs brightly on the gallery walls. “We returned them to my dad’s just three weeks ago.”

The Waterloo Center for the Arts in Iowa, which has the largest public collection of Haitian art in the United States, is setting up a relief fund and serving as a clearinghouse for information about the lost art and affected artists, said Cammie Scully, the museum’s executive director.

The museum has contacted some artists but believes at least one compound was hard hit.

“With unemployment at 85 percent, art has been one of the ways people have been able to make money,” Scully said. “A lot of people are taking care of extended families through the arts. It’s an unbelievably creative culture.”

Some artwork that hung in Haiti’s now collapsed presidential palace has been pulled from the rubble, but not the most significant piece — a painting by the French neoclassical painter Guillaume Guillon Lethiere. The painting had recently been rehung after being restored at the Louvre, Alexis said.

Haitian artist Phillipe Dodard’s Culture Creation Foundation, which promotes arts in the schools, lost its offices — and 18 years of work, Dodard said. But Dodard, whose work has met with international acclaim, said he was grieving the loss of the murals at the Episcopal cathedral, dozens of colonial-era gingerbread houses and the Nader collection.

“All those major artists, we don’t have them anymore,” he said of the old masters. “Haitian culture isn’t just buildings and art, it’s people. But this is like losing part of our memory.”

Haitian artists also lost a leading arts patron and collector with the death of Carmel Delatour, 85. Her private collection — which included works by some of Haiti’s most significant artists — was lost in the earthquake, and son Lionel said he’s uncertain if any of her sons will continue her work.

For the complete article go to http://www.miamiherald.com/457/story/1444197.html

Image: painting by Hector Hyppolite.

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