Rescuers battle to salvage art after Haiti earthquake

James Reinl writes about the efforts to recover Haitian art still buried under the rubble. Here are some excerpts, with the link to the full text below.

As aid workers scramble to shelter hundreds of thousands of Haitian earthquake survivors from this month’s torrential rains, lesser-known rescue teams are conducting another kind of last-minute salvage operation. While the January 12 earthquake levelled the capital, Port-au-Prince, and claimed the lives of some 300,000, the toppling of galleries, museums and cathedrals robbed this Caribbean nation of another precious resource: art.
Braving tropical downpours, rescuers are sifting through the rubble of collapsed galleries to save the remains of an artistic tradition that counts the voodoo priest Hector Hyppolite and Andy Warhol’s protégé Jean-Michel Basquiat among its alumni. In an impoverished land that has endured decades of brutal and incompetent leadership, Haitian art tells the story of a people who defeated their French colonial masters to become the world’s first black-led republic in the early 19th century. “We were very worried about the culture in this country because that is one of the things Haiti is so proud of – its art, its artists and its culture,” said Teeluck Bhuwanee, a Haiti-based envoy of the UN’s education agency, Unesco, who heads salvage efforts.

Art lovers mourn the collapse of the capital’s Cathédrale Sainte Trinité, which Haiti’s best-known artists decorated with Biblical murals of swarthy-skinned characters to attract Caribbean congregations in the early 1950s. Vibrant frescoes, including Philomé Obin’s crucifixion scene with a mulatto Jesus, and a depiction of Christ’s Ascension over a scene of football-playing villagers by Castera Bazile, are now little more than an “unfinished jigsaw puzzle” of crumbled walls, according to Unesco’s damage report.“It’s beautiful, but it’s gone,” Mr Bhuwanee said.

In downtown Port-au-Prince, two large metal containers are crammed with at least half of the ravaged collection of the Centre d’Art, with rescuers braving the collapsed two-storey structure to save battered canvases before rainwater soaks them beyond restoration. “It is a race against time,” said Axelle Liautaud, one of the centre’s board members. “Many of the pieces are damaged – some are extremely damaged. We’re just getting everything that we can reach and we’ll decide later what can be restored.”

The centre has remained a hub of Haitian creativity, including the nation’s trademark style of art naïve – characterised by untrained artists producing colourful, symbolic and often simple works – since it was founded by the American schoolteacher DeWitt Peters in the 1940s. Curators lament the loss of artworks from Prefete Duffaut, a painter of imaginary cityscapes, and the contemporary Haitian artist Malou Cadet whose collages of acrylic, yarn and fabric hung as a showcase exhibition when the 7.0-magnitude quake struck.

With inventories buried alongside artworks, the total value of losses remains a matter of guesswork, Ms Liautaud said. Curators across the capital are focused on salvage and storage before they tackle the expensive tasks of restoration and reconstruction. Art buffs hope the indigenous Taino and Spanish colonial items of the Musée du Panthéon National Haïtien are protected in its subterranean rooms, while the home-grown collection in the Musée d’art Haïtien was luckily spared seismic oblivion. The post-1960s collection of the art-loving tycoon George S Nader, in the Musée d’art, was less fortunate with only 1,000 pieces pulled from the rubble of the collapsed family-owned mansion, more than two-thirds of which need restoration. Another 3,000 items were stored safely off-site.
The private library of Georges Corvington, the Haitian historian, represents a textual trove of more than 3,000 “most remarkable” books that Mr Bhuwanee has ordered be sealed into crates “until such time as they can be put back somewhere”. Collapsing walls and seasonal downpours are not the only threats to Haiti’s treasures, with looters stealing so many pieces in the quake’s aftermath that the Centre d’Art placed three armed guards at the site, with other galleries following suit. Mr Bhuwanee rejected an overseas dealer’s offer to remove artworks for “protection”, describing the suggestion as little more than a “respectable form of looting”. Other foreign traders were less polite, sending professional thieves to raid the private collections of wealthy Haitians, he said.

. . .

Ms Liautaud’s attempts to raise cash for the Centre d’Art have yielded “only promises”. Years of lacklustre state support mean she will not turn to Haitian politicians, she said. “The people in power don’t understand the value of their own culture. “It’s vital that we rebuild the centre so future generations of students have a place to learn. The earthquake has created a gap in our cultural history – but we must remember that there have been gaps in our history before. During the War of Independence, everything that was there before was destroyed. All we can do is try to rebuild as much as we can. It’s difficult, but that’s the way this country has always been. We are used to working against the odds.”
Such positive sentiments are typical of Haiti’s art world. Generations of untrained Haitian artists have rejected their predecessors to create home-grown styles from African, voodoo and abstract symbolism. For Vidho Lorville, 39, Haitian-born artist, smashed-up galleries and poor funding will not stop the latest generation of street artists, known as Atis Rezistans, from assembling artworks from car tyres, animal bones and battered engine parts. “The art of Haiti will never die because it is not in the art schools,” he said while visiting New York. “Haitian art is an archive of our existence, and it is still very much alive. Haitian art is in the streets. It will take time to get back to where we were before the earthquake, but it is not dead.”

For the full text go to

 Image: A painting by Harry Jacques, also known as Arijak, lies in the ruins of the Nader Museum of Fine Haitian Art in Port-au-Prince. Dario Lopez-Mills / AP Photo

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