Recovering Haitian Art: An Update

This report offers  glimpse at the ongoing process of restoration of art damaged by the January 12 earthquake.

While survivors of the January earthquakes in Haiti were still searching the rubble for the bodies of loved ones, Buffalo Bill Historical Center conservator Beverly Perkins was picking through the ruins for the treasures of Haitian culture. “You could pick up pieces of paintings and put them back together and that was our job,” Perkins said. “You just save what you can save.”

Perkins, who has been with the BBHC more than two years, visited Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on July 5-14 as part of an organization which helps save artworks in times of war or natural disaster.

The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) maintains a crew of 60 trained conservators called CERT (Cultural Emergency Response Team). “I speak French and they needed an object conservator,” Perkins says. “I worked on broken ceramics from the churches and also voodoo figures from a sugar plantation museum. Some ceramics were missing pieces so I had to make the missing parts.”

With Project Manager Stephani Hornbeck, two others, paintings conservator David Goist and paper conservator Karen Pavelka, also repaired damaged works.

“They haven’t even really begun to find things,” Perkins said. “When I was there I could still feel the earth moving. There were whole hillsides of buildings that had collapsed. They had to shore up walls so they don’t fall down and kill anybody.”

Perkins said she was struck by the extreme poverty Haitians are experiencing even six months after the disaster.

“The city is full of these buildings you can’t use, so life has moved out to the city,” she said. “People are living in the streets. They have no place for trash, so they burn the trash in the city.”

Though six months have passed and rebuilding has begun, Perkins says Haitians are still experiencing an emotional nightmare as they rebuild their lives.

“We just have no idea how lucky we are,” Perkins said. “I saw a woman walking down the street and all she had was a blanket wrapped around her waist. It was like the walking dead.”

Most buildings have been rendered unusable, but a few are still functional. One of these structures was their hotel. She said it was one of a few places in the country which guaranteed safety for foreigners. “You’re safe, but you’re a prisoner,” Perkins says. “We were driven everywhere with armed guards. It was like being on another planet – and not a very safe planet.”

But Perkins noted the Haitians did not seem to harbor any resentment toward outsiders. “Here I was, this white American woman riding around in a white SUV and I thought they would be angry at me,” she said. “But when we made eye contact, people would smile.”

Perkins was especially taken with the case of Clorinde Zephir, a half-French, half-Haitian woman who runs EnfoFanm, a women’s publishing house specializing in feminist literature and current affairs. EnfoFanm also publishes Ayiti Fanm, the only Creole newspaper for women.

Zephir showed Perkins photographs of notable women, saying “this woman wrote a famous poem” and “this woman was a great artist.” Perkins asked why the women were all dead. “And then it hit me,” she said. “I realized this whole movement had died in the earthquake. Her office no longer existed and she was really kind of alone.” Perkins said she is still in contact with Zephir.

Since she returned to the states, Perkins said she has been inundated with questions of how to help. “One way to help would be to support an orphanage or support an international medical organization,” she said. “I didn’t see a hospital the whole time I was there.”

She says the BBHC has a tentative plan to help Haitians preserve their art and culture. “We’re thinking the way we might help is by bringing one or two Haitians here and taking care of them for about five months and teaching them conservation so they can teach it to other people,” Perkins says. “I love this plan. It’s hard thinking of how to help, but I think we’re going to help in our own teeny way.”

Perkins said she’s glad to be home but the devastation of Port-au-Prince is still on her mind. “I’m still trying to process it,” she said. “I’ve traveled a lot and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

AIC-CERT is working in Haiti in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution and U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, which protects libraries, archives and museums during armed conflict. Any building marked by the blue shield symbol is protected from harm.

To make a financial donation to conservation efforts in Haiti, contact AIC-CERT Institutional Advancement Director Eric Pourchor at Donations also are accepted through AIS at

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