This is Haiti: In Vodou, there isn’t good and evil, only light and dark


This sensitive travel piece by Bert Archer appeared in The National Post.

The showers don’t work very well, the water either dribbling out, or cold for five or six minutes before the warm kicks in, and you say, “Well, this is Haiti.” Plates are set out at a lovely oceanside restaurant bar with some of the very specifically Haitian cuisine that you’re getting to really like and think is probably the best in the region with its mixture of French, Caribbean and West African, but there are ants everywhere on the fruit and fish because the buffet plates have not, as they usually are here, been covered in towels, and you say, “Well, this is Haiti.” You walk the streets of Port-au-Prince at night and discover that the danger doesn’t come from the people, who are either friendly or otherwise occupied, but from the fact that the street lights are dark, or not there, and you can’t see the holes in the streets and sidewalks. And you say, “Well, this is Haiti.”

Then your guide, a Haitian who’s had his own tour company for a decade and who’s been hired by G Adventures to take you around, takes you around to a street in Port-au-Prince where, a dozen years ago or more, three men started making art: Jean Hérard Celeur, André Eugene and  Frantz Jacques (a.k.a. Guyodo). They called themselves Atis Rezistans, “artists of resistance” in Créole, and you look at the paintings, but mostly you look at the sculpture, forged from the raw materials they found everywhere around them, the coffee cans and tire treads, broken blenders and light bulbs and you-think-they’re-fake-at-first-but-they’re-not human skulls. And the dolls. Cabbage Patch Kids and Cabbage Patch Preemies, Barbies and Trolls and generic sleepytime dolls, donated by a thousand households through a hundred charities. These are torn and decapitated, crucified and bolted through the face, heads mounted on wizened stalks of wood, eyes garishly open, charitably closed or roughly gouged. The sculptures are fantastic, patchworks from a distance, but numinously complex the more you look at them. And you can’t stop looking at them. Some are small, some sprawl into whole scenes, and some are two metres and higher, looking straight at you with heavy-guage bolt eyes. There’s Vodou in this work — that’s how they spell the national religion here, with a reasonable number of Os, unlike Hollywood — and there’s no good and evil in Vodou, just light and dark, and knowing this, you can see the judgment in those bolt eyes, the diffidence and aggression mixed with the suffering in those nailed babies that are so different from St. Sebastian’s submission in Europe’s take on the same theme. And you say, “Well. This is Haiti.”

The artists who started what has now become a movement of dozens would usually be here, hawking their own work, and making more of it, but they left yesterday for a show that situates their art as the culmination 200 years of Haitian creation at the Grand Palais in Paris. These pieces are $50, $100, $500 now. They may soon not be, as the pieces filter from the Grand Palais into the galleries near the Academie Française, to Soho, to West Queen West. But the show is well-timed, exposing contemporary Haitian art at just the moment that Marriott and American Airlines, Carnival Cruises and Best Western, Air Transat and G Adventures are betting that Haiti is ready to receive visitors, on their own terms.

Haiti’s had tourism heydays before, most recently in the ’70s and ’80s, when luxury hotels with jasmine-scented pools hosted Churchills and Kennedys, Jaggers and Hemingways. But those were the Duvalier years, years of murder and suppression, when a miasma hovered over the nation, distilled in Graham Greene’s The Comedians. The tourists may not have sensed it — Greene had to live there to see it for what it was — but the Haiti they partied through was a concoction, a confection. The Haiti G Adventures wants to show you, while not the real Haiti — you’d have to move there to get a sense of that yourself — is an honest reflection at least, even if the glass remains darkened by a fundamental disorder that’s become a part of Haitian culture.

For the original report go to

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