It's hard to find joy in Haiti today. I'm just back from a three-week trip to my native land and words will never convey the range of emotions encountered in the core of my being and among those who live the day-to-day grind that is Haiti today. People are stressed, traumatized and depressed. In a place where some 250,000 people perished, it seems everyone knows at least five people who died. The force of Mother Earth has left many in a state of shock unnoticeable at the surface level. But dig just a little and a familiar faraway look and haze steals over the face of anyone recounting what many refer to as bagay la, "the thing" in Haitian Kreyol (bagay rhymes with sky).
For a couple of days I stayed at a tiny house just outside of Jacmel (a coastal city in the south which was reportedly destroyed by 70%, although that figure is slightly exaggerated) where the caretaker recounted what residents there saw just after the exact hour and minute forever emblazoned in his mind: 4:52 PM. He said that after the shaking stopped, they watched the ocean recede 200 feet with a terrible force, as if fueled by an enraged and giant jackhammer. Flapping fish, stunned lobsters an other sea life remained stranded on what looked like a post-apocalypse beachscape. Fears of a tsunami-force return prompted them to head for the hills, but for naught in the end; because, as he relayed in a hushed, still-bewildered tone, the ocean returned at a chilling pace--creeping back in at a strangely measured tempo over the next day and a half.
My short visit to Jacmel was planned pre-departure from Los Angeles, because I had fixed on finding some bright spot to counter the misery and despair--because Haiti is always more than that. And it worked. Leaving Port-au-Prince is always a good idea no matter when you visit the island. (Imagine going to Thailand and only seeing Bangkok; your impression would be forever skewed.) Seeking out the ocean and bathing in those warm Caribbean waters is always balm for my soul; eating grilled fish and downing a cold beer at a modest beachfront restaurant with rickety wooden tables and chairs; hanging out with friends, old and new, telling corny jokes. Got to find joy wherever you can, and the beach is a good place to start. Next stop is the art.
I've been tapped by a New York-based non-profit called the Haitian Cultural Foundation to curate a major traveling exhibition of Haitian art set to launch in 2012. The exhibition will travel to major cities in the United States and Europe, and feature a comprehensive look at traditional and contemporary work by Haitian artists and artists of Haitian descent living in Haiti and throughout the world. After some preliminary research on the ground, I am proud and excited to report that in highlighting the dynamic and hard-hitting work being produced by these insightful artists, the exhibition will surely play a big part in helping to fuel Haiti's second renaissance.
Back in the forties, the groundbreaking work being done by untrained Haitian artists made headlines, and a stampede of luminaries from around the world, along with hordes of good old tourists followed. I wanna get me some of that!
Look below for a preview of the work I encountered in Haiti. The gallerists I talked to reported brisk sales. Why wait for 2012? Got a little wealth to spread? You don't need much. It's tough in Haiti right now, but there's excellent art at fair prices to be found. There's also fantastic grilled fish, and tropical juices and ice creams to delight in, not to forget our world-renowned Rhum Barbancourt. An then there's always the beach.
Artists in order of appearance: Pascale Monnin, Sebastien Jean, Dubreus Lherisson, Manuel Mathieu, Killy, Justin Griffiths-Williams, Barbara Prezeau, Gyodo.